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Causal Language and Effective Performance Evaluations

By Serena Loftus, Ph.D., CMA, and Lloyd Tanlu, DBA
February 1, 2021
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Using causal language in performance reviews can help low-performing employees learn from feedback and improve their subsequent performances.

 

Companies regularly conduct performance reviews to motivate and assess employee performance. An effective performance appraisal system helps employees learn how to improve their future performance. Yet many organizations are dissatisfied with their performance evaluation processes. For example, in a 2019 survey by WorldatWork, just 47% of responding organizations were satisfied with their performance evaluation processes.

 

Providing timely and high-quality feedback to employees is an objective of 99% of respondents’ performance evaluations, yet only 50% indicate that their performance feedback is effective at achieving this objective.

 

We conducted a study to see whether managers’ use of causal language when evaluating their employees influences employees’ understanding of the appraisal. (See “Because of ‘Because’: Examining the Use of Causal Language in Relative Performance Feedback,” The Accounting Review, March 2018.) The results of our study suggest that managers should try using causal language when delivering negative feedback to make it more effective and to alleviate employees’ adverse reactions.

 

REACTIONS TO CAUSAL LANGUAGE

 

Causal language describes cause-and-effect relationships and includes words such as “because,” “thus,” “resulting from,” and “since.” The use of these words, and others like them, serves as a tool that can help low- and ­average-performing employees connect their appraisal outcomes to their job performance in a way that potentially improves the effectiveness of the appraisal process.

 

To isolate the effect of causal language on task performance, we conducted a laboratory experiment in which we asked 108 participants to complete a word unscrambling task. After the participants had completed several rounds of the task, we gave them feedback on their performance. Some participants received feedback containing causal words such as “because” and “as a result of,” while others received feedback containing the same information but without causal words. We then asked participants to complete several additional rounds of the task so that we could observe how they incorporated the feedback into their subsequent performance.

 

The experiment yielded two central findings. First, we found that participants who initially performed poorly on the task showed a bigger improvement after they received feedback that contained causal language (such as, “The reason why your result is lower than the median is because you generated less words than other participants”) vs. participants who received feedback without causal language (such as, “Your score is lower than the median. You generated less words than other participants”). Second, we found no evidence that causal language improved the performance of high performers. These results are consistent with the idea that individuals who are already good at a task have less ability to improve their performance regardless of the feedback they receive.

 

UNDERSTANDING PERFORMANCE FEEDBACK

 

Regarding feedback content, we suggest that if managers use causal language to link poor performance and appraisal outcomes, employees can better learn from the feedback. We draw from prior research in psychology and our own experiences in providing performance appraisals to suggest that employees are more likely to learn from the process if they understand the underlying causes of their performance appraisal outcomes; such an understanding can be facilitated by the use of causal language. For example, if an employee receives a low rating in time management, that employee has a better chance at improvement if he or she knows the specific actions that led to that rating.

 

We also suggest that, conversely, if initial relative performance is high, greater use of causal language in delivering positive feedback results in a smaller improvement in performance. This could, in turn, derail high performers, who might lose focus by trying to incorporate the feedback into their job performances.

 

PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT OF CAUSAL LANGUAGE

 

We argue that because causal language facilitates sense-making, its use makes employees more likely to accept performance feedback. Acceptance means that the employees believe the feedback is an accurate portrayal of their performance; it determines whether they’re likely to incorporate the feedback into their future behavior. Research by Daniel Ilgen and Cori Davis suggests that when employees understand the cause of the feedback, they’re more likely to accept it, less likely to deny the information contained in the performance evaluation, and more likely to address the feedback. (See “Bearing Bad News: Reactions to Negative Performance Feedback,” Applied Psychology: An International Review, July 2000.)

 

What do we mean by sense-making in this context? In response to the uncertainty of the information contained in the performance feedback, employees engage in automatic and unconscious cognitive and emotional processing that helps them understand the feedback. Once employees have successfully made sense of their performance feedback, they cognitively adapt to the event, which then allows them to respond to the performance feedback. Although people engage in sense-making of simple data automatically, research has shown that autonomous information processing is often insufficient to transform more complex data into simple representations.

 

Our study notes that causal language can improve reactions to performance feedback for low-performing employees by improving their understanding of the feedback. Our findings also suggest that causal language doesn’t benefit high-­performing employees. Hence, managers could improve reactions to performance feedback by using causal language when communicating negative feedback and avoiding the use of causal language in communicating positive feedback.

 

It should be emphasized, however, that much is unknown about employees’ reactions to language in performance feedback, and our research is subject to limitations. For example, participants’ feedback was based on their actual performance on the experimental task. That is, negative feedback was given to low performers and positive feedback to high performers. Thus, we’re unable to rule out the possibility that low performers perceive and interpret feedback differently than high performers.

 

In addition, our experiment required skills in terms of word unscrambling, and the results may not generalize to tasks that don’t require such skills or to tasks that require a high degree of creativity. Further, our research can’t speak to the extent that employees become accustomed to, and potentially anticipate, their manager’s language style.

 

Using causal language won’t change ineffective management systems, but given the enormous time and resources companies devote to performance evaluation, we assert that a few simple words can make a significant difference in how employees perceive their performance evaluations and incorporate the feedback that they receive into their work.

 

Serena Loftus, Ph.D., CMA, is an assistant professor of accounting at the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University and a member of IMA. She can be reached at sloftus@tulane.edu.
Lloyd Tanlu, DBA, is an assistant professor of accounting at the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics at Washington and Lee University. He can be reached at ltanlu@wlu.edu.
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