Riding the Curve of Feedback

Most of what is written about giving employees feedback laments how often it is lacking. In far too many organizations, feedback is consolidated into a performance appraisal that often happens only annually or semi-annually at best. People need ongoing feedback on a regular basis if you want them to reach the peak performance levels that will result in organizational success. Many organizations have jumped onto this bandwagon wholeheartedly, and rightfully so. But is it possible to take the whole notion of feedback too far? When does too much of a good thing begin to go sour?

Riding the Curve of FeedbackThe idea is nothing new for anyone who has sat through an Economics 101 course. After all, who isn’t familiar with the whole law of diminishing marginal utility? This basic macroeconomic principle states that as a person consumes more of a product or service, the amount of utility derived from each successive round of consumption eventually declines. The classic example of this is ice cream cones – the first one or two may be quite enjoyable, but try to stuff down a few more and you’re enjoyment will definitely take a nose dive, especially if you wind up with a serious tummy ache. If you make a graph this effect, it comes out as a curve shaped like an upside down U.

Author Malcolm Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, makes use of this notion in trying to explain how something that appears at first to be a strength can wind up being a disadvantage. Instead of calling it the law of diminishing marginal utility, he simply calls it an inverted-U curve. It shows how doing more of something helps for a while (left side of curve), then the benefit levels off (top of curve), and then doing more of it does damage (right side of curve). This applies to a whole variety of phenomenon in ways that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Take, for example, class size. Everyone knows that smaller is better, right? But the inverted-U curve dictates that eventually you pass a point where smaller is not better, and actually does more harm than good, both research and the experience of teachers in the trenches bear this out. Gladwell even applies it to punishment in the criminal justice system, wherein being on the right side of curve means more punishment not only fails to deter crime, it might actually cause it.

I am suggesting that the same applies to employee feedback. Clearly, once or twice a year is not enough. But if you take greater frequency of feedback to its logical extension, you might find yourself dropping down the right side of the inverted-U curve where more is just too much.

Complicating this picture, however, is the nature of feedback, which can be either positive, negative, or mix of both. I believe that the mix of positive and negative feedback has a powerful mediating effect of where feedback falls on the inverted-U curve. Too much negative feedback pushes over the hump of utility and into the realm of too much, where damage happens. How feedback is delivered can also play a role in this as well – negative feedback poorly delivered can literally give a person whiplash as they round the inverted-U curve, and that doesn’t do anyone any good. Here are six ways to make sure the negative feedback you give doesn’t do more harm than good:

  1. Link the negative feedback to forward progress in their development, which means you need to know a bit about them.
  2. A sincere commitment to helping people be their best softens the blow.
  3. Define expectations clearly. People need to have a clear picture of what success looks like.
  4. Rather than thinking of negative feedback as corrective action, think of it as providing constructive encouragement to improve.
  5. You’ve probably been the recipient of badly delivered negative feedback, so have a little empathy.
  6. Dressing people down in public is not feedback; it’s humiliation.

Keeping those 6 guidelines in mind will help your feedback stay on the useful side of the inverted-U curve, adding value as it’s meant rather than making things worse.

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