2007 Volume 10 Issue 3

Assertive Performance Feedback

Assertive Performance Feedback

How do you find the "backbone" to overcome the "mum effect"?

The opportunity to help others improve their performance arises frequently for individuals at all organizational levels. When these situations call for confronting poor performance, however, those in the position to give potential feedback often lack a clear, concise, and professional way to communicate. This challenge confronts virtually everyone-CEO’s and independent contributors alike.

Photo: Jacom Stephens

Ron Jones, CEO of a medium-size restaurant chain, was increasingly annoyed by his assistant not following up on assignments he had given her. Mary Smith, regional sales manager for a multi-national manufacturing organization, had long since been aware that one of her key salespeople was not investing enough effort into his performance. Jason Barnes, a sales rep for a telecommunications company, felt the company’s efforts were being undermined by the lack of ethics a fellow employee exhibited. In all three cases, these individuals needed a clear and concise way to confront these situations. Unfortunately, in all three cases effective feedback was not given and the poor performance continued.

This article provides guidance for improving performance by offering a clear and concrete “tool” for effective performance feedback. To demonstrate this feedback tool, a brief application will be presented. But first, the article will provide some context with interesting and relevant research findings on performance feedback as well as some of the difficulties in delivering bad news.

The Feedback-Performance Connection

Despite many claims in the popular literature that feedback is the “breakfast of champions,” research shows that the effect of feedback on performance is mixed. For example, in a rigorous review of the feedback-performance connection, Kluger and DeNisi[1] found that 38 percent of feedback interventions had a negative effect on performance. This research suggested that the recipient’s reaction to the feedback may not be overly influenced by the positive or negative nature of the feedback. In fact, negative feedback that is perceived as constructive, useful, and effectively delivered may be well-received and lead to positive performance improvement.

The managerial task of providing feedback is clearly a challenge, particularly when an unfavorable message needs to be delivered.[2][3][4][5]

A number of factors can influence how well performance feedback is received,[6] Including:

  • Effectiveness of delivery
  • Quality of feedback
  • Credibility of provider
  • Content/Nature of feedback
  • Availability of provider
  • Encouragement of feedback-seeking behavior

Whether intentionally formulated policies are implemented on an organization-wide basis, or the function of performance feedback is passively left to individual styles and inclinations, the above factors will help shape an organization’s feedback culture. An organization’s feedback culture can influence commitment, job satisfaction, and citizenship behaviors. It is logical to conclude that if an organization can develop effective feedback tools to address factors like the ones noted above so that effective quality performance feedback is given in a positive and encouraging fashion, a more positive oriented feedback organizational culture can be created.

The effective delivery of quality performance feedback is critical to improving performance. To be effective, delivery should be thoughtful, well-organized, clear, and concise. If these aspects are present, the probability of the feedback being perceived as quality and having a positive impact on the recipient are dramatically increased.

Often the best opportunities for performance feedback are in the course of day-to-day business. The need for practical tools to help managerial leaders and their people deliver effective feedback on an informal basis becomes even more important when the nature of the feedback is negative. Being equipped with techniques to offer informal job performance feedback outside of an organization’s formal evaluation system can help one overcome the “mum effect,” and can benefit both managerial leaders and employees. Certain tools can help unfavorable messages “get through” to recipients in a way that helps boost performance.

What follows is a proven feedback tool (DISC) that leaders can use to effectively deliver their message. The author has coached organizational leaders and their employees to use this tool for more than two decades, with great success. The effectiveness of this tool is supported by research findings that effective quality feedback delivery can make a difference in getting one’s message through.

The DISC tool helps answer the call for practitioner-oriented approaches to performance improvement to lead the way in helping drive empirical research and theory-building.[7] The DISC approach offers the opportunity, for example, for researchers to empirically test the various components of this tool and their potential interaction. This research could help advance the link between applied work and empirical study/theory building using the inductive process of starting in the real-world and moving into the empirical hypothesis testing arena for more refined analysis.

The author labeled this approach “DISC” to associate the process with one having a “backbone” (vertebrae or discs). Indeed, it takes assertiveness or “backbone” to provide performance feedback, especially when the feedback may be viewed as negative by the recipient.

The DISC Feedback Tool

The DISC approach to providing performance feedback, especially effective if improvement is needed, involves four steps. The four steps of DISC, reviewed in the order in which they should be delivered, are:

DISC Feedback Tool
DDescribeDescribe the situation or behavior that needs to be addressed in observable and/or behavioral terms. Use words that are not ambiguous or subject to interpretation. For example, in describing inaccuracies made in data entries, you might say “George, over the past 30 days you have incorrectly entered data 35 percent of the time.” It is important to avoid making global statements like, “You are incompetent, sloppy, and/or lazy when it comes to data entry.”
IImpactsImpacts on you, the recipient, and the work unit or organization are detailed. Clearly state the impact that the situation is having on you (the deliverer), on the other person (the recipient), and on the overall organization or work unit. Describing the impact of a situation or behavior may provide new insight for the recipient as to how the situation or behavior affects his or her performance, and helps set a tone of personal responsibility.
SSpecifySpecify the change that needs to take place. This can be a “one way” communication or a more collaborative conversation between the reviewer and recipient, depending on how ready and able the recipient is to rectify the problem and accomplish the necessary change.
CConsequencesExplain the consequences of making the requested change(s), or of failing to make the change(s). If they persist, the negative impacts of the situation or behavior described in “D” must be met with appropriate and fair consequences. In the discussion, link the consequences, positive and negative, to the impact areas noted in the discussion under “I.”

Implementing the DISC approach in informal performance feedback sessions can have a tremendous impact on performance. The situation and the impact of the situation are clear, the corrective action plan is given, and the consequences of meeting the expectation or failing it are also clear.

Applying DISC to Boost Performance

In application, DISC can have a tremendous impact on performance. To help solidify the understanding of the steps, what follows is a real world example.

Based on the results of a professionally designed and administered feedback survey, William, a regional sales manager of a multinational firm, received specific feedback regarding his tendency not to recognize or praise his sales people. Six months after receiving this feedback, William continued to withhold praise. To address the situation, his supervisor, the Vice President of Sales, consulted the author. After considerable discussion, it was decided that William’s boss would provide him with some developmental feedback regarding his lack of praise for his sales people.

The DISC tool was outlined for this task, and presented to William, as follows:

DISC Feedback
DDescribeThe V.P. of Sales informed William that the fact that he did not praise his people was problematic. (This message was given with an encouraging preamble, letting William know that the feedback was developmental and intended to be supportive of him making changes.)
IImpactsThe three impacts that William’s boss described were:

  • Impact on V.P.: William’s infrequent praise of his salespeople causes them to contact the V.P. frequently to report that William does not seem to value their accomplishments. Consequently, the V.P. has doubts about William’s willingness and ability to perform this key action.
  • Impact on William: By rarely recognizing/praising his salespeople’s accomplishments, William appears disinterested in their development and/or success.
  • Impact on Sales Organization: William’s lack of praise negatively affects his salespeople’s morale/productivity and his region’s revenue targets.
SSpecifyThe V.P. asked William to give at least five effective positive strokes to his salespeople every day. William agreed to use a “coin-in pocket” exchange technique as a daily reminder. This involved putting five coins in his left pants pocket each morning and moving one coin to his right pocket each time he positively stroked a salesperson. William’s goal was to move all five coins to his right pocket by the end of each day.
CConsequencesIf William was more praising:

(a) he would likely be seen as more motivating and interested in his people (impact on William), (b) his boss would spend less time dealing with his salespeople’s complaints, leading to greater confidence in William’s ability to perform in this important area (impact on V.P.), and (c) his salespeople’s productivity and morale would likely improve (impact on the organization).

(Since this was the first focused feedback on the issue, the V.P. did not indicate the potential negative consequences in the event William did not change his behavior, which would be discussed at a later date if improvement was not seen. The V.P. wanted to stress the developmental and supportive nature of this intervention.)

Alternatively, if appropriate, the V.P. could have stated the negative consequences for failure to change.

He might have said: If William persisted in withholding praise, (a) he would appear disinterested in this important job responsibility, (b) the V.P. would continue to assume this responsibility for William, leading the V.P. to the conclusion that William may not be willing or able to perform this key function, and (c) regional sales productivity and revenues will not reach the region’s potential.

(While this example of a negative consequence is offered in a developmental context, after an appropriate number of subsequent “DISC” sessions without improvement on William’s part the V.P. would need to provide stronger “negative consequences” up to and including termination.

Beyond this developmental example the specification of “negative consequences” may come sooner when presenting the DISC feedback tool for such serious behaviors as theft, discrimination, and repeated unexcused absences from work.)

This feedback tool has been used by CEOs with external stakeholders, key reports, and executive assistants. It can be applied by people throughout an organization and is especially helpful when bad news needs to be delivered in a professional manner. It can help you reap the benefits of delivering quality performance feedback and keep you from staying “mum.”

In practice, the DISC tool is often a key action within a larger performance management program that helps drive specific performance metrics or key results. In the current example, the V.P. used the DISC intervention to help impact sales productivity, as measured by specific revenue targets and sales personnel morale. The latter was measured as part of an employee survey program. Both of these metrics show improvement subsequent to the V.P.’s implementation of the DISC tool with William.

Applying the DISC is straightforward, but it is important to take a few moments before the face-to-face feedback session to outline the key points you want to make. This preparation will help you avoid the tendency to remain “mum” while moving you toward enhancing others’ performance by delivering feedback in a professional and assertive manner. Click here to download a “DISC” worksheet to help you prepare for important feedback opportunities and to avoid the tendency to perpetuate the “mum effect.”

[1] A.N. Kluger and A. DeNisi, “The Effects of Feedback Interventions on Performance: A Historical Review, a Meta-Analysis, and a Preliminary Feedback Intervention Theory,” Psychological Bulletin, 119, (1996): 254-284.

[2] J.F. Manzoni. “The Better Way to Deliver Bad News,” Harvard Business Review, (2002/09:114-119.

[3] M. E. Benedict and E. L. Levine. “Delay and Distortion: Tacit Influence on Performance Appraisal Effectiveness,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 73, (1988):507-514. J. R. Larson. “The Dynamic Interplay Between Employees’ Feedback-Seeking Strategies and Supervisors Delivery Of Performance Feedback,” Academy of Management Review, 14, (1989):408-422. J. R. Larson, “Supervisors’ Performance Feedback To Subordinates: The Impact of Subordinate Performance Valence and Outcome Dependence,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process, 37, (1986):391-408. F. Lee. “Being Polite and Keeping MUM: How Bad News is Communicated in Organizational Hierarchies,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 23, (1993): 1124-1149.

[4] A. Tesser and S. Rosen. “The Reluctance to Transmit Bad News,” in L. Berkowitz, (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, (New York: Academic Press, 1975):8.

[5] M. London. Job Feedback: Giving, Seeking and Using Feedback for Performance Improvement, (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997). P. M. Podsakoff and J. L. Farh. “Effects of Feedback Sight and Credibility on Goal Setting and Task Performance,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 44, (1989): 45-67.

[6] L. A. Steelman and K. A. Rutkowski. “Moderators of Employee Reactions to Negative Feedback,” Journal of Managerial Psychology, 19, (2004):6-18.

[7] C. L. Cooper and E. A. Locke. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Linking Theory with Practice, (Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2000).

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Author of the article
Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA
Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA, is a professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. He has more than 30 years of business, management, and consulting experience. Through his private consulting firm, Corperformance, he has implemented performance management programs and systems to help companies from many industries maximize their results. Since 1980, he has taught in almost every program in the Graziadio School, first as an adjunct faculty member, then, since 2000, as a member of the full-time faculty. He has also served as the associate dean for Academic Affairs. Dr. Kerns holds a Diplomate, ABPP, in both Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Organizational-Business Consulting Psychology.
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