Ah August, the time of year we don’t feel quite as guilty about taking a short respite from our usual caffeinated daily dash. Like many of you, I set aside some of that downtime to catch up on the stack of magazines piling up on my kitchen counter. Obviously, if I choose to recycle them before at least giving them a quick scan, I will miss something earth-shatteringly important! Something like the July issue of Wired where the cover story – The Mental Machine by Thomas Goetz – discusses how technology is rekindling the use of feedback loops to change behavior. I was quite intrigued to read further as my long buried dissertation research explored how this very theory could explain behavioral change following 360 degree feedback.
The author cites a great example of how feedback loops are being used to change behavior through now cheap and readily available technologies – radar sensors. Essentially, drivers speeding through school zones were shown those harmless ‘Your Speed’ signs which display nothing drivers don’t already know and result in no fines of any kind. Despite this, the data actually caused drivers to slow down an average of 14%. The author applies feedback loops and the underlying theory of behavioral self-regulation to explain how using a simple technology to present data resulted in a behavioral check and resulting change. As broken down into the four stages of the feedback loop, the driver’s behavioral change is explained as:
- Evidence – Data from the radar sensors provides the impetus for behavioral examination.
- Relevance - Providing context for the data makes it emotionally relevant (e.g. I want to avoid being considered a bad driver).
- Consequence – Linkage to a larger meaning (e.g. speeding hurts people).
- Action – Acting on the information stimulates behavioral change to close the loop (e.g. I better slow down a bit).
In my research of feedback loops as applied to 360 degree feedback, I found that leaders were indeed motivated to improve performance following feedback and that they focused their developmental efforts in areas where feedback indicated lower levels of leadership performance. When leaders received developmental feedback from multiple respondents, they wanted to “close the gap” between performance as it was and as it should be. As broken down into the four stages of the feedback loop, the leader’s behavioral change is explained as:
- Evidence – Performance feedback from multiple raters provides the impetus for behavioral examination.
- Relevance - Providing context for the data makes it emotionally relevant (e.g. I want to avoid being considered a poor strategist/communicator/people developer, etc.).
- Consequence – Linkage to a larger meaning (e.g. leadership skills will benefit my career as well as develop the skills/competencies of others).
- Action – Acting on the information stimulates behavioral change to close the loop (e.g. I better focus my development plans on these critical areas).
The Wired article makes the claim that the increasing availability of complex technologies provides this kind of personalized data at more scalable levels and with less “friction” (read: pain) than has historically been the case. 360 degree feedback systems are in fact a form of this new breed of technology as they enable the relatively painless collection of feedback from many sources to provide personalized data to an employee. Further, connecting 360 degree performance appraisal technology with goal setting software links the specific developmental feedback to action planning resources.
Employee Performance Management technology has come even further since I initially researched this topic. In terms of feedback loops, mobile apps provide the next frontier of technology to increase the ease and scalability of providing personalized data to feedback recipients. New mobile technology facilitates real-time micro-feedback (see one of my previous articles on micro-feedback), giving employees access to a steady stream of performance data and allowing them to tweak their development plans much more proactively. Although we don’t often take the time to explore the motivation behind performance improvements, it is helpful to take a step back every once in awhile to examine how our new technologies can truly benefit the talent we are committed to developing.