Comparisons drive behavior. Making the right comparisons can set you up for success. Making the wrong comparisons can drive you towards failure. People judge their progress by measuring results against expectations, so feedback on progress towards objectives is essential to guide, adjust, and reinforce proper performance.
As Ann Bares once pointed out with comments on how a German ranking program creates improvement and as Derek Irvine is constantly emphasizing, feedback is an immensely powerful reinforcement mechanism. Sometimes it is accompanied with a cash delivery. At other times, the message is communicated by noncash methods. Programs that celebrate group success send a strong message about achievement expectations. Individual approaches can supply feedback customized to the specific performer. Of course, compensation itself can be a form of feedback, too, because all rewards don't jingle. The best feedback focuses the attention of actors on specific output results and can activate intrinsic competitive motivations. Some of my favorite anecdotes about performance management deal with comparative feedback:
Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie painted yesterday’s production totals on the floor of a struggling steel mill, departing through the crowd of watching workers without a word. Each day, Carnegie silently painted the new tonnage figures. Each day, the numbers rose. Mill workers drew their own inferences from absolute facts and the comparisons they made influenced their later actions. Without speaking a word, Carnegie supplied comparative feedback that activated in his workers a desire to do better.
Analogies about feedback fill the world of total reward management. Bowling in front of a curtain, shooting arrows at a target hidden behind a brick wall, running a race (check the marvelous article on running in the dark by Dan Walters), etc., are all typical simple examples. Without relevant timely useful information about the adequacy of actions taken, it is impossible to adjust your behaviors to improve performance output results. Everyone can easily visualize scenarios that illustrate and emphasize the critical nature of clear and prompt feedback.
With all that background, you would think that no human resources professional would ever overlook or minimize the vital importance of supplying solidly effective comparative feedback to enable and enhance positive performance. So... how do we do as a profession? Do we really stack up well as providers of good comparative information for total rewards applications?
E. James (Jim) Brennan is Senior Associate of ERI Economic Research Institute, the premier publisher of interactive pay and living-cost surveys. After over 40 years in HR corporate and consulting roles throughout the U.S. and Canada, he’s pretty much been there done that (articles, books, speeches, seminars, radio/TV, advisory posts, in-trial expert witness stuff, etc.), serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review and will express his opinion on almost anything.
Creative Commons image "comparison" by jimshooz7