Using Feedback for Management Control

I have been spending a lot of time on airplanes and in airports recently, which gave me the opportunity to catch up on some reading. I came across an interesting article in the July 2011 “Wired Magazine” on the power of feedback. (I really liked the picture of the brain!) I thought I would share their insight and some other random thoughts on this powerful management tool.

Thomas Goetz authored the article, “Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops,” describing an experiment to encourage people to slow down in school zones in Garden Grove, California. Having tried the usual speed limit signs and aggressive ticketing of violators with limited success, they decide to put up devices called dynamic speed displays. These displays are not punitive. You do not get an automatic ticket for speeding; all you get is feedback. “YOUR SPEED IS XX MPH” with text colored red if you were exceeding the speed limit.

Lo and behold, drivers slowed an average of 14 percent in areas with the dynamic speed displays. Hmmm. To quote the author,

“The signs leverage what is called a feedback loop, a profoundly effective tool for changing behavior. The basic premise is simple. Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it), then give them an opportunity to change those actions …. the simplicity of feedback loops is deceptive. They are in fact powerful tools that can help people change bad behavior patterns, even those that seem intractable. Just as important, they can be used to encourage good habits, turning progress itself into a reward. In other words, feedback loops change human behavior.”

Formal Feedback
The mandatory performance review, given to employees by their immediate supervisor, differs markedly from the feedback mechanism discussed above. For example, as described in “Effective Performance Reviews,” published by, formal feedback reviews follow corporate content guidelines, are conducted in private and use data that may be weeks or months old. Follow-up of behavior-change recommendations is scheduled months later.

In research done awhile ago by Clinton O. Longenecker and Stephen J. Goff for the “Advance Management Journal,” (Performance appraisal effectiveness: a matter of perspective), managers and employee’s opinions about performance reviews found that

1. Managers and subordinates agree that the appraisal process DID

  • Let employee know where he or she stood and
  • Establish work-related goals.

2. Managers and subordinates agree that the formal appraisal process DID NOT

  • Link pay to performance
  • Improve employee motivation
  • Improve employee performance
  • Improve work relationships

I believe that changing workplace behavior and employee’s motivation may be accomplished more effectively using informal, real-time, non-punitive feedback than waiting for a formal performance review.

Real-time is Important
As anyone who has trained a puppy or a toddler can attest, real-time feedback is essential to managing behaviors, good ones and incorrect ones. When a manager observes an exemplary employee behavior, she should comment immediately and specifically, preferably in front of witnesses. “Karen, thanks for staying late to help that customer; Mary, I can tell you put a lot of thought into that excellent presentation.” In fact I have used a techniques called “On the Spot Rewards” on several projects and allowed managers to carry certificates for American Express gift cards around. When they saw exception behavior they not only praised the person — but issued a gift reward “on the spot.”

Corrective feedback should also be immediate. You can pull the employee aside or comment to a group without naming an individual’s indiscretion. “I need weekly status reports by noon on Friday.” “Sam, there were several typos in the customer briefing.”

Non-punitive Feedback
Just like the dynamic speed display, real-time feedback does not include rants about appropriate behavior or threats about future punishment. Your goal is to restate expectations and the employee’s action as a fact. It is up to the employee or staff member to recognize the impact of their behavior and integrate the feedback into future actions.

Reward Change
The goal of formal and immediate feedback is to change behavior. By acknowledging Karen’s extra effort to help a customer, you hope to motivate others to follow her example. When an employee has received feedback intended to align his behavior more closely with expectations, it is essential to recognize and reward them when they succeed — in REAL TIME. Giving feedback a week later does not work as effectively.

Speaking of rewards, I was pleased to receive notice from Project Management Training that they have included Fear No Project as a PM resource. Thanks to Andrea Contreras for giving us feedback on our blog!!

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