A supervisor’s feedback on employee performance is at its best when it is perceived by the employee as immediate, frequent, and constructive. That’s according to a recent study, “Constructive Supervisor Feedback is Not Sufficient: Immediacy and Frequency is Essential,” published in the May-June volume of the journal Human Resource Management. Employees’ perception of these factors can influence worker performance.
While the research took place in a different sector than higher education, its implications may be helpful for those working in unions and activities. The research drew on field data taken from 158 employees and supervisors working in the Norwegian government. Nearly 70% of the respondents were women, about 30% men; just over 40% had a tenure of 1 to 3 years, 33% between 4 and 7 years, and 25% between 8 and 11 years; just over 6% had not finished college, nearly 35% had bachelor’s degrees, 55% held master’s degrees, and almost 4% had completed a Ph.D.
In measuring perceived feedback characteristics of employees, the researchers asked workers to rank 13 questions on a scale of one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree). Questions included, “My immediate supervisor provides feedback that is more concerned with what I’m good at in my job than with what I’m not so good at,” and “If I do something wrong at work, my immediate supervisor provides feedback that focuses on the task and not me as a person.”
The researchers then measured work performance by asking supervisors to complete a 10-item scale reflecting on statements such as, “He/she intentionally expends a great deal of effort in carrying out his/her job,” and, “The quality of his/her work is top-notch.”
Research in the employment and educational fields has often looked at the roles speed and regularity play in supervisor feedback success, including research by Dylan Wiliam in 2011 and by Daniel Ilgen, Cynthia D. Fisher and Susan M. Taylor in 1979 that recognized that optimal immediacy and frequency depended on a number of factors, including the type of learning being undertaken, cognitive load, recall, and what happens from the time of the activity to the time of feedback.
This latest work recognized a unique relationship between what a worker perceives to be timely and regular feedback with the constructiveness of that feedback, and then sought to understand that relationship’s role on work performance.
“The most important practical implications of our study are two-fold,” wrote professors Bard Kuvaas and Anders Dysvik (BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo) and associate professor Robert Buch (School of Business, Oslo, and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences). “First, managers should provide both constructive and immediate and frequent feedback. Second, to do so, feedback needs to be provided in a cyclical nature between discrete performance management activities.”
Don’t miss the teachable moments, the researchers pointed out through examples of major employers such as Deloitte, Gap, General Electric and Microsoft that are moving their performance management systems away from the annual review structure to immediate and frequent information exchanges. Those immediate and frequent exchanges need also be constructive rather than negative, they found, for job performance to benefit.
Management, they noted, is already changing performance tracking systems, and they specifically point to Microsoft and its announcement in 2013 reported by Tom Warren at The Verge that the company was “optimizing for more timely feedback and meaningful discussions to help employees learn in the moment, grow, and drive great results.”
It is the level of interactivity between the perceived immediacy and frequency of feedback and its constructiveness that helps determine the relationship with work performance. “Certain levels of constructiveness and immediacy and frequency seem to be needed to establish a positive relationship with work performance,” they found.
That result contributes to the field of feedback research because it provides evidence “suggesting that supervisor performance feedback perceived as constructive is only as useful as its perceived immediacy and frequency.”
In looking at the relationships between immediate and frequent feedback, feedback constructiveness, and work performance, the researchers found that work performance was higher when workers perceived both frequency and constructiveness to be low, compared with the perception that feedback was frequent but non-constructive.
“The observation … suggests that supervisors who are not able to provide feedback in a manner that is perceived constructive should provide feedback less rather than more immediate and frequently,” they said.
Ideally, employees had related positive perceptions of both constructive supervisor performance feedback and work performance “when perceived immediacy and frequency of supervisor performance was high.”
The authors tied feedback immediacy and feedback frequency together as a single dimension of feedback: “If an employee perceives that feedback is usually provided immediately after the work is done, he or she will also perceive that the feedback is sufficiently frequent.”
They noted that a supervisor’s feedback on employee performance is constructive when perceived by the employee to focus on positive behavior and results based on an employee’s knowledge, skills, or talents (strength-based feedback), when the feedback offered is task-oriented and not person-oriented, when it is specific and easy to understand, and when there is agreement between the employee and the supervisor (acceptable or accurate feedback). These characteristics can be useful considerations for any supervisor looking to positively influence employee performance.
Kuvaas, B., Buch, R., & Dysvik, A. (2017) Constructive supervisor feedback is not sufficient: Immediacy and frequency is essential. Human Resource Management, 56(3), 519–531.
Ilgen, D. R., Fisher, C. D., & Taylor, M. S. (1979). Consequences of individual feedback on behavior in organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 64(4), 349–371.
Warren, T. (2013). Microsoft axes its controversial employeeranking system. Retrieved from http://www.theverge .com/2013/11/12/5094864/microsoft-kills-stack-ranking-internal-structure
Wiliam, D. (2011). What is assessment for learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37, 3–14.