Providing feedback is one of the most important tasks of leaders. However, in as much as more than 1/3rd of the cases, feedback appears to have a negative impact on employee performance (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996). This was reason for researchers at Erasmus University to conduct an experimental study (Waltré, et al., 2021). The outcome: leaders should pay attention to how feedback is interpreted. Then they will achieve much more with their well-intentioned feedback!
Feedback invites comparison with team members
Once people receive feedback from a leader, they will naturally be inclined to compare themselves to others. In practice, people often know how others in the organization function. This social comparison is an almost automatic human trait and can occur in roughly two ways. The standard way is often from contrast. That is, from the belief that the others with whom one compares are “different. In contrast, comparison is from equality, which means: from the belief that others are not different, but ‘the same’. Comparison from contrast is not a fruitful follow-up to receiving feedback. Sometimes feedback makes it clear that someone performs worse than others. In that case, if one looks at others from the perspective of equality, the feedback has a motivating effect. It then feeds the belief that we can also be just as good as this other person. When feedback makes it clear that team members perform better than others, which is looked at from a contrast perspective, it feeds the idea that we ourselves are ‘the best’. The latter is not a good motivator to constantly want to do your best.
Leaders can influence how people compare themselves
Leaders should stimulate comparison on the basis of equality. How? This turned out to be twofold. First, by emphasizing the perception of equality between team members in performance potential, in the sense of: “what he can do, you can do too”. Second, by providing individual feedback as much as possible in a collective context: for example, in joint meetings. The latter may feel a bit scary for a leader, because colleagues can then see each other’s performance, but the results show very clearly that this is a good idea.
The researchers conducted an experiment in an existing commercial organization. For over a year, the commercial results were monitored weekly. Ultimately, emphasizing equality and providing collective feedback proved to be a winning combination. The message of a shared identity and equality, and how team members experience this, turned out to be more strongly emphasized by giving collective feedback. Social comparison is a form of interpreting the social environment and leaders have an important task within this. Leaders are thus able to influence how team members view each other and each other’s performance potential. The leadership required for this lets employees know, for example, that everyone on the team “has an equal opportunity to perform,” and “that despite past successes, you must keep investing in yourself to remain successful.”
Good leadership: equal comparison
By encouraging “equal comparison” as leaders, the belief grows among team members that future performance, in periods following feedback, can be equal to each other. As a result, good achievers stay motivated and underperformers retain the necessary confidence and motivation. So, for example, while it is inevitable for an effective leader to let an underperformer know that his/her performance is now substandard, at the same time it is critical to explain that he/she has the same potential as better performing colleagues.
Although there is much talk in practice of the so-called sandwich model of feedback (dress up negative feedback with positive feedback), there has never been any scientific evidence for this idea. It is amazing how little we know about how to give feedback effectively, even though this is a fairly dominant task for leaders. Of course, the above study is only one study, and we must interpret the results with nuance. We find the idea that well-developed leaders also pay attention to how feedback is experienced and interpreted to be appealing and hopefully inspiring for your next collective meeting.