What is Feedback Intervention?

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“Feedback intervention is defined ‘as actions taken by (an) external agent(s) to provide information regarding some aspect(s) of one’s task performance.'”

—Kluger & DeNisi (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory.

The work of Kluger and DeNisi shifted the world of feedback research.

Until this paper (and even today), many believed feedback always had a positive result. There are many reasons for this, including that much of the past feedback research assumed feedback givers (usually seen as senior leaders) always both delivered great feedback and delivered it well.

Unfortunately, as I wrote about in Feedback ContrarianLand, some people today prefer to avoid or take advantage of this complexity, highlight research showing that feedback doesn’t always work, and then spin it all to make absurd blanket statements like “feedback doesn’t work.”

The truth, as is often the case, involves complexity.

In a thorough analysis, the feedback intervention paper found that while feedback improved performance on average, it actually decreased performance in about one-third of cases.

Before shouting, “Feedback fails 33% of the time!” it’s important to note the complexity here.

First, the researchers do not put forth a definition of feedback.

Based on ours—”Feedback is a response to a person’s activity with the purpose of helping them adjust to become more effective. Feedback comes in various forms, including evaluative (how you did and where you are), appreciative (how you are valued and recognized), and coaching (how you can improve)—I think it’s fair to say that the 33% number would reduce dramatically, especially because positive feedback would be taken into account.

Second, there are various qualifiers regarding what comprises a feedback intervention. As the authors write below, a “feedback intervention” would not include, for example, someone reaching out for feedback and then receiving it. As this is a relatively common occurrence, and as the incentive to seek feedback is typically to improve, it’s fair to say this would also reduce our 33%.

“However, our definition excludes several areas of investigation: (a) natural feedback processes, such as homeostasis, intrinsic feedback, or the negative-feedback-loop of a control system (Carver & Scheier, 1981), that operate without an external intervention; (b) task-generated feedback (e.g., a gardener seeing that he or she flooded the plant) that is obtained without an intervention; (c) personal feedback (e.g., “he doesn’t like you”) that does not relate to task performance; and (d) self initiated, feedback-seeking behavior (e.g., Ashford & Cummings, 1983).”

Why is feedback intervention important?

Feedback intervention, and indeed the proposed feedback intervention theory, is important first because it calls out our assumptions about feedback and set the stage for decades of research exploring the complex nature of feedback.

Thousands of research papers later, we now know with relative certainty that feedback:

  1. Is generally vital and effective for growth
  2. Is complex and highly variable (and therefore demands practicing and training)

In 2018, researchers Carless & Boud captured it all in a single sentence:

“The most powerful single influence on achievement is feedback but impacts are highly variable, which indicates the complexity of maximising benefits from feedback.”

And in 2021, researchers Lipnevich and Panadero put it this way as it relates to students:

“The positive effect of feedback on students’ performance and learning is no longer disputed.”

How can you use feedback intervention?

Kluger & DeNisi’s work highlighted the complexity of feedback and mapped out how individuals respond once they are told their current performance is not meeting the desired level.

They can:

  1. Work harder
  2. Create a lower standard
  3. Reject the feedback
  4. Refuse to meet the desired level.

The research highlights that these decisions often come down to these important points:

  1. The feedback receiver’s commitment toward the goal
  2. The goal clarity
  3. How within reach the goal seems

As a feedback giver, for example, you could leverage the insights from feedback intervention to inform how you provided feedback. For example, before even providing feedback, you could make 100% sure that the receiver understands the desired performance level and, even better, why this is the case, why it matters to your customers, etc.

To improve the effectiveness of the feedback, work to ensure that the receiver feels this goal is within reach and that you believe in them.

Note: As you may recall, this aligns with “wise feedback,” where the giver highlights their high standards and their belief in the recipient to reach them.

What’s next for feedback intervention?

In many ways, the complexity called out by the original paper on feedback intervention continues to shape existing feedback research. At this point, many researchers are working to do the following:

  1. Improve our understanding of these complexities. For example, under what circumstances is negative feedback most likely effective? And do the giver and receiver agree on the degree of effectiveness?
  2. Apply the theory to a range of scenarios. For example, this paper applies Feedback Intervention Theory to student speaking improvement.


See also:

  1. Constructive Feedback Guide
  2. Feedback Fallow
  3. What is Feedback Orientation?