Theory to Practice

The role of regulatory focus on the feedback process

The context

The divergence between the image we have of ourselves and the feedback we get from others is an essential impetus for our personal and professional growth. Listening to and accepting feedback is a vital psychological process that impacts our behavior as individuals, and profoundly influences group dynamics and leadership development.

The ideal context for experiencing and practicing is in learning teams, which are becoming more and more common in business schools. In these settings, students are taking on an active role in their own education, and developing a set of interpersonal skills that will be fundamental for their careers as managers and leaders. Learning teams offer students invaluable information on their assigned tasks, provide emotional support, and represent an excellent source of self-awareness and personal growth. Students spend a great deal of time working together in an environment that is both challenging and safe from a psychological standpoint, so they are in an ideal position to give and get insights, interacting with other team members.

In this context, feedback proves to be a powerful tool for enhancing and developing leadership skills. Specifically, honing interpersonal skills is a self-regulated activity in which individuals utilize feedback as a catalyst for adaptive processes. Yet till now, little research has explored how individual differences shape this process, despite being a key ingredient in getting an accurate understanding of the dynamics and the effectiveness of feedback.

The study

The initial hypothesis for our study is that individual reactions to feedback differ depending on personal characteristics. This means that applying the same strategy for the feedback process across the board to all team members will not lead to optimal results.

In our study, which we ran in a workshop on assessment and development (A&D) in an MBA program, we examined the peer feedback process among 285 students who were members of learning groups. We asked them to evaluate their leadership abilities at two different points in time, four months apart. This longitudinal method is an effective, constructive tool for detecting changes that may occur over time, and for studying causal links between various factors.

Our aim was to explain the diverse individual reactions to feedback, analyzing the process that people use to align themselves with specific objectives or standards in terms of behaviors and self-conceptions. We based our research on the regulatory focus theory, which holds that individuals set goals, assess the progress they make toward achieving them, and then adapt their behavior to bridge the gap between their actual state and their goals. Through this lens, we can distinguish between two types of people. Promotion-focused individuals have a need to grow, and they are more interested in attaining ideal goals. Instead, prevention-focused individuals want security; they are more concerned with avoiding undesired circumstances, and show a high degree of vigilance to ensure their safety and avoid losses.

In an attempt to investigate the impact of this process on leadership skills in teams, we adopted the functional approach developed by McGrath, which posits that leadership is a social activity whose aim is problem solving. We relied on this model, conceptualizing leadership as a system of actions encouraged by the leader that serve to give direction, motivation and support to other team members.

We discovered that regulatory focus has a moderating effect on satisfaction with the feedback process and on improving leadership. Specifically, this is what we found:

  • Promotion-focused individuals gave themselves a higher score and got better peer ratings compared to their prevention-focused peers; they were equally satisfied by positive or negative feedback, but improved their leadership ratings after receiving positive feedback (high peer ratings).
  • Prevention-focused individuals, in contrast, expressed satisfaction only when they got positive feedback, while their leadership skills showed no improvement regardless of the kind of feedback they received.

Conclusions and takeaways

Giving and getting feedback is a highly emotional and demanding task, which is why it is commonly considered a difficult conversation to have. In our study, we looked at individuals with differing regulatory focus (promotion vs prevention), and observed the comfort levels they experience while they go through a feedback process.

As expected, we found that a focus on promotion or prevention moderates the relationship between the type of feedback an individual receives (positive vs negative), and the level of satisfaction with feedback on the whole.

  • In general, individuals who focus on promotion show a strong need for learning and growth; they seem to perceive both positive and negative feedback as invaluable sources of information to improve and realize their ideal selves.
  • Individuals with a prevention focus, instead, are motivated by desire to avoid failure and tend to feel that negative feedback is an unpleasant experience.

Widely used in companies and learning institutions, 360° feedback programs serve as tools for developing leadership skills. However, most of these programs neglect to consider the role of individual differences in accepting and responding to feedback. Our results suggest that in the complex process of learning mediated by feedback, we need to pay more attention to the recipients. In fact, feedback triggers powerful emotions in some individuals, who may perceive it as a threat to their personal value and competence. Leadership and development programs that factor in these individual differences are highly effective in developing leadership. This study shows how indispensable it is to clearly define individual and group objectives, and to carefully analyze how feedback is incorporated into the process of attaining these objectives.