When a pat on the back is not necessarily a good thing

The effect of positive or negative feedback is highly dependent on the personality type of worker and, more importantly, the task they have to complete.A boss might assume that a well-earned pat on the back and some positive feedback would …

The effect of positive or negative feedback is highly dependent on the personality type of worker and, more importantly, the task they have to complete.A boss might assume that a well-earned pat on the back and some positive feedback would help reinforce his workers and keep their job performance up to par.

But in many cases, according to new research conducted in Israel, that assumption would be off-base.

Positive feedback can not only leave performance unaffected – it can even be detrimental to a worker’s productivity, according to research conducted by Dr. Dina Van Dijk of the Department of Health Systems Management at the School of Management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Van Dijk, a former kibbutznik, and product of a Dutch father and Yemenite mother, conducted her research under the supervision of Prof. Avraham Kluger from the Hebrew University as part of her doctoral studies.

Van Dijk’s and Kluger’s research was recently published in the journal Applied Psychology: an International Review.

“For years we have taken for granted that feedback is an important element in optimizing a worker’s productivity,” explains Van Dijk. “But research on the subject had never been properly consolidated – until 1996 when Prof. Kluger and his colleague Prof. DeNisi published their research findings. By analyzing 131 studies from 90 years of research, Kluger and DeNisi discovered that feedback sometimes improved performance, sometimes had no effect, and in some cases even reduced performance. It was my job to explain this diversity and to suggest answers to the question: when and for whom feedback will reduce or increase motivation? Lack of understanding of this question created inconsistency in management practice.”

In addition to reviewing previous research, Van Dijk completed her own field investigations involving workers and feedback, and conducted experiments in the laboratory examining how feedback affected performance.

The result, she says, were “fascinating and exciting.” She and Kluger discovered that the effect of positive or negative feedback is highly dependent on the personality type of worker and, more importantly, the task they have to complete.

“People with conservative personalities doing conventional jobs are generally motivated by negative feedback,” she explains, citing the examples of engineers or accountants, performing tasks that require accuracy. “This type of person doing this type of job is better motivated if told he is not reaching required standards, so maintaining his productivity.”

In these fields, job success is usually measured in terms of ‘prevention’ – success means preventing mistakes or omissions.
This doesn’t necessarily hold true in jobs in which success is measured in terms of ‘promotion’ – creativity and productivity.

“People involved in creative jobs are often devastated by negative feedback and give up altogether,” she explains. “This type of worker must receive positive feedback to keep them motivated”.

In the course of her research, Van Dijk interviewed many performers and was surprised to discover how fearful they are of criticism.

On a practical basis, Van Dijk believes the lesson of her research to managers is that they must “know his personnel and tasks thoroughly – to make sure the right people are given the correct incentives. His feedback system, for assessment and appraisal of performance, has to suit the kind of the workers and the kind of the task they are completing.”

She notes that in certain fields, this can be a life-or-death issue.

“Both in Israel and the United States, security has become a crucial task for many. Because the focus there is on prevention, there must be negative feedback. Police or military personnel engaged in security-oriented tasks need to constantly be reminded of what they failed do, or should be doing, in order to move towards a better performance – negative feedback is thus extremely helpful. When they make a mistake, they must be made clearly aware of it – not necessarily punished, but they must know about it.”