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Providing Performance Feedback

Posted on August 4, 2011 at 01:00 AM

Two intriguing articles in the July issue of Wired magazine gave me new insight into providing feedback to learners. One was called “Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops” by Thomas Goetz, and the other, “In Praise of Vagueness” by Jonah Lehrer. 

The gist of feedback loops is that, as one is provided with information about their behavior, they modify their behavior in order to approach a desired outcome.

Goetz gives a compelling example:

It seems that posting radar sensors, which provide drivers with their speed in comparison with the posted speed limits, results in a significant decrease in speeding, even when no tickets are issued.

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I wanted to apply this concept to learning, or organizational management, but then my mind goes back to Lehrer’s article on vagueness. His article posits that sometimes humans are better motivated if they are not given completely accurate information. He cites the (totally relatable!) example of losing weight, which I will encapsulate slightly differently than he does.

Let’s say you wish to lose 20 pounds. You work hard for a week, and you get on the scale, excited to see how your efforts have paid off. And you find that your state-of-the-art scale, which provides your weight down to the hundredth of a pound, is glaringly, heartlessly informing you that you have only lost 0.65 – two thirds – of a pound. If you’re me, you lose all motivation and go to the McDonald’s drive-through for dinner, thus sabotaging your weight loss efforts.

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On the other hand, let’s say that instead of weighing yourself, you are using the fit of your clothing as a measure of your weight loss. Without the “cold, hard facts” you are more motivated to stay on your diet as you notice that, this morning, you were able to button the top button of your shirt, or that you didn’t pass out after zipping your jeans.

Lehrer mentions two scientists, Himanshu Mishra of the University of Utah and Baba Shiv of Stanford University, who studied this phenomenon and concluded:

“Is the eternal quest for precise information always worthwhile? Our research suggests that, at times, vagueness has its merits. Not knowing precisely how they are progressing lets people generate positive expectancies that allow them to perform better. The fuzzy boundaries afforded by vague information allow people to distort that information in a favorable manner.”

Perhaps, providing performance feedback in the learning or organizational management sphere is also governed by these forces. Feedback that is too accurate, too pointed, might be demoralizing rather than motivating. Maybe a little vague, positive feedback will go down a bit easier and, in the end, keep your team on track to achieve its objectives.

Goetz addresses this issue in his article, too. He discusses a company called Vitality, founded by David Rose. The company produces a GlowCap for medication; it pulses and plays music to gently remind patients to take their medication. Writes Goetz:

“Here Rose grapples with an essential challenge of feedback loops: Make them too passive and you’ll lose your audience as the data blurs into the background of everyday life. Make them too intrusive and the data turns into noise, which is easily ignored. Borrowing a concept from cognitive psychology called pre-attentive processing, Rose aims for a sweet spot between these extremes, where the information is delivered unobtrusively but noticeably.”

While one shouldn’t manage one’s staff “pre-cognitively,” nor lie to them, nor keep them in the dark, managers should shoot for the “sweet spot,” between motivating their team, while correcting action to keep their project on course.

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Claire Narum

Claire joined Dashe & Thomson in 2011 after working as an instructional design consultant for five years. Prior to that, she spent several years working as a trainer and instructional designer for the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. She has developed and delivered training both nationally and internationally, for a range of industries and systems, from large-scale ERP implementations to specialized, soft skills training programs. Claire has a degree in Psychology from Brigham Young University. In her spare time she enjoys reading, cooking, travel, and cycling.

Feedback, Project Management/Project Delivery