The Importance Of Feedback And Recognition In Business

The Importance Of Feedback And Recognition In Business
What is your motivation for doing your job? Is it your wages or is it your passion? Is it a stash of cash or a sense of competence? Of course, it almost certainly isn’t as simple as these binary divisions would suggest. Understanding what truly motivates us – especially in the workplace – is a complex problem with daily implications.


There are many theories of human motivation, some very general and some specific. From B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning to Freud’s unconscious to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are numerous explanations of why people behave the way they do. Outside of these grand models, more specific models do shed some light on the issue of workplace motivation. Self-determination theory (SDT) hypothesizes about an individual’s growth tendencies and needs and as such speaks to the issue of motivation. The theory has led to research considering intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and the relative value of each. Work by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, both professors of psychology at the University of Rochester, suggests three intrinsic needs that drive human behavior: competency, autonomy and psychological relatedness. Competency refers to the need to seek control and experience mastery. People want to know and feel that they are doing a good job. Relatedness refers to the need to connect with others. We all need the interpersonal connection, and quality of relationships impacts performance in every field of human endeavor. Autonomy refers to the need to be in control of one’s life in an integrated way. Lack of control is the toxic element in stress. These three concepts, among others, are associated with greater engagement in the workplace. People want to be included, appreciated, trusted and given the resources needed to do their jobs. All of which suggests that feedback is an essential way to enhance intrinsic motivation. Feedback can certainly increase a sense of competency, and delivered appropriately can foster a sense of relatedness. A working relationship based on feedback (versus simply command and control) also indicates autonomy.

Feedback for the millennial generation

Depending on how it is delivered, however, feedback can be a dirty word. So do people really want feedback from their managers and supervisors? Millennials, in particular, are often portrayed as independent and self-centered. Do they welcome feedback from their colleagues and superiors? A 2010 Harvard Business Review article by Jeanne Meister and Karey Willyerd suggests categorically that millennials absolutely do want honest feedback from their bosses. The researchers polled more than two thousand professionals in a variety of industries about what they wanted from employers. The top five things that millennials want from their bosses were:
  • Help to navigate a career path
  • Straight feedback
  • Mentoring and coaching
  • Sponsorship for formal development programs
  • Agreeable to flexible schedules
Meister and Willyard point out that millennials represent a significant part of the workforce and outnumber Gen Xers by almost two to one. There are a lot of millennials making them competitive. As the authors point out: ”Millennials have high expectations of their employers – but they also set high standards for themselves. They’ve been working on their résumés practically since they were toddlers, because there are so many of them and so few (relatively speaking) spots at top schools and top companies.” But it’s not just competition that makes millennials open to receiving feedback. They have been born into a connected world where information is abundant and easily shared. They are used to getting instant responses to almost everything they do. Think about Facebook posts where responses to what you have posted are almost instantaneous. While the loss of privacy in the digital world might be seen as a curse, the flip side has been a much greater awareness and acceptance of oneself as a public figure open to all types of feedback. In fact, social media has given rise to a variety of lifestyle change sites that derive their benefits predominantly from feedback from users. Whether we like it or not, we live in a world where feedback is an ever present possibility. Intuitively, appropriate feedback would seem a necessary part of management  and one critical way to stimulate motivation. But there are many questions surrounding the nature of appropriate feedback. What is the emphasis of the feedback? How should it be delivered? When should it be delivered? Who should deliver it? How public should it be?


Some research is beginning to address these issues. For example, Christiane Bradler, Robert Dur, Susanne Neckermann, and  Arjan Non published a paper entitled Employee Recognition and Performance: A Field Experiment. In their study, which involved more than 300 subjects working on a three hour task, feedback, in the form of thank-you notes, was given to top performers in groups that consisted of eight workers. In one condition, thank-you notes were given to all performers, in another to the top performer and in another to the top three performers. Interestingly, group performance was enhanced whenever thank-you cards were handed out, either to one, some, or all of the group. There was a non-significant difference between these groups but a trend for the groups in which the top three performers got the thank-you cards to increase their performance the most. The authors suggest that this is a result of increased effort from those who did not receive rewards. The authors conclude: ”The performance increases in response to exclusive recognition are mainly driven by strong positive responses of non-recipients. Conformity preferences are the most likely reason for these responses. Upon learning that one does not belong to the best three performers in a group of eight, non-recipients feel inclined to improve performance so as to adhere to the apparent group norm.” A moment’s reflection, however, will reveal that feedback is a very generic concept and that various factors concerning content and delivery will impact its effects. Indeed, a meta-analysis of 607 studies involving more than 23000 subjects by Kluger and Denisi published in the 1996 Psychological Bulletin suggested that while feedback interventions improved performance on average, performance actually decreased in about a third of cases where there was ”feedback intervention”. ”Feedback does not uniformly improve performance,” the authors pronounce. Clearly, you don’t have to be a social scientist to realize that feedback can have both positive and negative effects. The issue is what type of feedback in what contexts provide the most benefits. A 2013 Harvard Business Review report on employee engagement gives some insight into that answer. The report summarized the results of a survey completed by 568 people, mostly senior level executives. All were from organizations with 500 or more employees and more than 40% were from organizations with more than 10,000 employees. While about half were based in the USA, many other areas of the world were also represented. In response to the question of what factors were likely to bring success, 80% endorsed customer service, 73% effective communications, and 71% an engaged workforce. When respondents were asked what contributed to employee engagement the results were as follows: 72% recognition to high performers 70% clear understanding of how job relates to overall strategy 70% leadership continues to update/communicate strategy 69% business goals communicated company-wide and understood 67% individual staff goals aligned with corporate goal 64% assessments and performance reviews aligned with corporate goals 54% some or all staff pay linked to corporate goal achievement Many of these most endorsed items relate to the provision of feedback in one form or another. It is tempting to think of feedback only in terms of specific information about how an individual performs a task, but it is much broader than that as the list above attests. Performance-based recognition and pay, reviews, alignment with bigger corporate goals, are all important types of feedback. Feedback is not just about an  individual’s performance on a specific task or tasks but also includes such things as how their efforts impact the bottom line, contribute to overall organizational goals, or effect the team.


Like any form of communication, feedback can be inferred even when none is actually given. Silence is an eloquent language that can say many things to many people. The provision of feedback is a complex  process subject to all the limitations of human interaction. But there is no question that it is a variable that is hugely influential in employee engagement and thus the success of any organization. References: Bradler, Christiane and Dur, Robert and Neckermann, Susanne and Non, Arjan, Employee Recognition and Performance: A Field Experiment (March 31, 2013). CESifo Working Paper Series No. 4164. Available at SSRN: Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd. Mentoring Millennials, Harvard Business Review, May 2010. Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (1991). A motivational approach to self: Integration in personalit’. In R. Dienstbier (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation: Vol. 38. Perspectives on motivation (pp. 237–288). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1995). Human autonomy: The basis for true self-esteem. In M. Kernis (Ed.), Efficacy, agency, and self-esteem. Kluger,A.N. , and  Denisi, A. (1996) The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 254-284. The Impact of Employee Engagement on Performance. Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, 20913.