The emergence of a negative feedback bias as a product of supervisor and subordinate dynamics: consequences of opportunity-based supervision and performance variation

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Virginia Tech


Because the act of supervisory feedback can critically affect a subordinate's performance, it is imperative to explicate the various conditions in which the character of feedback is determined. The purpose of the following research was to model the conditions under which supervisors adopt a negative feedback bias (NFB). This bias was first described by Kahneman and Tversky (1973), when they noted that Israeli flight instructors found that praise of exceptionally good piloting was often followed by poorer performance, while criticism of exceptional poor flying was usually followed by improved performance. Thus, the flight instructors came to believe that negative feedback motivated people effectively, while positive feedback appeared ineffective. Of course, supervisors had erred by failing to recognize the natural variation of their students' performance. In general, this error applies primarily to the conditions under which supervisors acquire and interpret information. Two factors were hypothesized as responsible for the emergence of a NFB: (a) limitations caused by opportunity-based supervision, where only a certain amount of subordinate behavior can be sampled at any given moment, and (b) supervisors find it difficult to recognize the natural variation, random fluctuations, and regression to mean processes characteristic of performance governed by common causes (cf. Deming, 1982; Hogarth, 1980 and Kahneman & Tversky, 1973). Results indicated that NFB was an emergent process occurring over time and under conditions where (a) supervisors managed highly inconsistent subordinate performance and (b) supervisors had limited information regarding a subordinate's performance per evaluation episode. Since this experimental approach and set-up is relatively novel, the results are discussed from several conceptual perspectives. Finally, a discussion regarding the ecological approach to feedback research, and the importance of model building and testing is offered.