Diversity in Practice

The power of positive feedback

Arin N. Reeves


April 2013

Talent leads to performance. Simple,right? It would be, except we now know that talent is not as highly correlated with performance as the environmental feedback that you get about your performance.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized this new wave of research in his book "Outliers" when he explored why most of the top Canadian hockey players were born in January or February. In Canada, the Jan. 1 cutoff for age-class hockey (starts at age 6) creates a physical maturity disparity between the oldest and youngest children in each age-class. The children who turned 6 in January or February of a particular year are almost a year older than the children who turn 6 in November or December.

These older kids are bigger, more coordinated and have longer attention spans, so they get more playing time and more concentrated attention from their coaches. They also get positive feedback about their performance in comparison to the younger kids on their teams. Given the positive feedback via the more concentrated coaching and appreciative attention, a Canadian player's birthday is a greater predictor of who will eventually be successful than any measure of talent in a player's younger years. In fact, more than 70 percent of elite hockey players are born in the first half of the year with only 10 percent being born between October and December.

This phenomenon also occurred in Belgium with soccer players. Given the Belgian cutoff of Aug. 1, the majority of elite Belgian soccer players had birthdays in August and September. When the cutoff was moved to Jan. 1 for completely unrelated reasons, the Belgian soccer stars suddenly had more birthdays in January and February than in August and September.

The primacy of feedback over talent in predicting performance is easy to track in the sports arena, but does this research have applicability in knowledge-based environments such as legal workplaces?

In 2012, a team of researchers from several universities released groundbreaking research demonstrating that our "cognitive abilities and decision-making skills can be dramatically hindered in social settings where we feel that we are being ranked or assigned a status level, such as classrooms and work environments."

We gain IQ points as we get positive feedback about how smart we are in comparison to a specified peer group and we lose IQ points as we get negative feedback. Our IQs, long thought to be stable predictors of our intellectual performance, vary dramatically based on the feedback that we get about how our IQ stacks up against others.

The subjects in this study were given a baseline IQ test and they overperformed or underperformed their baseline based on whether they were told they were ranked higher or lower than others taking the test with them. Moreover, the "reward centers" were most active in the brains of the people who were ranked high while the "fear centers" were most active in the brains of the people who were ranked low. Not only does environmental feedback alter your performance, it actually changes the part of your brain that you use to fuel your performance.

At a recent associates training for a major law firm, I divided the associates into several groups of 10 and gave them a challenging brainteaser to solve. While the associates were working on the puzzle, I walked around and gave half the groups positive feedback and told them that they were on the right track while I said nothing to the other groups. Not only did each group hear my feedback (or lack thereof) directed at them, but they saw that I was not telling everyone that they were on the right track. When the groups reported on their successes (or lack thereof) at the end of the exercise, almost all of the groups who got positive feedback had solved the puzzle while less than half of the groups that didn't get any feedback had solved the puzzle.

I often use the metaphor of seeds and soil to explore how talent actually transforms into performance. If seeds are the talent (the workforce) and the soil is the environment (the workplace), the growth of the plants depends as much on the strength of the seeds as it does on the quality of the soil. Regardless of how strong the seeds are prior to being planted, the seeds that are planted in soil rich with nutrients (feedback) with access to the sun (appreciative attention) and adequate water (close relationships) will grow. The quality of the soil (the environment and feedback) trumps the strength of the seeds (potential and talent).

Think of someone in your workplace who is not thriving. Chances are high that this individual's innate talent (their strength as a seed) is seen as the root cause of their failure to thrive while the soil (the environment and feedback they have received) has been left unexamined. Similarly, someone who is thriving is equally being credited for their talent while the environmental feedback they have received has been left unexamined.

Of course, not all seeds are meant to thrive in all soils, but inclusion is the process of ensuring that the soil of your workplace has all of the nutrients necessary to grow any and all of the seeds that have potential to succeed. We may hire talent, but we grow performance.