Performance feedback is a well accepted part of organisational life. It is strongly advocated in popular management literature, and has been the subject of considerable research. Organisations have widely promoted feedback through management practice and formal appraisal systems. However, managers, employees and researchers have long recognised that performance feedback does not always result in better performance. Sometimes it has no effect. Other times it results in diminished performance, de-motivation, damaged relationships and even violence. Such outcomes are damaging to people and to the organisations in which they work.
To explain variability in the outcomes of feedback, organisational psychologists have studied the role of feedback characteristics such as specificity, content, valence and appraisal system attributes as possible antecedents and moderators of feedback efficacy. However, the complex models developed to integrate these attributes have failed to adequately explain the different ways that people respond to feedback.
Despite the large body of research showing the limitations of the ‘performance management paradigm’, it has rarely been challenged. The assumptions underpinning it have often been accepted prima facie; the research has remained distant from practice and the experience of feedback recipients; and the approach has mainly been to reduce feedback experience into discrete parts or attributes and explore the relationship between them. However, performance feedback is a value laden social phenomenon, embedded in the experience of people. This means there is a significant advantage in being able to situate feedback in its experiential context in order to understand why people respond in the ways they do.
The present study explores performance feedback through an interpretivist research paradigm, attempting to bracket out existing theories and observe feedback within its experiential context in a more holistic way than has been the case with most previous feedback research. This study attempts to characterise different ways that people understand and experience feedback at work, drawing on phenomenography, a methodology developed to explore and represent phenomena through people’s lived experience. The study is based on interviews with staff in a law firm, an accounting firm and an engineering firm, about their experiences of feedback and in particular, helpful feedback.
The study found that the interviewees understood feedback in one of three, qualitatively different ways: as information to improve competence (‘informationists’); as motivation to sustain or improve performance (‘motivationists’); or as an expression of appreciation for effort (‘appreciationists’). These different understandings encompassed different ways of seeing the main function of feedback; different meanings attributed to positive and negative feedback; and different perceptions of the most helpful kinds of feedback.
The findings of this thesis suggest that an “understanding-based” theory of feedback could potentially contribute to the literature in three ways: to help bring together disparate theories of feedback; to help account for variations in the significance of different ‘attributes’ of feedback; and finally, to better account for the different ways that recipients respond to feedback.
The thesis concludes with recommendations for research and practice and proposes that in the future, feedback could be conceptualised differently to help overcome inherent problems in the ways it is currently understood.