Feedback: It’s all it cracked up to be!

A lot has been said on the topic of feedback. Google will give you about 2,070,000,000 results in 0.82 seconds. There are different kinds and different definitions… my interest is in the realm of workplace performance which is defined as “the transmission of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event, or process to the original or controlling source; also :  the information so transmitted.” (Thanks Merriam-Webster)


I have been seeing more and more of the traffic signs that provide feedback on your actual speed popping up as of late and it has definitely affected MY behaviour every time I come into my sleepy little town. When approaching these 40 km/h zones, I now set my cruise control at 42 and breeze by the local constabulary with an ear to ear smile!

sid-roadside-speed-warning-sign-M23712On a recent visit to British Columbia, I saw more of these signs, with a little twist. Instead of just the hard data (your speed), a positive or negative reinforcing stimulus was also included in the form of a happy or sad face, similar to the image to the left.  Psychologists call this “operant conditioning” and these signs are an effective application of feedback and reinforcement. This video of my mom driving into Vancouver is a great example of the application and a successful outcome!

Reflecting on my own experience with these signs, I realized that the sign positioned by our elementary school on the north side of town, has had the desired effect while the ones on the east and west sides of town, haven’t. Initially, when the eastern and western signs went up, I complied. Now I am less likely to slow down as much as I do for the sign at the school. That got me wondering why. No kids. Less hazard??

There is (thankfully) more scientific data than a video of my mom and my own reflections. If you are so inclined, I have provided some references below (Ebrahim, Z. & Nikraz, H., 2013 and Shinar, D., 2017) that show an overall positive effect in the reduction of speeding and accidents in areas that used digital signs instead of standard signs. There are many other studies (Chhokar, 1983; Goldhacker et al., 2014; Pritchard et al., 2012; Park et al., 2011) that report the positive effects of feedback on performance.

A Transportation Alberta guideline for the placement of these signs notes that “permanent installations may lead to a proliferation of Driver Feedback Signs which could lessen the visual impact of the signs when they are needed most” and recommends that the signs be used in one location for no more than 30 days. This explains my declining compliance with some of the signs. All the signs in my town appear to be permanent and the two not situated by a school zone are losing their impact on me. I am sure this article will make it top of mind again for awhile! I suspect that the combination of the sign at the school coupled with the fact that the police are often parked on a side street contributes to me slowing down there more often.

Long story short, these signs got me thinking about feedback and how important it is in the workplace and any system. In the most basic sense, when a system output is measured, the result (positive or negative) can be fed back into the system to make adjustments as required to improve performance.


The measurement and change aspects often become the weak spots in the system, as determining what to measure isn’t always easy and, as M.W. Shelley said in Frankenstein, “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

When we think about performance in the workplace, it is helpful to look at it from different perspectives. I use the four listed below (Kaufman, 2006; Addison, Haig & Kearney, 2009):

  1. World (or societal impact from organizational outputs);
  2. Workplace (the organization as a whole);
  3. Work (processes and practice level); and
  4. Worker (teams and individuals).

How we measure outputs and apply changes to the system, based on the feedback received, will obviously be different depending on the perspective, the type of output and the change(s) required.

The frequency of feedback provided will also change depending on the factors involved. In an automated system such as a thermostat connected to a furnace, the frequency is almost continuous while feedback on employee performance should definitely not be continuous.

When I started out in the military, we had an annual performance feedback session which I felt wasn’t enough. Over time that changed to quarterly, which I also felt wasn’t always enough. When I was the Chief Instructor of Acoustics, our students got feedback at least weekly and more often if they had exams or had committed some horrible sin like letting their hair get too long or putting two creases in the sleeve of their shirt! For a poor performer it could be relentless. My instructors had a feedback session on a monthly basis which seemed about right.

Chhokar (1983) notes that “more [feedback] may not always be better” and finds that “the existence of some optimum frequency of feedback (not necessarily, the most frequent)” would result in a desirable level of performance. So how do you find that sweet spot? Is it the same for every performer? Is all feedback effective feedback?

Brethower (2006) cautions that “data dumps are not feedback” and “Intelligent value-adding performance is possible only with adequate feedback; defective feedback yields defective performance, always” (pg. 126). There are lots of ideas on how often feedback is required. I can’t find a study that says “X is the optimum frequency” likely because there isn’t one.

Of course, organizations must establish a minimum to ensure that feedback is being provided. Much like trying to address every individuals learning style when designing training, creating an individualized feedback system for every employee would be impossible.

The key is (1) appropriate feedback can increase performance, (2) too much won’t have that same positive effect and (3) when you are the person providing the feedback, asking your employee how much is enough could help you find that sweet spot!


Addison, R., Haig, C., & Kearney, L. (2009). Performance architecture. The art and science of improving organizations. San Francisco, CA: Pfieffer

Brethower, D. M. (2006). Systemic issues. In Pershing, J.A. (Ed) Handbook of human performance technology: Principles practices potential. (pp. 111-137). San Francisco: Pfieffer.

Chhokar, J. S. “The Effect of Feedback Frequency on Performance in Applied Behavior Analysis: a Field Study.” (1983). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 3920. 

Ebrahim, Z. & Nikraz, H. (2013). Before and after studies to reduce the gap between road users and authorities. In Urban transport XIX, Volume 130 of WIT transactions on the built environment. WIT Press.

Goldhacker, M., Rosengarth, K., Plank, T., & Greenlee, M. W. (2014). The effect of feedback on performance and brain activation during perceptual learning. Vision Research, 99, 10, 99-110.

Kaufman, R. (2006). Change, Choices, and Consequences: A Guide to Mega Thinking and Planning. Amherst, MA. HRD Press Inc.

Park, J. H., Son, J. Y., Kim, S., & May, W. (2011). Effect of feedback from standardized patients on medical students’ performance and perceptions of the neurological examination. Medical Teacher, 33, 12, 1005-1010.

Pritchard, R. D. D., Weaver, S. J. J., & Ashwood, E. (2012). Evidence-Based Productivity Improvement: A Practical Guide to the Productivity Measurement and Enhancement System (ProMES). Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.

Shinar, D. (2017). Traffic safety and human behavior. Emerald Group Publishing


Why do we obey?

It’s Saturday night movie night and I was browsing Netflix for something stimulating popcorn-clipart-15(mentally). I stumbled across “Experimenter” a biography of Stanley Milgram. If you have done any psychology courses you probably already know of him.

If you haven’t heard of him or have ever wondered why German soldiers in WWII willingly participated in the concentration camps, why US Guards at Abu Ghraib abused prisoners or why people in your workplace will turn a blind eye to practices they know are wrong – this is a great introduction – in only 98 minutes!

There has been lots of controversy of his methods and Milgram’s work, along with a few notable others (Dr. Watson and Baby Albert, Stanford Prison Experiment by Dr Zimbardo) resulted in a much more ethical approach to experiments involving humans as time has progressed. I’ll let you decide if Milgram’s methods were unethical or not.

I would be curious to hear your thoughts on obedience in the workplace! Enjoy the movie!!


Expectations of the Workforce…

Expectations of the Workforce or “What do you really want me to do!?”

Have you ever started a new job or moved into a new position and thought “I don’t have a clue what I am supposed to be doing!?” How about the frazzled manager who gets the new hire and says “Here’s your desk… don’t worry – you’ll pick it up as you go.”

More than once in my career I have been transferred into a position where my “job Capture
description” consisted of a file folder full of printed e-mails, post-it notes and hand scratches on the back of a beer coaster. Frustrating when there are Human Resource (HR) policies and procedures that clearly outline requirements for job descriptions and performance reviews leading up to the annual performance assessment.

After becoming exposed to Performance Improvement and understanding the importance of the job description for setting expectations and the performance reviews as a feedback loop – in each successive position where I wasn’t provided a job description – I wrote my own – and presented it to my supervisor and asked “Is that what you want me to do?” It worked as a way to at least start a dialogue about expectations.

Feedback is the breakfast of champions.
~Ken Blanchard

In my most recent position where I had to manage others, I had one fella who had been bounced from job to job in the unit and didn’t seem to be getting a fair shake. When I took up the job, we sat down and reviewed my first attempt at his job description and made some tweaks, added some of his professional aspirations and away we went. We sat down twice in the year reviewing his progress, as well as at other intervals when more immediate feedback was needed. At the end of the year, I was able to base his performance assessment on all this and substantiate his higher than average rating amongst his peers. Easy when you use the system as it was designed.

A lot of people seemed to have “written off” this young man as needing too much care and supervision. I wondered – as we often do in our field – is it the performer or the work environment (which is the responsibility of management)?

Back in 2012, Guy Wallace (another one of my mentors and friends) and I wrote an article for eLearn Magazine that attempted to answer the question:

Where did the statement “80% of performance gaps are caused by other than Knowledge/skill deficits” come from?

To make a long story short, there was a consensus amongst the research and experts in the field that around 75-80 percent of the factors that influence performance are environmentally rather than individually based.

Now there are many (many many) environmental factors that can negatively impact performance. Some we can influence, some we can’t. In this case, simply setting clear expectations and providing regular feedback to show him how he was progressing created a real turn around.

One of the foundational models in Performance Improvement is Tom Gilbert’s Behaviour Engineering Model. Gilbert helps us see performance from both environmental and individual perspectives. A good topic to delve into next…


Mentors, Managers and Metrics

I recently learned that one of my mentors and good friend, Dr. Roger Chevalier, is going to become the latest Honourary Life Member of the International Society for Performance

roger and brett (2)
Roger and I at the 2012 ISPI Conference in Toronto

Improvement or ISPI. That has had me thinking about mentors, managers and metrics.

I met Roger through the Armed Forces Chapter of ISPI where he took me under his wing and I ended up following him into a leadership role in the Chapter. There is no better way of learning than by doing! Roger was a student of Ken Blanshard, Paul Hersey and Marshall Goldsmith – all leadership and management gurus in their own rights, so I feel very fortunate that we crossed paths and have remained in touch over the years.So that is the mentor in this story. My warmest congratulations to a tireless promoter of our craft!

The vast majority of books that I have read regarding performance improvement are very “text-booky” (my term) and/or aimed at consultants in the field. Roger has long believed that ISPI needs to focus more attention on managers – the folks on the front lines who have to make performance happen. This is a view I share! Roger published a book called A Manager’s Guide to Improving Workplace Performance in 2007 to help that management group understand how to apply performance improvement methods in their workplace. In 200 pages – he lays out a pretty straightforward prescription for helping work teams succeed. Now this is NOT an ad for Roger’s book, but I DO strongly recommend it for anyone in a managerial position. Don’t tell him – but I am hoping that his book sales will skyrocket and he will fly me out to Cali and take me for a ride in his ’64 Corvette convertible!

So where do metrics fit in? I recently did a project for a government organization [who shall remain nameless but you know who you are]. The aim of the project was to examine the training system and make recommendations on how it could be improved.

To give you some context, performance improvement is pretty straight forward. It kinda goes like this:

  • There is a problem (or someone thinks there is a problem)
  • You do some analysis… the organization, the environment it exists within etc to help understand the context
  • You ask the boss “If your problem was fixed, what would the world look like?” This is referred to as “The Desired Performance Statement.” Some folks call it the “To-Be” state
  • Then you ask “What is actually happening right now?” This is the “As-Is” state or the “Current Performance Statement”
  • Comparing the As-Is to the To-Be is called the “Gap Analysis”
  • Then you look for the reasons why you are stuck in the As-Is when you really want to get to To-Be. This is called “Cause Analysis”
  • Once you know the cause(s) [There is normally more than one] you can look at all the potential ways to reduce or remove those causes… the “interventions”
  • Then you select the intervention(s) that will give you the biggest bang for the buck, figure out how to best implement them and do it!
  • All throughout this process you should be evaluating what you have done so far and consider change management requirements

Click HERE to see ISPI’s Performance Improvement Model

Easy peasy right? What if there aren’t any metrics or the wrong things are being measured? Roger’s book has a great quote at the start of Chapter 6 “Defining the Performance Gap” that has always stuck with me (and been repeated in different forms by many people.)

“I can’t improve it if I can’t measure it”
~William Thompson, Lord Kelvin

So – back to that project I was doing. There are metrics, but they are all about the output of the training system ~ graduates. That’s a good metric but it doesn’t tell the whole story! There is nothing in place to measure the work going on within the system itself! For example… how long does it take to define the job, write the performance standards, design and develop the training? No idea. If they did the training this way or that way – what is the cost difference? What are the resource implications? There is some data, but not enough to see how the system is working. Now in fairness, they are developing those metrics and hopefully someday soon they will have that figured out.

Metrics then, are tied to organizational goals and the expectations of your workforce. If you are missing any of these three factors, chances are that your organization is underperforming.

That’s it! Stay tuned for next time… expectations of the workforce is in the batter’s box!