The importance of feedback was vividly demonstrated in a classic study involving soldiers who, after several weeks of intensive training, were competing for places in special units. The soldiers were divided into four groups, which were unable to communicate with one another. All the men marched twenty kilometers (about twelve-and-a-half miles) over the same terrain on the same day. The first group was told how far they were expected to go and were kept informed of their progress along the way. The second group was told only that “this is the long march you hear about.” These soldiers never received any information about the total distance they were expected to travel, nor were they told how far they had marched. The third group was told to march fifteen kilometers, but when they had gone fourteen kilometers, they were told that they had to go six kilometers farther. The fourth group was told that they had to march twenty-five kilometers, but when they reached the fourteen-kilometer mark, they were told that they had only six more kilometers to go.
The groups were assessed as to which had the best performance and which endured the most stress. The results indicated that the soldiers who knew exactly how far they had to go and where they were during the march were much better off than the soldiers who didn’t get this information. The next-best group was the soldiers who thought that they were marching only fifteen kilometers. Third best was the group told to march a longer distance, then given the good news at the fourteen-kilometer mark. Those who performed worst were the soldiers who received no information about the goal (total distance) or the distance that they had already traveled (feedback).6
In a study of the effects of feedback on self-confidence, M.B.A. students were praised or criticized, or received no feedback on their performance in a simulation of creative problem solving. They had been told that their efforts would be compared with how well hundreds of others had done on the same task. Those who heard nothing about how well they did suffered as great a blow to their self-confidence as those who were criticized.7 Saying nothing about a person’s performance doesn’t help anyone—not the performer, not the leader, and not the organization. People hunger for feedback. They really do prefer to know how they are doing, and no news generally has the same negative impact as bad.
The Leadership Challenge by Barry Z. Posner, James M. Kouzes