Conceptual Analysis: Performance Feedback In Light Of Employee Self-esteem

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Abstract

Job performance feedback is one of the central concepts of Human Resource Management theory. Management theory propounds that performance feedback provided in a rational manner leads to positive change in employee performance. This lifts employee morale leading to increased productivity and efficiency of employees and organisation as whole. However most of management literature gives scant consideration to the psychological profile of receiver of the feedback. On the other hand, there has been ample research in the field of social psychology which proposes that a feedback is sought, received and acted upon in a manner which is dependent on an employee’s self-esteem.

This paper is a conceptual analysis of past research which deal with employee performance feedback seen in light of their self-esteem. At the outset, this paper looks at established management theories and best practices in the area of job performance feedback along with prevalent ideas on self-esteem theory along with its implications in workplace. Later this paper looks at social psychology theories related to feedback and subsequently analyses studies which looks at performance feedback from an employee’s self-esteem point of view. Finally, a few measures are discussed, those which can address the gap left by prevalent management theories and considers the self- esteem level of the feedback receiver (and giver) for maximum efficacy.

Key Words: Performance Feedback, Employee Feedback Efficacy, Workplace Self-Esteem, Employee Psychology, Human Resource Psychology

Introduction

Feedback is conceptually defined as an information provided by an agent (reviewer, teacher, peer, friends etc) regarding aspect of one’s performance of a task. Human resource management theory viewsperformance feedback as one of the most critical aspect in a work place. A feedback is given with an intention to improve individual performance which is subsequently linked to the potential of an employee and to the organisation at large. Feedback is a critical tool for shaping desired behaviours and fostering an environment of learning leading to greater organisational effectiveness. However, there is a divergence of views especially among social psychologists on the efficacy of a feedback given to employees in a workplace. Research has proven that there is no unanimous outcome to an employee performance feedback. (Avraham Kluger and Angelo Di Nisi, 1986).

Feedback literature in management studies assumes receiver as rather inert having a monolithic psychographic profile displaying consistent response in behaviour irrespective of their psychological state. However, employees are more than mere passive recipients of feedback;human beings have different psychological profiles, their self-esteem and self-identity varies which leads to positive and negative feedback being interpreted in an inconsistent manner.

This paper aims to view performance feedback from a psychographic point of view. Initially it discusses traditional thinking on performance feedback from a management literature point of view, then prevalent concepts on self-esteem especially with respect to its importance at the modern workplace are analysed. Subsequently this paper discusses social psychology theories related to feedback and analyses research undertaken mostly by social psychologists which views at performance feedback from an employee’s self-esteem point of view, i. e. how a feedback is sought, interpreted and acted differently based on one’s self-esteem of the receiver.

Traditional management perspective on performance feedback

Performance management is defined as a systematic process for improving organizational effectiveness by improving job performance of individuals and teams. According to traditional management theory, performance feedback provides information which helps to reinforce or change existing behaviour among employees. Ideally a feedback needs to beframed as a means to reach a specific business goal and focussed on a person’s behaviour rather than her intent. (Cynthia M Phoel, 2009). Feedback should be actionable, clear, timely and open minded i. e. more of a dialogue than monologue. Management theory advises us to avoid giving feedback on the trait characteristics of the individualand be limited to specific behaviourswhich are expected of the individual in a particular role. Starting a feedback with a positive frame and then slowly moving to the more critical aspects is also one of the best practices followed by managers all over the world.

However, as already mentioned, feedback theories in management hardly give due consideration to the psychological state of the recipient. In most management literature there is a general acceptance of the fact that negative feedback is not liked and should be given in a professional manner but scarce attention is given to the aspect of how a positive (or negative) feedback is sought, received and acted upon by people having different self-esteems. In this paper the focus is on themore interesting studies on feedback conducted in the field of social psychology from here on.

Feedback related theories in the field of social psychology

Feedback related literature in social psychology does not perfectly align withtheories propounded in management literature. It has been shown in multiple studies that receiver of the feedback selectively attendsto feedback information which preserves their self-concept. Multiple researchers in this field have come to a conclusion that positive feedback increases people’s confidence which motivates them to pursue their aims with vigour leading to successful goal attainment. In contrast negative feedback undermines people’s confidence in their ability to pursue goals and probability of their goal attainment lowers as a consequence. In this section we take a look at the theories developed in the field of social psychology which is either directly related to feedback or has feedback as one of the central tenets of the theory

Feedback Intervention Theory (Edward Thorndike, 1898)

The “laws of effect”principle developed by EdwardThorndike, proposed a rather simplistic concept which stated that positive feedback intervention led to a reinforcement behaviour while negative feedback produces a discomforting effect akin to punishment and become less likely to occur again. The essential idea is that behaviour can be modified by its consequences.

Uncertainty Reduction Theory (Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese, 1975)

Uncertainty reduction theory predicts that people have an aversion to uncertainty and will gather and seek information to reduce uncertainty feelings. Uncertainty reduction has been identified as the leading motive behind the study of feedback seeking in organizations and as the direct precursor of desire for feedback.

Learned Helplessness Theory(Martin Seligman, 1976)

According to the theory of learned helplessness, when faced with unfavourable circumstances, individuals with a positive outlook will be less likely to display lower motivational behaviour (i. e. , lower their effort, withdraw from task oriented behaviours), whereas those with a pessimistic outlook will display symptoms of helplessness. In not so favourable situations, pessimistic minded people start to feel that they have no control over their situation, they begin to feel and act in a helpless manner. This inaction can lead them to overlook opportunities for relief or change.

Goal Setting Theory (Locke and Latham, 1990)

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People with more difficult but achievable goals perform better than those who have goals which are relatively less difficult. According to this theory, for attainment of maximum employee motivation, their performance related goals should have the following characteristics: clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback and complexity of a task at hand. On the feedback aspect, this theory propounded that goals should be broken down into small chunks and there should be an effective and timely feedback linked to these parts to keep oneself motivated towards the larger journey. This theory also stressed upon giving timely feedback.

Social Cognitive Theory of Self-Regulation (Albert Bandura, 1991)

This theory believesthat parts of an individual’s knowledge acquisition can be directly acquired by observing others within the context of social interactions or daily life experiences. People do not learn new behaviours only by trying them and learning from its consequent action, but rather most of our behaviour is dependent upon the replication of other’s actions. Depending on whether other people are rewarded or punished for adopting a particularbehaviour, the observer chooses to replicate or avoid that particular behaviour accordingly.

An analysis of self- esteem and its associated concepts

Self-esteem is psychology’s one of the most central concepts, yet there is high polarisation among experts on its definition and implications in modern society. Whereas some researchers believe that high self-esteem is essential to human functioning, others believe it is of limited value and may even be a liability. (Bauemister, Campbell, Kruger, 2003) Self-esteem is definedas a personality trait that captures what people feel about themselves. As noted(Greenwald, Belezza and Banaji, 1988), self-esteem is the central element underneath a positive self-concept. Self-concept refers to the totality of inferences that a person has about her own self.

People’s overall feeling of affection towards themselves is better known as global self-esteem. Global self-esteem is relatively constant across people’s lives post adolescence and is a trait aspect; Self-esteem is also referred to the way people evaluate their abilities. A person who doubts her abilities to perform well at college or workplace is said to have a low self-esteem. We also call this kind of self-esteem as self-confidence. Self-esteem is also referred to as emotional states that arise momentarilyfrom a positive or negative outcome of a task at job. For example, a person’s self-esteem can hit very low after repeated failures in an examination or in job interviews. In modern age, self-esteem has rooted itself deeply in popular culture and is seen by many as the key to happiness, success and fulfilment.

Self-Verification

Self-verification concept suggests that people are motivated to maintain consistency between their self-views and new self-relevant information. According to it, people work to confirm their self-conceptions because of a wish for control and stability in their social environment. Self-verifying information is comforting because it convinces and reassures people that they know themselves and their environment. More specifically, self-verification behaviour predicts that the higher the level of certainty of self-perception, the more that individual will work at maintaining that self-perception. (Swann and Pelham, 2002). Self-verification predicts that people desire feedback to confirm perceptions that are held with high certainty, and thus will have a high desire for feedback when uncertainty is low.

Seeking self esteem at workplace

A. K. Korman’s (1970, 1971) ‘consistency’ theory of work motivation proposed that job performance was correlated with workplace satisfaction for employees high in self-esteem, but not for those who score low in self-esteem. His research established that organizational situations play an important role in employee self-esteem which subsequently shapes their attitudes and behaviours at the work place. Individuals value feedback as an important resource throughout their organisational tenure. For many individuals, job forms a central life interest. These individuals identify psychologically with their work, and their jobs form a significant part of their total self-image. Those with high self-esteem perform their work effectively in order to maintain their positive self-image.

However modern workplace presents some formidable hazards which pose a threat to employee self-esteem. Changing job expectations due to advent of technology, increasing job insecurity, rapid globalisation leading to shifting of jobs is leading to a situation where employees are likely to suffer a significant dent to their self-esteem. Ironically they come to workplace to build and enhance self-esteem and this is the same place where their self-esteem is at its most vulnerable. This situation leads employees to become less receptive to feedback as they are forced to stay in a more defensive mind-set.

Studies related to relation of performance feedback vis-à-vis self-esteem of receiver

In this section, we have collated a list of important research which deals with employee behaviour prior to, during and after receiving of the feedback. As will be evidently clear, there is a difference in employee affect cognition and behaviour vis-à-vis performance feedback based on self-esteem level of the employee.

Behaviour prior to receiving of feedback /feedback seeking behaviour

  1. Ashford and Cummings (1983): When considering seeking feedback, employees constantly balance their desire for feedback against the costs associated with seeking feedback (hearing negative feedback about oneself, exposing one’s uncertainty to colleagues). When desire for feedback exceeds cost perceptions, people proceed to action and actually seek feedback.
  2. Pelham (1991): People’s self-views are more likely to predict the type of feedback they seek from others; people seek feedback from those who are more likely to confirm to their self-views.
  3. Janssen andPrins(2007): Employees perceive the possibility of a negative feedback as a threat and therefore that feedback is conceived as judgmental. (And not as a tool to signal the gap between current and desired level of performance).
  4. Frederik Anseel and Filip Lievens (2009): Found a negative relationship between direct feedback seeking and uncertainty, moderated by certainty orientation. Employees are more motivated by self-verification vis-à-vis a need for uncertainty reduction, depending on their certainty orientation.
  5. Jason J Dahling and Brian G Whitaker (2016), Feedback seeking behaviour can also be undertaken with an underlying aim of impression management leading to enhanced employee reputation. In this study, the researchers establish that employees who hold an image enhancement motive are more likely than others to seek feedback from superiors.

Affect/cognition of receiver during receiving of feedback

  1. Hewit and Goldman, (1974): People classified as high defensive self-esteem (i. e a combination of high self-reportedself-esteem and high need for approval) appear to find negative feedback painful, they do not like others who gave them negative feedback.
  2. Baumeister, Heatherton, Tice (1993): Employees with self-reported high self-esteem are highly sensitive to negative feedback.
  3. Baumgardener (1990): Self certainty causes people to resist challenging feedback and behave in a more self-consistent and stable way.
  4. Brown (1993), Brown and Marshall (2001)Employees with high self-esteem report less emotion distress when they encounter negative feedback than those with low self-esteem.
  5. Holland, Merteens and Van Vugt (2002, Experiment 2): An ego threatening feedback led low self-esteem participants to feel uncomfortable and uneasy, but did not greatly affect the emotions of high self-esteem participants.
  6. Jonathan D Brown (2010)High self-esteem participants are less distressed by negative feedback than low self-esteem participants.

Behaviour change of receiver after receiving of feedback

  1. Kuiper and Derry (1982) – Subsequent to a feedback employees remember positive self-relevant attributes better than negative ones.
  2. Baumeister(1982) After receiving unflattering feedback people with high self-esteem seek to inflate their public images by rating themselves all the more favorably on further dimensions.
  3. Avraham Kluger and Angelo De Nisi (1986) – In a meta- analysis of around 26, 000 observations, they found that feedback intervention improved performance on average but that over 1/3rd of feedback intervention decreased performance. The research suggested that feedback intervention decreases as attention moves closer to the self and away from the task.
  4. Brockner (1988) People who have low self-esteem tend to either lower their standards or completely withdraw from the task subsequent to a negative feedback.
  5. Mcafarlin and Blascovic (2007)Those with high or low chronic levels of self-esteem expected anfuture performance in a manner consistent with their chronic levels of self-esteem rather than what was provided as a feedback on current performance.

Strategies for providing effective feedback taking self-esteem into consideration

We do not have sufficient research which deals with best practices in the area ofperformance feedback after considering employee psychological characteristics like self-esteem. First and foremost, organisations need to accept that employees are not passive recipients who will behavein a consistent manner on receiving a feedback. Feedback provider should make a mental note of those employees who fall on a scale of high self-esteem and those who fall on low self-esteem. There are standardised tests to measure self-esteem but conducting them on employees for performance feedback is not advisable as it is likely to be construed as intrusive. Crucially the feedback provider also needs to be self-aware of her own self-esteem in order to provide an efficient feedback.

Feedback provider in a workplace can take cues from psychologists who regularly deal with people with varying degrees of self-esteems. For employees who are on the lower side of self-esteem, feedback provider should a) build an atmosphere of trust and empathy before moving to actual feedback content, building of trust is painstaking process, it can even take years before an employee with low-self-esteem opens up b) reinforce the positives in the employees more often c) avoid blame as far as possible d) adopt a participative approach e) provide continuous encouragement and f) praise even small achievements because that makes a big difference to the receiver’s motivation. On the other end of spectrum excessively high self-esteem is likely to lead to ego-centric behaviour, narcissistic tendencies, creates an air of superiority and smugness in employees.

These traits are unsuitable for developing an atmosphere of collaboration which is crucial for a modern workplace. Feedback to excessively high self-esteem employees needs to be tied to specific and measurable goals, feedback provider needs to consider skip level discussion with subordinates of such (i. e. excessively high self-esteem) employees to ensure their subordinates are treated fairly. Feedback giver needs to be extra careful in evaluating and rating the achievements of such employees as they are likely to be exaggerated. Goal setting with extremely high self-esteem employees need to be done with caution as such employees tend to go overboard and set excessively high expectations for themselves and their team.

Conclusion

This paper has made an attempt to highlight a gap in existing management literature on performance feedback which considers feedback receiver as passive recipients. This paper also talks about learnings from research undertaken in an adjacent field of social psychology which can well be incorporated into existing management theory on feedback to make it more robust and holistic.

In conclusion the paper will also like to point out that certain best practices on feedback followed at workplaces all over the world across a better part of the last century still remains gold standard and has general applicability across all receiver segments. An environment of trust, listening with patience and empathy are the qualities in a feedback provider which are needed to deal with employees across the board, whether they have excessively high or low self-esteem.

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