I had a conversation earlier this week with an executive in a professional services firm in the technology sector on the topic of “feedback” and it's effectiveness in changing behavior. During our discussion I was reminded of an incident a couple of years ago that really drove the point home in a way that only a true story can. The story centers around the topic of cheating…but in a way that you might not expect.

Feedback Defined

Before I tell the story I want to make sure we're clear on exactly the type of feedback I'm referring to. It's not siting down with someone and critiquing their performance. Nor is it a performance review or some type of confrontation. Instead, I'm talking about feedback of the sort a behavioral psychologist might refer to it. In this sense, feedback is timely and objective information on performance. It is usually delivered in an easy-to-understand format where current performance is compared to a goal.

Now, the question is not whether feedback works to change performance. Decades of well-controlled behavioral research clearly shows that it does so under the right conditions. For example, feedback has to be frequent, timely, and objective. Adding performance goals and modest incentives also improves performance. No, the real question is about it's practicality in real-life circumstances.

In professional services firms, it's common to provide feedback from customers on the performance of consultants. In this way a firm will try to improve the customer experience and the success of the engagement. It is in just such a situation that the story takes place.

The Cheater's Tale

The organization in this case was a large university and the task at hand was to improve the performance of the many nonacademic support functions. These ranged from the registrar's office and library to IT support and building maintainence. Simple feedback forms were made available throughout the university. People were encouraged to fill out and submit the forms when they experienced notably good or poor service from someone. Every month the feedback was shared with each department and the department that received the best performance was given a special award and widespread recognition.

Now, as we looked at the program there were some obvious shortcomings that could be fixed. But that is not why they called us in. It seems that the big issue was that a single department was dominating the awards. People were upset because they felt that they were “cheating.” Which department had become the envied superstars? None other than IT support!

Imagine that. IT support, which was often the butt of so many jokes and stereotyped as being arrogant and disdainful of users was suddenly raking in the award for excellent service month after month. The other departments were convinced they must be cheating. Yes, they had been getting exceptionally good service, but the results were suspicious.

Were they doctoring the data? Stuffing the ballot box? As it turns out, they had simply adopted the practice of handing out a rating form each time they performed a service and encouraging the recipient to fill it out. This simple practice had an amazing effect. It turned an intermittent system of feedback into one that provided almost continuous feedback to the professional providing the support. In short, they knew that each interaction counted. They suddenly became more “helpful” and it showed in their evaluation ratings.

So what does this mean for your professional services firm? On a practical level, it means that having a mechanism that allows for and encourages frequent feedback can help give you an “unfair” competitive advantage.