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The Best "Performance Management" Tool: Feedback on Results

Which is a better way to improve worker performance: a) training on how to perform, b) recognition by supervisors, or c) feedback on the results of performing? Research on this topic should be of interest to managers.

In last month's article, performance was defined as what people do while working. Although managers do not observe performance, they are clearly interested in having high- performing workers. Three tools that managers typically employ to improve performance are training, incentive plans and feedback. A 30-year old study1 provides insight into the relative effectiveness of each of these methods.

The study, conducted by psychology researchers, looked at a wholesale bakery where one plant had a poor safety record among its workers in the wrapping and make-up departments. Specifically, the injury frequency was well above industry average. The study sought to find out what impact a behavioral program (intervention) would have on worker safety performance.

The intervention had three components: training, feedback on results, and recognition by supervisors. The training component was a 30-minute visual presentation illustrating proper techniques for various job functions (e.g., how to climb over a conveyor belt properly). In addition, these techniques were posted throughout the work area.

Employees were given regular feedback on their safety behaviors, the second intervention component. Specifically, trained observers used a coding scheme to periodically (about four times a week) observe worker activity and record unsafe behaviors, posting the percentage of safe behaviors for the department. The third intervention component was that supervisors would see workers performing safe behaviors and verbally recognize the behavior.

The study took 25 weeks, going through three phases: a baseline, the intervention, and a reversal. The results:

The findings from the study clearly showed that worker safety behaviors improved during the intervention period as the percentage of incidents performed safely increased from an average of about 70% to over 96%. As the figure illustrates, the impact was immediate.

Of particular interest is the reversal phase, which is where the feedback (as posted in the plant) was discontinued. Workers still had the training information posted and available, observers were still present, but the results were simply not communicated to workers any more. As shown in the figure, results went back to baseline levels. Workers who had already been trained began performing more unsafe behaviors, just as they had before the intervention.

Regarding the recognition component of the intervention, researchers found that supervisors did this infrequently, either forgetting to do so or simply not bothering; this led the researches to conclude, with the recognition component of the intervention being a weak influence, that "the primary change agent was...feedback."

Importantly, the feedback mechanism used was simple and "not costly." In using the feedback postings, there were no contests or rewards for the winning departments (the study looked at two departments in the plant), but because the feedback was made public, "an informal competition arose," leading workers to modify their performance. As a postscript, the president made it permanent policy to provide the feedback, and the plant went from one with the poorest safety record to the highest.

The investigators noted that "there were indications that employees were already aware of the proper safety rules so feedback alone may be effective in improving performance." While training certainly has a place when know-how is lacking, this study argues that telling people how to perform (training) is not as effective as providing them frequent feedback on the results of their work. Managers are accountable for results; workers are responsible for performance. Creating feedback systems allows workers to take that responsibility; it is time well spent by managers.

1Komaki, J., Barwick, K., & Lawrence, R. (1978). A behavioral approach to occupational safety: Pinpointing and reinforcing safe performance in a food manufacturing plant. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63, 434-445.

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