Feedback is the return of information about the result of a process, activity, or experience, usually relating to an individual's performance within a company. Feedback can be upward or downward in the organizational structure. Upward feedback is the process by which superiors or management are rated by employees or subordinates, while downward feedback is the flow of information from superiors or management to employees or subordinates.

In the past, feedback has been gathered from sources such as subordinates, peers, and internal or external customers. This is referred to as multi-source feedback when evaluations are collected from more than one source. In recent years, the majority of feedback has been collected for developmental purposes, but it seems that feedback is being used increasingly more in administrative decisions, including compensation and promotion. Such feedback is also being employed as a component of executive appraisals.

The impact of upward feedback is debatable, as is whether managers' responses to feedback are related to performance improvements over time. The major limitation of much research concerning feedback was that no one had examined whether managers' responses to such feedback were associated with performance improvement. It had been shown in the past that feedback alone was not the cause of behavior change; instead it was the goals that people set in response to feedback. A recent five-year study of upward feedback was conducted to answer some of these questions. The research covered more than 250 managers who received upward feedback annually over the five years. The results show that managers who were initially rated as being poor or moderate registered significant improvements in upward feedback ratings over the next five-year period. The results also show that managers who participated in discussions about their upward feedback improved more than managers who did not. It further showed that managers improved more in years when they discussed the previous year's feedback than in years when they did not. This study is important because it shows what managers do with upward feedback is related to its benefits.

In the past, it has been assumed that discrepancies between self-ratings and subordinate ratings raise self-awareness, highlight gaps between goals and job performance, and suggest areas of needed improvement. According to the self-consistency theory, when managers receive feedback showing that subordinates ratings are lower than self-ratings, the managers may question whether their behavior is consistent with their self-image. This should, in theory, motivate the managers to improve their performance and reduce discrepancies between how they look at themselves and how subordinates perceive them. However, if the feedback is consistent with self-ratings, managers may be satisfied and may not be motivated to improve their work ethic, even if their current performance level is low. Accordingly, the theory suggests that managers whose subordinate ratings exceed their self-rating have little incentive to improve their performance.

A recent study investigated whether performance improvement following upward feedback is related to self-other rating discrepancies. It also investigated how self-ratings change after feedback and whether agreement among raters influences performance improvement. The study determined that managers who overrated themselves compared to how others rated them tended to improve their performance from one year to the next, while the under raters tended to decline. These results are consistent with the self-consistency theory. Self-ratings tended to decrease for over raters and increase for under raters, but this was not constant throughout the range of self-ratings. Agreement with subordinate ratings was found to be negatively related to performance improvement.

An issue related to self-ratings of performance is the degree to which employees proactively seek feedback about their own performance from supervisors and/or coworkers. Some studies have linked employees' feedback seeking to increases in job performance. By asking more often how they are doing, employees tend to know how to perform better. Employees seek feedback in order to reduce their uncertainty, to manage impressions of themselves in the workplace, and to protect their own egos. They are more likely to seek feedback when they have a positive relationship with the manager from which they seek feedback, when they feel that their manager has expertise, and if they feel that their manager is supportive of them. Additionally, employees may be more likely to seek feedback in private, rather than when others are present.

Beyond its uses in performance appraisal, feedback may also be seen as a more general tool for communication within organizations. Many companies all over the world now use e-mail and toll-free numbers to solicit feedback from their employees. Many of these companies reward employees for their good ideas. In some instances, employees are paid for ideas that turn into new products and technologies, while other companies' reward with job opportunities. By implementing a suggestion system, there is a direct link between an employee's suggestion and the rewards that the employee receives for it. The majority of employee ideas focus on improving safety and operations within the company.

Kevin Nelson

Revised by Marcia Simmering


Ashford, S.J., and L.L. Cummings. "Feedback as an Individual Resource: Personal Strategies of Creating Information." Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 32 (1983): 370–398.

Gordon, Jack. "If We Might Make a Suggestion." Training, July 1999, 20–21.

Johnson, Jeff. "The Effects of Interrater and Self-Other Agreement on Performance Improvement Following Upward Feedback." Personnel Psychology, Summer 1999, 271–303.

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