No Feedback, No Motivation
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


No Feedback, No Motivation by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Magazine April 2001

Someone shared the above phrase with me when I was speaking at an IIE conference a few years ago. Sine that time, I have found myself passing it along to others because of the powerful and logical message it conveys. How can we be expected to improve, especially in the manner that is expected of us, if we do not receive enough of the right kind of feedback about our current performance? What types of feedback does your boss give you? What types of feedback do you give the people you are responsible for leading, either at work or away from work?

Think about the actions we need to take if we want service to improve. I like to use the analogy of being served in a restaurant to help illustrate this point. We often expect the service that we receive to improve even though the only feedback we provide to the waiter or waitress is the amount of the tip that we leave. We expect the relative value of the tip versus the 15 percent norm to serve as our key indicator of customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction. While a less than average tip might indicate dissatisfaction, it does not provide much usable feedback to the service provider.

Rarely do we tell our servers what our expectations will be. We don't tell them that the value of their tip will be based on the speed of their service, the number of times they refill the water glass, and the friendliness they display during the course of the meal. Instead, we leave the table without giving specific feedback against these performance expectations, leaving the server to decide why the tip was less than desired and what actions should be taken next time to increase the potential for a better tip.

How often do we repeat this behavior in our organizations? How often do we fail to define expectations up front and provide specific feedback as to how well those expectations are being satisfied? We often expect performance to improve as the result of a memo posted on the bulletin board or a three minute tirade at a staff meeting. If that does not work, we may sentence our poor performers to a day of lecture - excuse me, training - to somehow ignite their desire to improve in the future. The message here is simple – no feedback, no motivation.

Imagine trying to get better at putting if you could not see the path of the ball as it approaches, and then goes into (or by) the cup. How long would you remain motivated to improve? Now, add a coach who seems to focus primarily on your weaknesses, giving you feedback only in a manner that Mr. Spacely could appreciate. Would you continue to improve? How motivated would you be to even try to improve?

Negative feedback, especially when it is delivered in an emotional manner, is not useful because it never reaches the part of the brain where learning truly occurs. Instead of sending the information to the neo cortex, the limbic system diverts the unpleasant stimulus to the ‘fight or flight' portion of our brain so that we can go into survival mode. The learning portion of our brain shuts down to give us as much mental capacity as possible for protecting ourselves.

That's enough of a biology lesson. In general, as leaders we often fail to define expectations clearly, we give limited feedback relative to people's performance against those expectations, and when we do give feedback, it is more often than not of a negative nature that serves little purpose (other than to demotivate people). In spite of these shortcomings, we still expect people to improve and be motivated to help us achieve our (and hopefully their) performance goals. Like the waiter who never seems to get better at keeping the water glass full, our staff just doesn't seem to get it. Maybe we, as leaders and coaches, are the ones who just don't get it.

The solutions to this motivation problem seem obvious enough: define performance expectations up front, provide positive and frequent feedback specific to those expectations, and avoid using emotionally charged, negative feedback. If the solutions are so obvious, why aren't people more motivated to apply them? The excuses are often as apparent as the solutions – we don't have time, we have our own Mr. Spacelys who won't let up on us, and out staff wouldn't listen to us anyway. Sounds like a vicious cycle doesn't it? That is why this four word quote is so powerful – it defines a systems constraint and it indicates that a personal choice is required. Motivation will not occur without feedback, and if we give out the wrong kind of feedback, we are likely to motivate people in the wrong direction. On the other hand, there is promise in learning to give effective feedback; it will help us to motivate people in the proper manner.

The hardest part about learning to give better feedback is looking more closely at ourselves. We give people feedback whenever we are around them – whether we say anything to them or not. Our e-mails, telephone calls, bulletin board postings, a passing glance, and not saying something when something should have been said, in addition to our spoken words, are all forms of feedback that we give to our people. We give a lot of people feedback every day, but are we giving them the right feedback in the right manner to really motivate them to do what we want, and need, for them to consistently do? Are you motivated to improve?

Would You Like to Learn More?

Great Systems! can help you design and improve your key work systems in three ways – system assessment, one day system design workshops, and ongoing system evaluation and improvement coaching. If you are interested in learning more about these services, please send Kevin McManus an e-mail at or give him a call at 206.226.8913. Keep improving!

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