Everything You’ll Read About Feedback in This Story Is Wrong

Rehashing old research and telling lies might sell some books, but these losing strategies don’t help HR partners or the people we serve at all.

By Steve Hunt, Ph.D.

It frustrates me when things are presented as truths when they’re really opinions (at best) or self-serving fabrications (at worst). That’s the reaction I had after reading Washington Post interview with the author of a Harvard Business Review article about his upcoming about performance feedback. 

My goal isn’t to attack this author. It’s to point out things he’s doing that I believe are both wrong and inappropriate—specifically two behaviors typical of people who try to generate buzz by using misleading pseudo-scientific claims.

Here are the two quickest ways to draw the wrong kind of feedback.

Step #1: Make Stuff Up

Want to drum up some publicity? Start by making bold statements that run counter to prevailing thoughts. Never mind that many common beliefs are common because they’re true. The author demonstrates this technique by leading with the following statement:

“We think the thing we should be doing is continuously giving each other feedback. But there’s no research at all that says that leads to greater performance.”

This claim is flat-out false. There are hundreds of studies looking at the impact of feedback on performance, and the overwhelming consensus is that feedback improves performance if it’s delivered the right way, in the right conditions. That’s an important distinction, as feedback delivered the wrong way can demonstrably hurt performance.

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Here’s a small sample of findings from this massive body of peer-reviewed, non-commercially oriented, empirical research:

  • “[Based on analysis of 21 studies representing 7,707 employees] nearly all the effect sizes for direct report, peer, and supervisor feedback were positive.” (Smither, London, & Reilly, 2005)
  • “A meta-analysis (607 effect sizes; 23,663 observations) suggests that feedback interventions improved performance on average.” (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996)
  • “Combining feedback and goal setting is superior in affecting performance to providing goal setting alone.” (Neubert, 1998)

The author then attacks the belief that high performers often share common traits. He uses this to claim that feedback doesn’t work, since supposedly there are no common elements associated with effective performance.

“But you actually look at excellent sales people, excellent nurses, excellent doctors, excellent leaders, and the first thing that strikes you is they all look and behave differently.”

This claim reflects something called “restriction of range.” If you compare a sample of excellent performers against each other, you may observe that they don’t all act identically. But if you compare a sample of excellent performers with a sample of average performers, you’ll see several things excellent performers have in common that clearly make them different from average performers.

For example, a study of anesthesia teams found that high-performing nurses share common mental models not found in lower performing teams (Burtscher et al, 2011).

The author’s claim that excellent people “all look and behave differently” is like saying elite NBA basketball players all look and behave differently. That may be true when they’re compared to each other, but they obviously share a lot in common compared to, say, average high-schoolers.

Next to younger, less polished players, most NBA athletes are highly similar in the sense that they’re much taller and faster, and have far greater mastery of basic skills like dribbling, shooting, and rebounding.

Step #2: Discover Stuff We Already Know

Another common marketing ploy is repackaging well-established scientific findings as though they were new research discoveries. The author does this when he starts talking about what companies should do instead of give feedback.

“There’s only three sources of input that are valuable to a team member: facts, steps, reaction.”

The author goes on to explain that to increase performance, you should observe someone’s performance, provide them with facts that will help them be successful, tell them if there are specific steps they should start or stop doing, and let them know how their actions might affect or be perceived by others. This sounds like another psychological process often covered in Psychology 101 textbooks.

It’s called “providing performance feedback,” and the author is just restating several well-established rules for providing effective feedback. Feedback should be specific, describe observable behaviors, and be delivered in a non-judgmental fashion.

I don’t have a problem with people restating the importance of applying well-established psychological principles, such as the use of behavioral-based feedback. What I do object to is making unfounded criticisms about the value of feedback to generate publicity—and claiming to have discovered something new about feedback that’s already extensively documented in existing studies.

This is damaging to our field as HR professionals, misleading to the business customers we serve, and disrespectful to the researchers who have come before us.

Steve Hunt, Ph.D., is the chief expert of technology and work at SAP Success Factors. He has more than 25 years of experience designing systems for a variety of human capital management applications including performance management, staffing, employee and leadership development, culture change, workforce analytics, and succession planning.


Burtscher, M. J., Kolbe, M., Wacker, J., & Manser, T. (2011). Interactions of team mental models and monitoring behaviors predict team performance in simulated anesthesia inductions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17(3), 257-269.

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254-284.

Neubert, M. J. (1998). The value of feedback and goal setting over goal setting alone and potential moderators of this effect: A meta-analysis. Human Performance, 11(4), 321-335.

Smither, J. W., London, M., & Reilly, R. R. (2005). Does performance improve following multisource feedback? A theoretical model, meta-analysis, and review of empirical findings. Personnel Psychology, 58(1), 33-66.