Each and every one of us wants and needs feedback, often dreads receiving feedback and is frequently uncomfortable giving feedback. Few of us really understand feedback or manage the process of providing feedback. This column will assist you in selecting the appropriate performance consequence. We begin with a definition of feedback from dictionary.com: “The return of information about the result of a process or activity; an evaluative response.” We constantly give and receive feedback, if not explicitly, then implicitly.

Milligan bob
Senior Consultant / Dairy Strategies LLC
Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornel...

When, however, we use implicit and unplanned explicit feedback, we often provide inappropriate feedback, often with negative performance consequences. When you have a friendly, positive interaction with an employee who is performing poorly, what message do you think they receive?

When you interact with an employee who is performing above expectations, while you are in a bad mood, what message do you think they receive? The absence of feedback and unintended or inappropriate feedback is a major barrier to superior performance.

Feedback informs employees about the quality of their behavior (behaviour) and their performance. Without good feedback, an employee is uncertain as to how he or she is doing. This uncertainty is very frustrating, especially to employees early in the process of mastering a new task, and can become very demotivating. Good feedback, thus, reduces uncertainty and increases motivation.

The key to utilizing feedback to enhance performance is providing feedback appropriate to the performance. Appropriate, as used here, means the feedback must correctly communicate the supervisor’s assessment of the employee’s performance. This requires the following three forms of feedback rather that the usual two (positive and negative):


• Positive: Utilized when performance meets or exceeds the standard.

• Redirection: Incorrect performance stopped and redirected using training. This should be used when performance does not meet the standard due to something in the context of the performance.

• Negative: A reprimand, a punishment, a demotion, removal from activity – something bad from the perspective of the employee. This should be used when performance does not meet the standard due to a personal characteristic, behavior (behaviour) or attitude of the individual.

Positive feedback
As I approached the registration desk in the nearly vacant lobby of an economy motel, my hope was to complete a hassle-free registration and get to my room. Wow! Was I surprised when I was met by a friendly, helpful gentleman who also asked if I needed anything special.

I thanked him and proceeded to my room with a little extra bounce in my step. When I passed the registration desk on my way to grab a bite to eat, he called me by name. I stopped and thanked him for the unusually good service.

Although a bit self-conscious with my compliment, he was obviously pleased. He had succeeded in providing excellent customer service, and we had made each other’s evening a little more pleasant!

The above illustrates the power of positive feedback as a morale-builder and as a motivator. We must, however, be careful to utilize positive feedback only to reward “successful” performance. Positive feedback serves as positive reinforcement, causing the action or performance to be repeated.

We only want to reward “successful” performance. Although this seems obvious, it is not. We often want to use positive feedback to “reward” good intentions; however, “good performance should always be treated differently than poor performance.” “Unsuccessful” performance with good intentions calls for redirection feedback, discussed later.

The challenge for each of us is to develop a habit of providing positive feedback. The following three-step process for providing positive feedback has proven to provide a level of comfort to the manager providing the feedback and reduced the reticence of the workforce member receiving the feedback:

• Step 1: Observe good behavior (behaviour).

• Step 2: Compliment the employee on the positive behavior (behaviour) or performance you desire.

• Step 3: State the specific current behavior or performance you are complimenting.

The following is an example for the three steps:

• Step 1: You have been stressing the importance of attention to detail. You observe an example of attention to detail by Jack.

• Step 2: “Jack, thank you for following through on our emphasis on attention to detail.”

• Step 3: “I noticed you going out of your way to remove the leaves that had blown into the alleyways.”

These three steps provide specific feedback that reinforces the behavior or performance you desire and clearly identifies the action that is being rewarded.

Redirection or negative feedback
“Good performance should always be treated differently than poor performance.” For most of us, providing what is commonly referred to as “negative” feedback is more difficult than providing positive feedback, for two reasons.

First, most of us are very uncomfortable dealing with unacceptable performance. Second, the correct response to unacceptable performance requires a critical choice between two types of feedback – redirection and negative.

The choice between redirection and negative is based on the reason for the unacceptable performance. There are always two possible explanations:

1. The failure in performance can be explained by the situation – the context of the performance.

2. The failure in performance cannot be explained by the context. The failure to complete the list can only be explained by the behavior of the employee.

Redirection feedback
In the first explanation, where we determined that the failure to perform was caused by the situation or the context of the performance, a redirection feedback is the correct response. With redirection feedback we communicate:

• The employee is not at fault. It is crucial that the employee not feel that he or she is being punished. Instead you are committing to work with the employee to achieve “successful” performance.

• That the performance is not acceptable.

• The required changes in the context to enable “successful” performance. This includes training, coaching and encouragement to master the required skills to succeed.

Communicating a redirection feedback message – the performance was not acceptable but the employee is not at fault – is a challenge in most situations. Positive feedback – on the appropriate attitudes and specific actions that were completed successfully – is an important and complementary part of redirection feedback.

You are also providing the training, coaching and encouragement required for the employee to succeed. The employee must believe he or she is being treated fairly while recognizing that he or she must improve performance.

Negative feedback
The second explanation for the failure in performance, where the context cannot explain the failure, calls for a very different response. Since the context does not explain the failure, the only remaining explanation is the employee’s behavior (behaviour) – effort level, commitment, motivation, concentration.

We now must use a negative feedback. The negative feedback – absence of positive feedback, reminder, reprimand, punishment – must produce sufficient discomfort to cause a change in behavior that will result in “successful” performance.

I suspect that many, if not most, supervisor-employee problems are a result of the supervisor’s use of negative feedback when the employee expected redirection feedback. This situation is both common and disastrous. What should the supervisor do? The answer is twofold.

First, be very careful in your use of negative feedback. Use redirection if there is any possibility in your mind that the context may be the cause of the unacceptable performance.

Second, when delivering negative feedback, be sensitive to the likelihood that the employee may be clinging to the context as the culprit, and take the time to clarify why the context is not the cause of the performance failure.

A concluding note
Providing performance feedback to employees is like everything else; it has the greatest impact when done correctly every time.

Keep the following in mind:

• Performance is influenced the most by consequences.

• Good performance should always be treated differently than poor performance.

• Choosing the wrong form of feedback or communicating incorrectly can severely damage the supervisor-employee relationship. The most damaging is the use of negative feedback when redirection is in order. PD

Milligan is a professor emeritus of the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University.


Dr. Bob Milligan
Senior Consultant
Dairy Strategies, LLC