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How to Give Feedback That Works

Every manager (and parent) knows that constructive feedback is key to improving performance. But what makes the feedback most effective? It turns out timing is almost everything.

A study by Todd Thornock, an accounting professor at the University of Texas' McCombs School of Business, found that giving people feedback after a "short delay"-- shortly after they completed a task--actually improved performance more than offering up the same feedback immediately. Wait too long, though, and the feedback again becomes useless.

To test the impact of timing, Thornock asked study participants to find their way through a series of electronic mazes. In the maze, rooms fan out like roots of a tree and there is only one correct path through them. In the rooms, and along the pathways, were key objects that signified whether or not a student was on the right track. (These were called cue patterns.) The students could earn 50 cents for each maze they completed within the allotted time. They were given 12 minutes in the first period, during which they would get coaching to help them find their way, and 24 minutes in the second period, during which they were on their own. Thornock says he was trying to replicate a situation in which an employee gets a 'training period' but then has to do a job independently.

To measure the effect of short term feedback, the students were told as soon as they entered a room if they were on the right or wrong path. In the intermediate scenario, they got this same information one room later. To measure long-term feedback, they were told if they were on the right or wrong path after three rooms. The results:

  • Immediate feedback prevents people from learning from their mistakes. This comment was typical of students who found out right away if they were on the right track: "I wanted to find cue patterns in the first round, but the ease at which I was able to get to the finish by randomly clicking was too attractive to waste much time." And once a student realized they were on the wrong path, they could conceivably have continued down it to learn what all the 'wrong' cues looked like. Only 7% of people did this. Those who got feedback right away were least likely to keep exploring on their own.
  • Wait before offering advice. Waiting a short time before offering advice seemed to give the individual a chance to learn on their own, and then to incorporate the advice.
  • Wait too long after the task is completed, and the feedback seems to fall on deaf ears. Students who got the guidance in the third room also performed poorly. They seemed to find the information more confusing than helpful.
  • Feedback given at the 'wrong' moment is pretty much pointless. Those who got help immediately and those who got it after a long delay were more likely to say they did not get enough information to complete the maze.
When do you typically give people feedback--or when have you received feedback? What time works best for you?

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Photo courtesy flickr user Robbert van der Steeg
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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