Driven by Social Comparisons: How Feedback about Coworkers’ Effort Influences Individual Productivity
Executive Summary — Francesca Gino and Bradley R. Staats explore how the valence (positive versus negative), type (direct versus indirect), and timing (one-shot versus persistent) of performance feedback affects an employee's job productivity. Specifically, through field experiments at a Japanese bank, they investigate the extent to which job performance is affected when employees learn where they stand relative to their coworkers. Key concepts include:
- Telling an employee that her job performance falls in the bottom of her group will lead that employee to better her performance. But telling her that she is at the top of the group will not significantly affect performance.
- An indirect approach yields different results. An employee who simply learns that he doesn't fall in the bottom of his group is likely to worsen his productivity, while an employee who simply learns that he isn't in the top of his group is not likely to change his work habits at all.
- Persistence is effective. Employees who receive persistent feedback from employers are likely to perform better at work than those who don't, and that goes for both positive and negative feedback.
Drawing on theoretical insights from research on social comparison processes, this article explores how managers can use performance feedback to sustain employees' motivation and performance in organizations. Using a field experiment at a Japanese bank, we investigate the effects of valence (positive versus negative), type (direct versus indirect), and timing of feedback (one-shot versus persistent) on employee productivity. Our results show that direct negative feedback (e.g., an employee learns her performance falls in the bottom of her group) leads to improvements in employees' performance, while direct positive feedback does not significantly impact performance. Furthermore, indirect negative feedback (i.e., the employee learns she is not in the bottom of her group) worsens productivity while indirect positive feedback (i.e., the employee learns she is not in the top of her group) does not affect it. Finally, both persistently positive and persistently negative feedback lead to improvements in employees' performance. Together, our findings offer insight into the role of performance feedback in motivating productivity in repetitive tasks.