The Informed Skeptic

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By: Dr. Jaime Henning

“Study finds that basically every single person hates performance reviews” was the title of a recent Washington Post blog covering an article on satisfaction with performance appraisals published in the Journal of Personnel Psychology (Culbertson, Henning, & Payne, 2013). Coverage of this article was first highlighted by an Association for Psychological Science blog (“The Perils of Performance Appraisals”) in January 2014. Since then, Dr. Jaime Henning and her co-authors [Dr. Tori Culbertson (Kansas State University), Dr. Stephanie Payne (Texas A&M University)] have been humored by the amount of media coverage this article has received (cited in the Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic, ABC News Radio, Globoforce, The Financial Post, The Malaysia Sun, and various other syndicated news outlets). They have also been shocked and dismayed by the way in which the article has been portrayed by the media.

The majority of individuals who have held a job have likely had their performance evaluated in some form. Employee reactions to and acceptance of performance appraisal may be key indicators of effectiveness of the appraisal system. Dr. Henning and her colleagues were interested in looking at how people respond to receiving positive and negative performance feedback and how these reactions may differ based on the type of goals individuals adopt in achievement situations. To examine their hypotheses, 234 staff employees of a large university were surveyed. The authors believe that the take-away message from their single study is that individual differences and employee perceptions matter and should be accounted for in the management of performance. If negative feedback has the potential to discourage even those employees who desire to and believe they can improve, managers must be careful that what is intended as constructive feedback does not get misconstrued as criticism. Furthermore, attempts to generate satisfaction by minimizing negative feedback and maximizing positive feedback may not work entirely as intended and more research is needed to examine what variables influence performance appraisal satisfaction beyond feedback.

It would appear to be common sense that most individuals are not particularly happy to receive negative feedback at work, however as we in psychology know, common sense does not equate to empirical evidence. Therefore, in the midst of their fame, the authors were perturbed to see that The Financial Post cited their article in a piece titled, “Why performance appraisals need to be scrapped.” Nowhere in the article is this suggested to be an implication of the research findings. Furthermore, one outlet stated the authors conducted an “experiment” and concluded that “many people just like to be coddled and constantly told how wonderful they are. Performance evaluations probably aren’t their thing.” As one might discern based on the study’s abstract, a survey method was used to gather the data, NOT an experiment. Finally, the most atrocious violation – the authors were quoted as saying their results “prove” negative feedback counteracts constructive criticism regardless of the characteristics of the individual receiving it. As any psychology student could tell you, we do not prove things with a survey methodology; we find support for our hypotheses.
The punch line of this story is to reinforce the fact that we need to be skeptical of what we read in the media, and the skills we gain through a psychology major help us to become informed skeptics. Here is a clear case of the media’s misinterpretation of a study. In fact, even small wording changes like using the word “experiment” have much bigger implications in science than what the media and general public may realize. But, as psychology majors you knew that all along!

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