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Feedback can damage decision making on complex tasks

Managers should avoid giving positive or negative feedback during difficult and demanding work, study finds

15 August 2012

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

Giving feedback during complex decision-making tasks can damage performance, an academic study has found.

It found that people who received either positive or negative feedback about their performance during complex decision-making tasks made worse decisions.

Explained study author Dr Magda Osman, a psychology expert at Queen Mary, University of London: “The kind of task people had to perform was difficult and demanding. So, when people received positive or negative feedback, it overloaded them with too much information and distracted them from making a good decision.

“We found that people’s performance got worse when they had to make sense of the feedback they were given while also performing the main task.

“The role of feedback is overemphasised. People typically think that any form of feedback should improve performance in many tasks, and the more frequently it is given the better performance will be.

“However what needs to be considered is how complex the task is in the first place, because this will determine how much feedback will actually interfere with rather than facilitate performance.”

Osman warns that people in management positions need to be aware of the type of feedback they are providing to staff.

“We have shown that feedback really doesn’t help people who are making complex decisions. People in management positions need to give their staff more time to analyse and evaluate things in detail when dealing with difficult situations so they can come up with solutions without any distractions in order to get the best out of them.

“Feedback alone is not enough to ensure success in decision making.”

The study involved about 100 people, who were given the task of choosing how best to either predict or control the state of health of a baby. It revealed that feedback can play a negative role in a particularly complex decision-making scenario.

Osman said her findings can be applied in a variety of other complex situations. “People are already being bombarded with high levels of complex information with the influx of new technology into our lives and the increasing reliance on information from the smorgasbord of apps we have at our fingertips. It is bound to take its toll on our ability to make good choices in difficult decision-making situations.”

The full findings of the study are published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

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