Feedback on performance provides valuable information that individuals can use to redirect effort in pursuit of important goals and improved performance (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Fishbach, Eyal, & Finkelstein, 2010; Ilgen & Davis, 2000). Historically, organizational scholars on feedback in the workplace have studied the feedback phenomenon primarily from the perspective and goal of improving future performance, whether that includes the outcome of performance or the way in which the task was performed (process feedback). There is an overwhelming consensus in this literature that the promise of critical feedback for performance improvement is tempered in practice by the threat it poses to the receiving individual’s desired self-image, and the ego-defensive reactions it can trigger (Carver, Antoni, & Scheier, 1985; Ilgen & Davis, 2000; Swann & Read, 1981). As a result, those at the receiving end tend to either resist the feedback (Ashford & Cummings, 1983), or try to dismiss it or attack the credibility of the source (Ilgen et al., 1979).
This line of research also suggests that people, in general, prefer self-confirmatory feedback. Any input from the environment that threatens this preferred image of the self can trigger defensive reactions ranging from resisting the feedback, to dismissing it and/or attacking the credibility of the source. Recent research suggests that an individual’s social context plays a significant role in maintaining and validating one’s self-concept. Hence one tendency upon receiving critical, disconfirming feedback is to reshape the social network to move away from the critical feedback givers and instead move closer to those providing more self-affirming feedback. This creates a sort of an “echo chamber” where the individual is now surrounding herself with those who have similar view points and thinking but are unlikely to share conflicting perspectives. The paradox is that such coping actions might feel comforting in the short term. However, in the long run such actions might not only limit personal growth and performance, but also constrain the quality of decision making. Thus, the potential of critical feedback thus appears to be much more challenging to realize in practice than theory would suggest (Ilgen & Davis, 2000).
Feedback researchers have studied personality characteristics of feedback receivers, such as self-esteem, locus of control, and goal orientation to explain some of the variation in how individuals experience, interpret or respond to feedback. For example, research suggests that an individual’s locus of control influences their response to feedback (see Baron, Cowan, & Ganz, 1974 in Ilgen et al., 1979). Individuals with an internal locus of control, defined as those “holding beliefs that events that happen to them tend to be due to their own behavior,” (Ilgen et al., 1979, p. 358)are likely to be more tuned to drawing feedback from the task they are performing, and to accept feedback (even critical). This is in contrast to the ‘externals’ who are likely to be “more motivated by feedback from powerful others” (p. 358) and rely less on self-generated data and interpretation.
“Individuals with an internal locus of control… are likely to be more tuned to drawing feedback from the task they are performing…”
The feedback recipient’s self-esteem is another personality characteristic that differentiates the ways in which feedback is interpreted and deployed to improve performance. While critical feedback is overall more challenging to receive than positive feedback, those individuals high in self-esteem will interpret personal failure, or poor performance more graciously and mark themselves down less after such an event (Ashford & Cummings, 1983; Ilgen et al., 1979). Such individuals are also more likely to be open to and be less defensive in hearing critical feedback. This line of research further suggests that individuals high in self-esteem will rely less on job environment and more on self-perceptions to guide task related behaviors.
Ilgen & Davis (2000) draw on more recent psychological and motivation studies to demonstrate that the goal orientation of the feedback recipient, that is, the individual’s internal logic or rationale for why the task is being performed, also influences whether critical feedback is received in a way that advances future performance or not. This body of research, originally by Dweck and associates (Dweck, 1986; Elliott & Dweck, 1988), suggests that in a performance situation individuals can orient themselves either towards performance, or towards lear127uning. When the emphasis is on performance, the individual’s primary concern is with “demonstrating high ability and appearing competent” (Ilgen & Davis, 2000, p. 556). In contrast, with a learning orientation, “the emphasis is on improvement, developing skills, and mastering the task”.
Research connecting these findings to feedback highlights that critical feedback on inadequate performance by an individual is interpreted very differently depending on the feedback receiver’s goal orientation, particularly in case of those with lower self-efficacy (Dweck, 1986; Ilgen & Davis, 2000). A performance orientation highlights competence, and tends to position critical feedback as particularly threatening for those individuals with lower self-efficacy. However, when the emphasis is on learning and improvement the chances are lower that the feedback recipient’s self-concept will be threatened upon receiving the critical feedback. In addition, critical feedback is more likely to have a desired, positive impact if individuals are functioning from a learning goal orientation in contrast to performance goal. Performance actually worsens upon receiving critical feedback for individuals with lower self-efficacy who are oriented towards optimizing performance (Ilgen & Davis, 2000).
“…Critical feedback is more likely to have a desired, positive impact if individuals are functioning from a learning goal orientation in contrast to performance goal.”
Responsibility-taking emerges as the final psychological characteristic that plays a role in how individuals learn from critical feedback. Ilgen & Davis (2000) note a generative tension between the feedback receiver acknowledging and assuming responsibility for the poor performance on which critical feedback is being offered, while not letting this responsibility-taking lower one’s self-efficacy. In order to productively use the critical feedback for performance improvement, individuals need to believe in their personal capacity to improve performance; this can involve attributing poor performance to factors (internal or external) over which they have some control.
Feedback literature thus offers high self-efficacy, internal locus of control, a “learning” goal orientation and responsibility-taking, in contrast to lower self-efficacy more external locus of control, a performance goal orientation, and a tendency not to take responsibility for the situation as the significant psychological antecedents for receiving critical feedback with less defensiveness which in turn can lead to better individual performance.