Three ways to leverage the “twitch-factor” instead of aping the X-Factor when delivering feedback

When was the last time you spent a day without receiving any performance feedback?

I don’t mean just at work (that was probably quite recently). I mean generally.

Such as: when was the last time you walked down a street with no awareness of how you were affecting other pedestrians, motorists… street furniture? Or how about the last time you received no ‘performance feedback’ at all from a nagging partner about an annoying habit you have? Or the last time someone rolled their eyes instead of chuckling at your particularly dull anecdote and you completely ignored the put-down, and told another boring story? Without the vital impact of performance feedback in the latter two cases you would be a very lonely human. And in the first case, you would more than likely be a very dead one too.

This is why we exist in a constant, twitching state of sensitivity to changes or irritations in the physical environment and people around us. And we aren’t alone in this evolutionary trait. Some wacky scientists even believe that blades of grass ‘scream’ when they are cut. Large quantities of twitches tend to prompt deeper reflections. An employee who has decided to leave your organisation probably made that decision when consciously reflecting on a big list of grievances which would be quite minor when taken separately. All that nagging does work, in the end.

So as many of us gear up for performance review season, it’s sobering to think about how well we enable our twitchy employees to take the time to reflect on their own performance, both in interpersonal relationships at work and as they use online learning and collaboration systems.

In many workplaces, there is little reflection on performance or structured feedback aside from on one day of the year: the annual review. This is when a barrage of feedback is delivered en-masse. But the annual review is almost too concentrated to be useful as feedback.

It’s the equivalent to spending 365 days picking your nose in a blissfully carefree state and then receiving the year’s worth of nagging from your partner in a single thirty second bellowing session. It’s the same as processing an entire lifetime’s feedback relating to the fine art of crossing the street in the format of a single collision with a heavy goods vehicle. The actionable content of the feedback in these situations is lost in a feverish haze of intense emotions.

The alternative is an embedded process of continuous review, reflection and mentoring, and we should take the time to structure environments so that they facilitate this. Remember that performance adjustments happen all the time anyway in the form of a semi-conscious or unconscious reaction to the environment we create for our employees. All we do when we concentrate the ‘official’ feedback into a single, yearly review is remove it from the day-to-day, and let ‘nature take its course’ for the rest of the time.

eLearning courses can provide a useful analogy, I believe, for thinking about performance feedback more generally. For example, dumping all the ‘feedback’ at the end of a page-turning course in the form of a single assessment and a percentage score is equivalent to the annual review style ‘nuclear option’: simultaneously ensuring that the main experience is boring and the test itself is an unpleasant guessing game. This is an example of ‘bad’ gamification: the test score becomes an end in itself and the deeper meaning of the content is lost. And, as we never tire of mentioning, you are merely testing short term memory instead of behaviours or skills.

This kind of bad or ‘neutral’ user experience is also not invisible. The absence of twitch-inducing factors offers its own form of feedback: your learners will probably yawn, droop their eyes and head to the coffee machine to get their twitch on that way instead.

By contrast, a strategy which is based on continual performance feedback mechanisms tweaks the senses and actively fosters change – much in the same way that a massage moves muscles. So, sticking with the elearning analogy and learning from websites which have mastered the twitch-factor, here’s three ways you can introduce better performance feedback into digital experiences:

  1. Delightful dials

eLearning should always be counting and totting up. How quickly did the learner master that simulation? How much is done and how much is left?  You can borrow dials and ‘o-meter’ ideas from social networking sites which continuously reward, compare and berate users like LinkedIn and Google+.

  1. The social bleep

When some learners complete something, how about giving the others a ‘bleep’ in the form of a newsfeed update or a notification? When Facebook fills up your phone with notifications, it is as much of a reminder that you are not participating as much as an update on the participation of others. It isn’t too tricky to use completion data from the LMS to create this kind of gentle pressure on learners and engage their twitch faculties. Even the most boneheaded old LMS can probably manage a weekly email digest.

  1. Tonal teaching

An underused weapon in elearning and platform design is tone of voice. When learners do something well, make the digital experience more chirpy, and get a little more censorious when they clearly aren’t paying attention.  We can interpret ‘tone of voice’ here quite broadly. A tonal change can be represented graphically by a medal or badge, for example. The freedom usually permitted to elearning courses to use secondary colour palettes can also be exploited to indicate tonal feedback quite dramatically.

Each of these is an opportunity to prompt some micro-reflection on the part of the learners. They are also cumulative: each twitch doesn’t require a lot of cognitive effort to process but a bunch of them together will prompt deeper reflections.

So where does performance feedback take place in your organisation? If you can’t think of any places where the twitch factor is being consciously manipulated, then it’s likely that your workplace operates to the performance equivalent of the ‘law of the jungle’:  the influence of mundane irritants and ‘bad’reward mechanisms will grow like weeds in the gap that’s left.  And, as the title of one of Goya’s most famous etchings goes:

“The sleep of reason produces monsters”


About the author

Toby Harris - Consultant