Feedback Systems

By Brian Stumme

"Improper guidance and feedback are the single largest contributors
to incompetence in the world of work, and a principal culprit at school".
-- (Gilbert, 1978, p. 91)

What is a feedback system?
In its most basic form, feedback is information. A feedback system, in the context of performance technology, is a means of communication whereby the performer, whether it is an individual or a group, receives information that guides their future actions, in order to achieve a desired outcome. Feedback systems can be used as part of an intervention in organizations to increase awareness and improve performance.

The nature of feedback
Feedback may have either of two purposes: to influence the quality or quantity of performance. Feedback that affects quality of performance is called formative feedback, while feedback that affects quantity of performance is called summative feedback. In addition, feedback can encourage or discourage behavior depending on what form it takes; positive feedback reinforces behavior while negative feedback extinguishes it. In general, negative feedback can result in an unpredictable substitution or change of behavior (Tosti, 1986), and should be used with caution or avoided altogether. As a rule, develop performance with formative feedback, and encourage repeat performance with summative feedback.

Guidelines for effective feedback
According to Tosti (1986) there are three general principles for effective feedback. They are fit, focus and timing. The following table offers basic guidelines to consider for creating effective feedback:

Example of a feedback systems intervention
The following example illustrates how feedback can be used as an effective tool in improving performance in a real-world situation, where safety is a challenge.

Behavioral Safety Programs (BSP) apply behavioral science fundamentals to enhance workplace safety through increased communication, employee involvement and behavior modification; in other words, feedback. Companies that are interested in continuous improvement in both quality and safety are increasingly implementing this safety management tool.

The BSP approach is employee driven. In fact, employees become the observers who provide feedback to their coworkers to increase their awareness of their actions and to increase the frequency of safe acts. Figure 1 is an example of how it works.

Step One: An employee using a checklist observes an employee or group of employees performing a task and identifies safe behaviors and areas that can be improved.

Step Two: The observer provides immediate feedback to the employees, highlighting good behavior and suggesting ideas to further improve the safety of that task.

Step Three: The employee records her observations on a form located in a common area. If she has identified any areas of concern, she will record the suggestion, which will then be used in the next safety meeting or to establish goals or targets for future activities.

Step Four: Model behaviors will be recorded so those individuals may be submitted for awards or recognition.

Figure 1: Example of a feedback system in BSP

Results: According to Moreno & Associates, injury rates for BSP clients decrease as much as 50 to 70 percent.

Possible pitfall: Observer burnout is a possible outcome of this program. In order for observers to maintain momentum, they will also need positive feedback and reinforcement (Mathis, 2004).

What makes the feedback system of BSP effective?
  • It's a good fit. The most significant exposure to injury is related to performance of site-specific at-risk behaviors (Krause, 2004). Feedback, with direction, can improve performer competence (Gilbert, 1978).
  • Buy in at all levels. The fact that BSP are employee driven is a major reason for program success. In addition, management support is critical to successful implementation and longevity (Krause, 2004).
  • It's part of an overall solution. The feedback system of BSP is just one component of an overall solution system, which is tailored to the client's needs.


Gilbert, T.F. (1978). Human Competence: Engineering worthy performance. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Krause, T.R. (2004). Behavior-based safety pitfalls and pointers. . Industrial Safety & Hygiene News. Retreived February 2, 2004, from,3563,3322,00.html

Mathis, T. (2004). How to deal with observer burnout. Industrial Safety & Hygiene News. Retrieved February 2, 2004, from,3563,2783,00.html

Tosti, D.T. (1986). Feedback Systems. In Introduction to performance technology (pp. 150-169). Washington, D.C: National Society for Performance and Instruction.

Author Note

Brian Stumme


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