Peer feedback in the workplace: How to do it effectively to enhance performance

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

“Feedback is one of the most powerful influence on learning and achievement but this impact can be either positive or negative” (Hattie & Timperley, 2007, p.81).

We probably all realise that feedback is important. Although Hattie and Timperley focus on feedback in the classroom, it’s safe to assume that this is no different for learning in the workplace or anywhere else. Harms & Roebuck (2010) argue that in the workplace, feedback as a tool to enhance performance is perceived as “one of the most crucial organisational levers”; (p.413). But how do we “do feedback” in an effective way?

Currently, 360-degree feedback is a well-known tool in the workplace. However, it doesn’t always do what it’s supposed to; that is support learning and enhance performance. Although originally 360-degree feedback was intended to support learning (i.e., it was meant to be formative), most organisations don’t use it for that purpose. It’s usually part of the performance management (PM) process (i.e., to evaluate someone in a summative way), which (1) defeats its original purpose and (2) has all kinds of challenges. For example, Nowach and Mashihi (2012) list the type and amount of raters that need to be included in order to provide accurate and meaningful feedback, choice of response scales, impact of (cultural) values, norms and beliefs, to just name a few.

To put it bluntly, if organisations want to truly support learning and enhance performance, 360-degree feedback as it currently stands is not the right way. One reason is that 360-degree feedback is usually given once or twice a year in a scheduled way for a formal performance review / evaluation. In order to give an employee the opportunity to enhance their performance, you need to have a process in place that ensures an opportunity for that employee to receive regular, relevant, timely, and actionable feedback meant to improve and not to judge. How else would they know what to keep, what to change, and why to do either?

A feedback process alone is not enough. Feedback needs to be done “right” to have an impact on someone’s behaviour; to help someone learn and/or improve. But what does “right” mean? We don’t intend to give the one and only answer because what’s right depends on many complex things, such as the learning culture in an organisation[1]. However, Hattie and Timperley’s feedback model below gives us evidence-informed (thanks to Paul for this alternative to evidence-based) directions on how to give effective peer feedback in the workplace and is therefore a good starting point for exploring.

hattie

Note that it’s easy to replace Student by Feedback Receiver (2 in the model) for a workplace context but it doesn’t make any sense to replace the Teacher with the Feedback Giver. There are two main feedback givers in the workplace: managers and peers. Although managers should support goal-setting and learning in a way that’s similar to what a teacher should do, there is a big difference. That is, managers don’t only want to help the individual to improve, but also have a stake in improving the team, department, company, and so forth. Sometimes what’s good or needed for the team is not what is optimal for each individual person! Peers, also, usually don’t support each other in setting performance objectives and in a competitive working environment, helping someone else could mean that (s)he gets a raise or promotion above you. However, they can definitely play a role in each other’s learning and performance enhancement, for example by ensuring that their feedback is effective.

One thing that clearly stands out, looking at number 1 in the model is that feedback needs to be directed towards a goal. This requires that you, as a feedback giver, are aware of this. It means that if you intend to give your peer feedback without him/her having requested it, you need to consider why that feedback is important for your peer and how to give it such that it’s accepted by / acceptable to her/him. It doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘unaware’ unsolicited feedback can’t cause serendipitous learning, it just means that we don’t know how to do that effectively.

Another thing that’s critical here is that the feedback needs to relate to critical dimensions of the goal; the dimensions that ensure success. So, if your peer’s goal is to improve being convincing in his/her communication, you might want to hold off giving him/her feedback on the ‘ugly’ colours used in the presentation. Be mindful of what your peer needs and try to move away from your own preferences and opinions, although these can be oh so tempting to express (believe us, we know!).

The three questions (3 in the model) don’t work in isolation of each other. In the end, effective feedback is about closing the gap between where your peer is and where (s)he is aiming to go. So, again, if your peer’s goal is to be more convincing when conveying a message, you as the feedback giver need to be aware of that goal (Where is my peer going?), your feedback needs to focus on how your peer was doing in a certain context or within a certain situation (e.g., a presentation on project outcomes or a sales pitch), and you need to give an idea on what your peer can do to improve. The two latter points are where the focus of the feedback comes in (4).

At a task level, you could let a peer know that certain information in their message wasn’t correct and why (in any event for that situation). This type of feedback can be powerful, especially as a pedestal on which processing and self-regulation feedback can be built. It’s important for your peer to understand why something is incorrect and what (s)he needs to do to get it right. These are examples of corrective feedback. Guasch, Espasa, and Kirschner (2013) discuss another very effective type of feedback called epistemic and suggestive feedback. This type of feedback includes suggestions and questions. At a task level you could ask your peer “Why did you do it that way?” or “What other information could you have given the audience?”

If you want to give a peer feedback on the process, corrective feedback could be something like “You need to focus on the big picture first before you dive into the level of detail otherwise people won’t understand the overall message.” Epistemic feedback could be “Why do you think so and so in the audience didn’t understand your message?”

When you want to zoom in on the self-regulation level (SRL), which is more about the ability to continue to work towards the goal, you can help your peer self-evaluate, for example by emphasising that (s)he is already very good in explaining the details but that (s)he also needs to frame the bigger picture for the audience. This type of feedback is quite complex as there are many factors at play. For example, for a feedback receiver to effectively use this type of feedback, (s)he needs to be able to self-assess, be willing to invest effort into seeking and dealing with feedback, and have a level of proficiency to seek help. In other words, the feedback receiver needs self-regulated learning (SRL) skills in order to self-assess and know what to do to get better. SRL skills are about the ability to monitor and steer one’s own learning processes (Brand-Gruwel et al., 2013). However, “…research on learning, memory, and metacognitive processes has provided evidence that people often have a faulty mental model of how they learn and remember, making them prone to both misassessing and mismanaging their own learning” (Bjork et al., 2013). There’s a lot of research on how to improve SRL skills. This (important!) topic goes afar of the goal of this blog so let’s save it for another day. To put it extremely ‘simply’, you need a certain level of domain knowledge to be able to self-regulate in the first place. Then, if you have enough domain knowledge, epistemic and suggestive feedback (asking the right questions) and reflection can play a role in improving SRL skills (Kester, 2016).

Lastly, feedback can also be related to ‘self’ as in ‘You have a very pleasant voice’, or ‘You came across quite nervous” but this type of feedback is too often unrelated to performance and has a risk to only express personal preference. Again, very tempting to express your opinion but not always helpful for your peer.

Does it sound easy? It’s not. Giving effective feedback is a skill and requires both knowledge and practice. It would be super if teams in the workplace would be able to integrate feedback in their day-to-day workflow, using a model as illustrated above. It would give them the opportunity to make more conscious choices on what feedback they want to give their peers and why. Even better if there would be opportunities for reflection, conversations between the feedback giver and the feedback receiver to untangle ‘their’ feedback process. Feedback on the feedback and so on. We can dream, can’t we?

[1] Joo and Park (2009) use the following definition for organisational learning culture: “an organisation skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behaviour to reflect new knowledge and insights.”

References

Bjork, R.A., Dunlosky, j., & Kornell, N., (2013). Self-Regulated Learning: Beliefs, Techniques, and Illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, p. 417-444

Brand-Gruwel, S., Kester, L., & Kirschner, P.A., (2013). Learning Ability Development in Flexible Learning Environments. Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, p. 363 – 373. Retrieved on 25 May 2016 on http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4614-3185-5_29#page-1

Guash, T., Espasa, A., & Kirschner, P.A., (2013). E-feedback focused on students’ discussion to guide collaborative writing in online learning environments. Retrieved on 22 May 2016 on https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257221591_E-feedback_focused_on_students%27_discussion_to_guide_collaborative_writing_in_online_learning_environments

Harms, P.L., & Roebuck, D.B., (2010). Teaching the Art and Craft of Giving and Receiving Feedback. Business Communication Quarterly, 73, p. 413-431

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H., (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of educational research March 2007, 77, p. 81-112

Joo, B.K., & Park, S., (2009). Career satisfaction, organizational commitment, and turnover intention. The effects of goal orientation, organizational learning culture, and developmental feedback. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 31, p. 482-500

Kester, L., (2016). Interview retrieved on 25 May 2016 on https://www.kennisnet.nl/artikel/leren-op-maat-ontstaat-vanzelf-als-leerlingen-zelf-mogen-kiezen/

Nowack, K.M., & Mashihi, S., (2012). Evidence-Based Answers to 15 Questions about Leveraging 360-Degree Feedback. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 64, p. 157-182

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