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The Right Kind of Feedback Fuels Behavior-Based Safety

By Grainne Matthews

If you are interested in improving performance (whether it be safety or any other dimension of workplace performance such as quality, productivity, or leadership), you probably think of feedback as one of the essential components of any program you plan to implement. For example, in behavioral safety, observation and feedback is often said to be the heart and soul of the process.

And, in leadership development, individual coaching that includes feedback on critical leadership practices is the basis for most programs. Efforts to improve quality or productivity, to reduce waste or downtime, or to enhance customer service typically all include feedback. Is this feedback really necessary?

I recently attended the 31st annual convention of the Association of Behavior Analysis in Chicago, Illinois where I heard reports of the most recent research in the area of incentive pay and performance feedback. Performance feedback, defined as information about an individual’s past performance provided in such a way as to allow that person to improve their future performance (Daniels, 1994), has been demonstrated to be one of the most effective interventions available. Balcazar, Suarez, & Hopkins (1985) and Alvero, Bucklin, and Austin (2001) reviewed all the published feedback studies and concluded that feedback improved performance in approximately 80 – 100% of cases. It’s no wonder that most people insist upon the inclusion of a feedback component.

But, as a result of his recent excellent study of incentive pay and feedback, Doug Johnson asks whether it is really necessary to go to the trouble and expense of designing and maintaining a system to measure and feedback individual performance to improve people’s effectiveness. He found that people who received performance-contingent pay consistently performed better than those who received hourly pay whether or not they received any information about their performance.

Can we conclude that feedback is unnecessary? Should we save ourselves the time and effort of designing and implementing feedback systems (if we already have an effective piece rate pay system in place)? Perhaps not. Doug also points out that the feedback methods used in his study did not incorporate some of the features we know to be important to its effectiveness. Some of those variables include:

  • Feedback tied to rewards or incentives is more powerful.
  • Feedback that relates to progress toward a specific goal is best.
  • Feedback provided by someone important to the performer is most effective.
  • Using a multitude of media to present the feedback enhances its consistency – provide information orally, in writing, and on a graph.
  • Performance information provided right before the next opportunity to perform is the best time.
  • Feedback must be provided at least once every two weeks (and preferably daily or weekly) to change behavior.
  • Small group (less than 12 people) feedback is most effective.
  • Feedback that includes specific suggestions for improving performance may enhance its power.

There are also circumstances where feedback may be essential such as when someone is learning to perform a new task. And, of course, few of us work under piece rate pay systems where the amount of our income is directly tied to the amount of work we produce (as Doug’s participants did). So I won’t be changing my recommendations to people trying to help employees and managers improve performance any time soon! I still think feedback is one of the most powerful tools in our toolkit and plan to continue to help my clients to customize it for their unique workplace.