Shopping for Confirmation: How Disconfirming Feedback Shapes Social Networks

by Paul Green, Jr., Francesca Gino, and Bradley Staats

Overview — Managers who use feedback processes often assume that employees will respond to them with dutiful efforts to improve. This study finds that negative feedback instead causes employees to reshape their networks in order to shore up their professional and personal identity. This reshaping lowers performance—a result at odds with the goal of performance feedback.

Author Abstract

Many organizations employ interpersonal feedback processes as a structured means of informing and motivating employee improvement. Ample evidence suggests that these feedback processes are largely ineffective, and despite a wealth of prescriptive literature, these processes often fail to lead to employee motivation or improvement. We propose that these feedback processes are often ineffective because they represent threats to recipients’ positive self-concept. Because the self-concept is socially sustained, recipients will flee these threats or otherwise reshape their network to attenuate the negative psychological effects of the threat. Analyzing four years of peer feedback and social network data from an agribusiness company in the western U.S., we find that employees, in the face of feedback that is more negative than their own self-assessment in a given domain (i.e., disconfirming feedback), reshape their network in ways designed to attenuate the threat brought about by the feedback, and that this behavior is detrimental to their performance. In a laboratory study, we replicate these findings conceptually, showing that disconfirming feedback has such effects on one’s relationships and performance because it is perceived as threatening to one’s self-concept.

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