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Car Talk: Lessons in Performance Feedback

I love it when my car praises me! The message is concrete, consistent, and congruent with my expectations. Why doesn’t most performance feedback work so well?

I make a lot of short trips (my home and office are separated by 12 minutes of stop-and-start driving) and truth be told, I’m something of a leadfoot with a jackrabbit start, so it’s not that easy for me to get the praise I crave. But when I shut the engine after a trip that averaged at least 35 miles per gallon, a little screen on the dashboard flashes “EXCELLENT!!” I never get tired of it. I think, “Yay! Good for me!”

We’re talking about a Camry Hybrid, not a person, but the dynamic of praise and praiseworthy behavior still works.

Consider these 3 Cs along with the mpgs. There is a clear definition of the successful outcome that will trigger the message of praise; 35 mpg is absolutely concrete. The screen flashes every single time I reach the specified conditions; it never forgets because it had too many other things to do or misses the time because the schedule was changed; that’s consistent. I know where to look and when, and what to do to to generate my little jolt of recognition; that’s congruent with expectations.

Of course there are other circumstances that should be present for praise to feel like a reward. The performer needs to have sufficient skill and/or experience to make it possible to achieve the target, and the target should be set at such a level that there is a reasonable chance of achieving it under normal conditions. It’s also a big plus if there will be other opportunities for success (traffic, weather, GPS confusion might all be temporary barriers), with no lingering, negative halo for having missed the bar this time. And the praise needs to be meaningful to the recipient, so it has to come from a respected source and be sincere.

It’s worth putting in the time and effort to create the right working conditions and mutual expectations. When praise is welcome and meaningful it helps create a virtuous cycle of ongoing, successful performance. Start your engines!

Onward and upward,


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