The positive impact of performance feedback

Recently, I heard about ‘attribution theory’ – it suggests that we are always looking for an explanation of any given behaviour, and that in doing so, we associate either internal (dispositional) attributes or external (situational) attributes to the behaviour.

Dr Tim Rees of Exeter University has been running an experiment to test this theory. Participants were given darts to throw at a dartboard – blindfolded. After the first three darts were thrown, the observers (who were presumably standing well away from the dartboard!) gave the participants feedback on their performance. However well the participant had done, he was told that he had performed badly and that the observer could see that that wasn’t really anything the participant could do to improve on the situation but it was suggested that the participant had another try.

The second time, their performance was even worse.

The experiment showed that after the participants are informed of an initial failure, their subsequent attempts are no better, particularly when participants are told that they can’t control the circumstances and that those circumstances are unlikely to change. However, when given positive information about performance, scores improved.

continuous improvement attribution theory feedback

Whilst this research was relating to sporting performance, it strikes me that it is also relevant to the way we give and receive feedback in the working world. We are faced with external circumstances – situational, as attribution theory refers to them – over which we have no control. We are also dealing with our own internal circumstances: those relating to our own disposition or character.

We can’t just decide to only ever give positive feedback in the hope that this will improve performance. ‘You’re doing such a great job on that website’ is no use to a designer who should be spending her time on the brochure due at the printer that afternoon. Likewise, ‘Why are you still working on that website? Haven’t I told you enough times the brochure needs to be at the printer?’ isn’t going to help matters. Inevitably, situations arise where we need to help people correct their course, acquire new skills, and move through issues which are holding them back.

In his research, Dr Rees also commented that the best sportsmen in the world always believe that they can find a way to improve their game. I believe this is where constructive, specific feedback can help – whether we are on the giving or receiving end of that feedback. To focus on aspects which we cannot control is not helpful, dragging us down into further negativity. These successful sportsmen look at those aspects they can control – whether that’s coming up with a new strategy or tactics; working on their thought patterns; or soliciting assistance from someone with the necessary experience and skills.

Today’s pebble for you to consider:

How do you deal with feedback, whether giving or receiving it?

What do you think?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your work and life, why not email me to see how we can work together?

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