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The pace of feedback is critical to whether it will be received, a new study indicates. If it's too quick, it will be rejected or confuse performers, and not be as effective.

This goes against the conventional wisdom that people learn from feedback, and frequent feedback makes sense.

The study, by Pablo Casas-Arce, assistant professor of accounting at the W.P. Carey School of Business in Arizona, and colleagues at the Universidade de Lisboa in Portugal and the University of Notre Dame, involved designing an incentive plan for Multiasistencia, a European company that co-ordinates work between insurance companies' customers who need repairs and the professionals who make the repairs. The plan, reported on the Arizona university's website, covered the company's network of independent contractors and was intended to improve customer satisfaction and reduce the percentage of dissatisfied customers who said they would not refer it to others.

The researchers randomly assigned the contractors to one of four groups who received different forms of feedback: Weekly, aggregate feedback; weekly, detailed feedback; monthly, aggregate feedback; and monthly, detailed feedback.

The company had tracked customer satisfaction ratings for four months, establishing a baseline. The new monthly bonus plan paid out according to those ratings after the plan was put into effect.

In some ways, it was a test of the different views we have been offered by economists and psychologists on incentives and feedback. Economists assume people act rationally, which means they respond best when they have more information. Psychologists focus on a different aspect of our thinking: Biases, such as a tendency to put more weight on recent or salient information than on the full range of data.

Contractors in all four groups improved. But the highest improvement was from people receiving detailed information once a month, surprising the researchers, who had believed more frequent feedback would prevail. Their share of detractors dropped to 8.4 per cent from 14.2 per cent before the feedback and incentive plans started. The share of detractors for the other groups dropped less dramatically, to between 10.5 and 11.2 per cent from between 13 and 14.5 per cent before the plans started. So score one for psychologists over economists.

"People pay a lot of attention to the last piece of information they receive, and they neglect previous evidence they may have received," Prof. Casas-Arce says. "When you give these professionals detailed information monthly, they have a lot of information they can process, and they're able to improve performance. If you're giving them very frequent information, they're basing their decisions on little information, because they're only paying attention to what happened last week."

He feels the study has lessons for workers receiving feedback, accountants designing incentive plans and organizations more generally:

  • For workers: Keep in mind you have biases in the way you process information. Try to mitigate your bias toward recent or salient information by stepping back, looking at all the information you receive and then deciding.
  • For accountants: Pay attention to how you present information, notably the frequency since recipients might overreact to a small piece of information that may be irrelevant in the long run.
  • For organizations: Be cautious about how you handle today’s massive flows of information. Computers can spin out lots of data but recipients have limited ability to process it. If you can build in a chance to review a broader amount of data, the bigger picture may emerge.

Another recent study offered further illumination on the psychological responses to feedback, notably how recipients react to others who provide feedback that threatens their positive view of themselves. The short answer: Not well. Paul Green, Jr., a PhD candidate at Harvard Business, along with Francesca Gino, a professor at that university, and Bradley Staats at the University of North Carolina, looked at four years of peer feedback and social network data from an agribusiness company in the United States.

They note in a Harvard University Working Paper that employees who received feedback more negative than their own self-assessment in a given domain reshaped their network in ways designed to attenuate the threat brought about by the feedback, and that behaviour was detrimental to their performance. This backs up social psychology research on self-protection: Employees look to peer feedback for confirmation of their self-concept, not disconfirming information.

The lesson from the two studies: Feedback is tricky. Not a new lesson, of course, but the studies show areas to which you should be alert.

Try a burner list for your to-dos

Designer Jake Knapp suggests reimagining your to-do list as a stove, counter top and kitchen sink, but on a single sheet of paper rather than in your kitchen.

Divide the blank sheet into two long columns. On the left will go your front burner, on the right the back burner.

Put your most important project on the front burner. That's project, singular – only one. Underline it for emphasis. Then list the associated tasks you can tackle in the next few days to move it forward.

Below that will be a blank space. Consider it your counter space. It's reserved for expanding more tasks for the project as they come up. "But no new projects!" he stresses on Medium.

Put your second-most-important project on the back burner, top of the right-hand column, again underlining it. Below that is your kitchen sink space, where you can mark down any miscellaneous tasks that you need to do but don't fit with those top two projects. "It doesn't matter if they're part of project three or four, they just get chucked into the kitchen sink with everything else. Yes, this goes counter to all organizational and productivity advice – but by constraining the space and attention you give to other stuff, you'll help yourself spend your time well," he says.

Now, he says, get cooking.

Leadership wisdom of David Carradine and Kung Fu

Consultant Jim Kerr draws these 10 lessons from the 1970s television show Kung Fu, starring David Carradine:

  • The simplest things are the most difficult to see. So keep it simple.
  • Great acts are made up of small deeds. Offer a purposeful leadership style.
  • Persistence under difficulties will win advantage. “Perseverance is a leader’s ace in the hole,” he writes on his consultancy’s web site.
  • He who has no trust will not be trusted. Building trust is a leader’s responsibility.
  • The wise man avoids extremes and excesses. “Everything in moderation, including risk-taking!” he writes.
  • He who will lead must follow behind. This fits the model of a servant leader.
  • The wise man is guided by what he feels and not what he sees. Trust your gut.
  • The more one gives to others the more he has. His interpretation: Responsible leaders account for the social impact of their decisions.
  • The foolish student laughs at knowledge. “We see the importance of that thought every day, don’t we?” he says.
  • He who walls his house sees no one. An open-door policy promotes communication, transparency and trust.

Quick hits

  • Are you using social media or being used by it? Productivity writer Cal Newport says “the social media industrial complex” depends on you spending more time than you plan to immersed in the apps. He figures you can probably get 95 per cent of the value you currently gain by only signing in twice a week to catch up on the latest photo or chatter.
  • The critical step most people miss in delegation, according to consultant David Dye: Mutually schedule a time to receive the task.
  • If you have low self-esteem, you may be more likely to be a workaholic, according to recent research.
  • A new study by the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute shows that the main reason employees leave their job is not irritation with their immediate manager – that accounted for just 14 per cent of situations. Forty per cent of employees chalked it up to not liking the job; 39 per cent to personal reasons such as spouse relocation, child care or health issues; 20 per cent to being unhappy with the organization; and 18 per cent to the uncertainty of organizational change.
  • If you filter an Excel spreadsheet you can save that result to another part of the document before returning to the unfiltered state, Excel expert Allen Wyatt explains. Select the area you want to filter; click the advanced tool on the data tab of the ribbon’s Filter section; set your filtering options; select the copy to another location button and a destination before clicking OK.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter.

Gordon Moore’s idea was that the power of the microprocessor would double every two years

Special to Globe and Mail Update