Is anybody listening? Performance evaluation feedback in the U.S. Air Force

Is anybody listening? Performance evaluation feedback in the U.S. Air Force

Reinke, Saundra J

The ultimate purpose of feedback is to improve employee performance. For this to occur, employees must accept and act upon the information they receive in the feedback process. Thus, employee perceptions and attitudes towards the process and their supervisor play an important role in understanding why performance feedback frequently fails in the work setting. This article investigates whether supervisor credibility, superior-subordinate similarity, and management support improve the quality of performance feedback that captains receive in the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force (1988) defines quality feedback as feedback that is specific, objective, and involves two-way communication.

Supervisor credibility and superior-subordinate similarity are research components based on Hovland’s (Hovland, Janis, & Kelly, 1953) theory of communication. Hovland et al. propose that acceptance of information and subsequent changes in behavior depend on the perceptions the recipient of a communication has about the sender. Placed in the context of performance feedback, the subordinate will receive and act upon feedback based upon perceptions about the supervisor-credibility and superior-subordinate similarity. Hovland et al. propose that credibility has two components-supervisor trustworthiness and expertise. These sender characteristics-trustworthiness, expertise, and similarity to receiver–determine whether communication is acted upon.

The findings indicate that trust in one’s superior and a superiors expertise are associated with perceptions of quality performance evaluation feedback. The findings also provide partial support for the hypotheses that management support of feedback processes has a significant relationship with perceptions of quality feedback and that management support moderates the relationship between quality feedback and trust, expertise, and similarity. Moreover, trust, expertise, and management support explain a substantial amount of variance in the three elements of quality feedback.


Providing feedback that has a positive impact on the performance of employees remains a continual challenge for contemporary administrators. Because they have conflicting goals, both parties in a feedback session often fail to provide honest and constructive information. Appraisers, instead, provide ambiguous communication, and subordinates frequently report that they never experienced a feedback session (Beers, 1981; Cales, 2000). In a study of the Army performance evaluation and feedback system, Wylie (1985) found that only 20% of Army officers received adequate performance counseling and only 31% discussed goal or standard setting with their supervisors.

This article investigates the following question: do supervisor credibility, superior-subordinate similarity, and management support improve the quality of performance feedback that captains receive in the U.S. Air Force? Supervisor credibility and superior-subordinate similarity are research components based on Hovland’s (Hovland, Janis, and Kelly, 1953) theory of communication and persuasion. Hovland et al. propose that credibility–the trustworthiness and expertise of senders of communication– and the similarity of senders and receivers of communication are critical prerequisites to effective communication. Although Hovland’s theory has been widely used in studies of propaganda effectiveness, this research tests his theory in a new setting-performance feedback. This research also tests the belief that management support of feedback processes is an essential prerequisite for employees to perceive that they are receiving quality feedback.


As early as 1961, Meyer and Walker (1961) found that “the best predictor of whether or not a subject took constructive action . was how well his manager had handled the appraisal feedback discussion” (294). Although a recent meta-analysis indicates that over one-third of all feedback interventions cause a decrease in performance (Kluger and DeNisi, 1996), numerous field studies and experiments demonstrate that feedback, when property conducted, improves performance (e.g., Nathan, Mohrman, & Milliman, 1991; Cohen and Steele, 1999).

The Air Force (1988) defines quality feedback as feedback that is specific, objective, and involves two-way communication. Specific feedback tells the subordinate exactly what is expected and how effectively the subordinate is meeting those expectations. Objective feedback is based on superior observations of actual performance and is free of bias. Finally, quality feedback should involve two-way communication where performance is the subject of a mutual discussion engaging the supervisor and the subordinate (Air Force, 1988).


Specific feedback is effective because it helps employees know specifically what to avoid or continue in the future (Derven, 1990). Specific, descriptive feedback results in more realistic assessments of expectations for success, brings about “perceptions of source credibility and system fairness, and increases performance by allowing accurate attributions about past performance” (Bobko and Collela, 1994:7).


Objective feedback leads to perceptions of fairness and satisfaction with performance evaluation systems. Maroney and Buckley (1992) conclude that feedback must be objective if it is to be viewed as being accurate. Accurate feedback, in turn, moderates reactions to feedback including performance and satisfaction with performance appraisal (Bobko and Colella, 1994; Nathan et al., 1991; O’Reilly and Anderson, 1980; Taylor et al., 1984). Nathan et al. (1991) found that employees who received objective performance evaluation feedback in the form of job behaviors were significantly more satisfied with their feedback than those who did not receive it; such feedback actually improved performance. In a review of empirical research, Kopelman (1986) concludes that objective performance evaluation feedback has a consistent positive impact on organization productivity.

Two-Way Communication

Two-way communication as an element of quality feedback is crucial because participation signals that supervisors and standards are fair (Bobko and Collela, 1994; Nathan et al., 1991). Two-way dialogue reduces defensiveness, builds commitment, makes the manager more of a coach and less of a judge, and fosters positive reactions to feedback and standards (Bobko and Collela, 1994; Derven, 1990; Fedor, Eder, and Buckley, 1989). Overall, individuals are more likely to accept and act upon ideas when they are an outgrowth of two-way communication. Empirical studies (Dipboye and dePontbriand, 1981; Nemeroff and Wexley, 1979) found positive correlations between two-way communication and subordinate satisfaction with the appraisal process, production of greater understanding, perceived fairness of the appraisal, and a desire to improve performance.

In sum, borrowing the components of a communication theory, this research tests the impact of appraiser characteristics on perceptions of quality feedback in a performance evaluation setting that has not been previously investigated-the United States Air Force. Investigating military organizations is especially important because they are career civil services that comprise 26.2 percent of the federal labor force (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1999:364). Unlike the general civil service and most private organizations, career services–the military, Foreign Service, Coast Guard, Public Health Service, and law enforcement–prepare their members for lifetime employment in the service. Employees are selected on their potential to develop in a career, enter at the bottom of the hierarchy, compete with insiders for promotion, and advance only one rank at a time (Mosher, 1982). Concerned over the general welfare of their employees, career services also have a paternalistic quality, an esprit de corps, and personnel that respect rank and are willing to conform to a myriad of formal and informal norms of the service.

Investigating components of Hovland’s theory in the contemporary Air Force is also important because of the changes in Air Force personnel systems since the inception of Hovland’s theory over 45 years ago. Active duty personnel are now all volunteer; women comprise 18.4 percent of the active duty personnel, and minorities comprise 13.1 percent of the officer corps (U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), 1999:134; DOD, 2000:49, 76). The educational institutes of the Air Force have expanded, and the demarcation between officer and enlisted personnel has become more blurred as officers have become increasingly dependent on the technical expertise of the enlisted personnel. Officers generally need a master’s degree to reach the rank of major but are no longer evaluated on such criteria as their extracurricular activities and what their spouses do. Overall, this research therefore examines whether the quality of performance appraisal feedback is shaped by the same factors as it was during an era when active duty personnel were drafted, women comprised around 1.5 percent of the active duty Air Force personnel, minorities officers were a rarity, higher education was a less frequent prerequisite for promotion, and personnel were evaluated on more arbitrary criteria (U.S. DOD, 2000:47, 74).


Ilgen et al. (1979) suggest that it is “useful to conceive of feedback as a special case of the general communication process” (350). Hovland (Hovland et al., 1953) contends that the characteristics of senders determine whether communication is accepted and acted upon by receivers. Senders must be credible and similar to receivers for receivers to respond to their messages. To be credible, senders must be trustworthy and experts. When communicators are trustworthy and experts, receivers are able to put faith in their messages. When senders and receivers are similar, receivers are more attracted to the sender and more likely to listen. Similarity also allows receivers to relate to senders and to perceive that their messages are shared from a common frame of reference. Communications are more likely to be acted upon because they are easy to understand and believe. Hovland’s theory of communication and persuasion evolved from experimental research undertaken to determine causes for attitude changes. These experiments are the benchmark for sociobehavioral experiments into attitude change. The resulting theory became the basis for the later theories on persuasion (Jowett and O’Donnell, 1999). Hovland’s theory of communication and persuasion consequently provides a potentially useful framework for explaining what affects quality feedback in a performance evaluation setting.


Trust is especially critical in bringing about two-way feedback, one of the three elements of quality feedback as defined by this study. When subordinates trust that their supervisors will keep promises, behave consistently, and provide straight answers, feedback sessions can become true dialogues where problems, needs, desires, and emotions are freely expressed. Because superiors are trusted, subordinates are comfortable requesting additional feedback that, in turn, may enhance perceptions that feedback is objective and specific. Empirical studies have found that trust facilitates two-way communication and a belief in the objectivity of information received (Zand, 1971; Roberts and O’Reilly, 1974; Nathan et al., 1991).


Experts possess the information and critical capacities to provide objective feedback and to be perceived as a source of objective feedback. When an appraiser is an expert, subordinates view their performance feedback as being knowledge-based and accurate rather than opinion-based and impressionistic. Expertise gives superiors the knowledge and understanding necessary for specific feedback. The expert has an enhanced capacity to identify specific problems, solutions, and directions for the developmental aspects of a performance feedback session. Finally, expertise can affect two-way feedback. Expertise gives superiors the capacity to capture attention, encourage questions, and stimulate a subordinate’s desire to learn in a feedback session. Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman (1995) propose that to be perceived as a reliable source of information, leaders must exhibit ability, that is, skills and competency needed within a particular arena. Expert superiors also have a larger knowledge base for sustaining two-way feedback than do superiors with limited expertise.


When superiors are similar to subordinates, they often use a common language, common examples, and common expressions that allow for clarity and understanding that foster perceptions that feedback is specific. To the extent that subordinates believe themselves to be objective, they may also perceive similar superiors to be objective because they share a common frame of reference (Fox, Ben-Nahum, and Yinon, 1989). Racial differences have been found to impede counseling (Vontress, 1971) and performance feedback (Cohen and Steele, 1999). Fleissner (1985) found that female company grade Air Force officers were significantly less likely to receive feedback about their performance than their male counterparts. In a field study of 171 manager-subordinate dyads in four different types of organizations, Pulakos and Wexley (1983) also found that similarity accounted for 11 to 18% of the variance in the amount of support and help that managers gave subordinates.

Management Support

Although not an element of Hovland’s theory, management support provides the resources, incentives, and legitimacy for quality feedback systems. Through providing time, training, and technical support for performance evaluation feedback, management signals that quality feedback is important. Management support for feedback is particularly critical in rigid hierarchies such as in the military. In the 1980s, the Army identified lack of command support as the key problem with its performance evaluation feedback system (Wylie, 1985:6).

This research also assumes that management support moderates the relationship between perceptions of the quality of performance evaluation feedback and trust, expertise, and similarity. When trust, expertise, and similarity are low, the absence of management support for feedback simply reinforces perceptions that employees are not receiving quality feedback. However, even when trust, expertise, and similarity are high, we propose that the absence of management support overrides the positive impact of these variables. Those evaluated will not perceive that they are receiving quality feedback if management provides infrequent or haphazard feedback, discourages feedback, or is critical of feedback processes. Such nonsupportive behavior conveys negative messages about performance evaluation feedback that are especially believable when appraisers are trustworthy, experts, and similar to those evaluated. When failure to encourage or require feedback results in the absence of a feedback relationship, employees are also denied opportunities to accurately assess and to be affected by their appraiser’s trustworthiness, expertise, and similarity.


The researchers surveyed 595 active duty captains attending Squadron Officer School (SOS) at Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base. The purpose of SOS is to enhance the supervisory skills of young captains through developing their leadership, communication, and team-building skills. Seventy-five percent of all Air Force captains attend SOS, and the proportions of minorities, women, and occupational specialties in SOS classes are the same as those of the population of captains in the Air Force. Those surveyed had five to seven years of military service and came from all Air Force specialties and major commands. They also necessarily held bachelor degrees or its equivalent and are required to receive performance feedback twice per year. Of the respondents, 85% were male, 88% were Caucasian, 6% were African American, 2% were Hispanic, and 3% were Other. Five hundred and five officers returned the survey for an 85% rate of return. Since 240 captains had never experienced a feedback session or had not experienced a feedback session within the last year, their surveys were eliminated from the analysis. Two additional surveys were eliminated because respondents answered only 5 of 37 questions.

All three elements of quality performance feedback and almost all the independent variables were measured through items with which participants indicated the strength of their agreement on scales of 1 (strong disagreement) to 5 (strong agreement). The items included adaptations of existing scale items and items developed exclusively for this research. To eliminate unrelated items and to increase the internal validity of the scales, items were factor analyzed with a varimax rotation. Items which did not correlate with their principle component with an r of .50 or above were eliminated. Scale scores were determined by adding responses to individual items in the scale and dividing by the total number of items in the scale. The revised scales were then subjected to reliability testing using Cronbach’s alpha.

The five items measuring feedback specificity were adaptations of items from Kahn et al.’s (1981) Job-Related Tension Index and Nagle’s (1953) Attitude toward the Supervisor scale. Adaptations of two items from Nagle’s scale and Fleishman’s (1957) Supervisory Behavior Description instrument were used to measure feedback objectivity. The four items measuring two-way communication were also measured through adaptations of items from Nagle’s scale. The coefficients alpha for feedback specificity, feedback objectivity, and two-way communication were .82, .78, and .83 respectively.

Trust was measured through two original items and adaptations of two items from Nagle’s (1953) scale. Expertise was measured through three original items. Management support for the feedback system was measured through five items developed exclusively for this study. The coefficients alpha for trust, expertise, and management support were .90, .83, and .84 respectively.

Superior-subordinate similarity was determined through questions eliciting the gender, race, technical specialty, and service branch of respondents and their appraisers. Similarities in gender, race, technical specialty, and service branch were each scored as one; differences in these variables were each scored as zero. A composite measure of similarity was derived through adding the similarity scores together. Similarity scores therefore ranged from zero to four.

The moderating effects of management support were tested through the creation of three interactive variables: management support times trust, management support times expertise, and management support times similarity. However, to reduce considerable multicolinearity between the interactions and the independent variables comprising the interactions, the measures of the variables in the interactions were centered around zero before being regressed with the dependent variables (Aiken and West, 1991). This was accomplished through subtracting the mean of an independent variable from the measures of the variable before multiplying the variables in the interaction together.


To test whether trust, expertise, similarity, and management support affect quality feedback, Pearson Product Moment correlations were initially calculated (see Table 1). All of the independent variables, except for superior-subordinate similarity, are significantly related (p

Three multiple regressions were conducted to test the cumulative impact of the independent variables while controlling for each other. Unstandardized beta coefficients indicate that trust, expertise, and management support are significantly (p

In all of the regressions, the size of the beta coefficients for trust is fairly substantial, as is the beta coefficient for management support in the regression with feedback specificity. However, while centering the interactive variables has no effect on the coefficients of the interactions, it does affect the coefficients associated with the independent (first order) variables. In contrast to representing the constant effects of the predictors, the first order coefficients reflect conditional effects, or “the effects of the predictors at the mean of the other predictors” (Aiken and West, 1991:38).

The regressions further reveal that the independent variables explain 38% percent of the variance in feedback specificity, 33% of the variance in feedback objectivity, and 47% of the variance in two-way communication. Moreover, all regression equations are statistically significant (p


In sum, the findings consistently support the importance of improving trust in one’s appraiser in order for captains to perceive that they are receiving quality feedback in the Air Force. Improving appraiser expertise and management support for feedback systems would also have a positive impact on perceptions of the quality of feedback that captains receive, whereas superior-subordinate similarity does not affect these perceptions. The findings, however, provide only partial support for the hypothesis that management support moderates the relationship between perceptions of quality feedback and the other independent variables.

The preceding findings consequently indicate that a vital element of Hovland’s theory of communication applies to a performance feedback setting. In particular, sender credibility-trustworthiness and expertise-has a significant impact on perceptions that evaluatees are receiving quality performance evaluation feedback. That sender-receive similarity did not relate to quality feedback in this study might reflect the narrowness of the measure of similarity. On the other hand, this may reflect the absence of differences among those surveyed and between them and their appraisers. The respondents all held bachelor or higher degrees, were the same rank, and were overwhelmingly White males. Their evaluators also held degrees and were predominantly White males. Moreover, officer selection and selfselection, coupled with military indoctrination and training, produce an officer corps that shares substantially similar values, ideals, and outlooks on life.

That management support rarely moderated the effects of the independent variables in the regressions might have been affected by restricting the survey to those who had participated in at least one feedback session within the last year. Inclusion of those receiving less frequent feedback might have strengthened the moderating impact through increasing the range of negative assessments of management support and quality feedback. The absence of moderation might also reflect the true independent nature of the relationship between quality feedback and trust and expertise. Even when management does not believe in or encourage feedback, employees may still perceive they are receiving quality performance evaluation feedback when it comes from trustworthy and expert evaluators.

While performance appraisal training should continue to include instruction on the content, quantity, and frequency of performance feedback, this research indicates that it should also focus on how to build and sustain trust in evaluator-evaluatee relationships. Trust is fostered through evaluators behaving competently and consistently over time, maintaining confidences, valuing candor, and minimizing punishment when subordinates reveal shortcomings and failures. Given its reciprocal nature, trust is also fostered through appraisers trusting subordinates with information, responsibility, and resources.

Expert appraisers, in turn, are a function of organizations that select or develop experts. According to Dunnette (1967:89-90), however, an evaluator’s most common error is not knowing or understanding an employee’s job performance. Performance feedback expertise must consequently go beyond the technical knowledge and experience necessary for developing employees to include familiarity with employee performance (Ilgen et al., 1979:351). Such familiarity comes from observing subordinates perform (e.g., “walk-around” management) from accurate and inclusive measures of performance, from peer and customer evaluations of subordinates, and from frequent, honest feedback from subordinates.

Although similarity did not explain quality feedback in this research, future research should not abandon this variable. A more demographically diverse sample and more discriminating set of measures of similarity than tested here might demonstrate that superior-subordinate similarity does impact the quality of feedback. A more narrowly designed study that investigates the content of performance appraisals, in turn, might determine whether credibility, similarity, and management support cause employees to act upon performance appraisals in addition to perceiving that they are receiving quality feedback. Given the difficulties of accessing performance appraisals, future research might utilize experimental designs to determine whether these variables cause subjects to act upon performance appraisals. Finally, to determine the external validity of Hovland’s theory in performance feedback settings, replications are needed in a variety of organizations.

In conclusion, performance feedback is one of the most important tools at the disposal of appraisers for developing employees. Yet, it is often done poorly or not at all. Through application of an old communications theory to a new communications environment, this study reveals the importance of appraiser credibility-being a trustworthy and expert appraiser–for employees to perceive that they are receiving quality performance feedback.

1 Given the absence of a relationship between quality feedback and the composite measure of similiarity, analysis of variance was conducted to determine whether there were relationships between quality feedback and two of the individual components of the similarity measure-gender similarity and racial similarity. Although the analysis revealed a relationship between gender similarity and objectve feedback, no other significant relationships were found. When included in a regression with the other independent variables, gender similarity added 1.6 percent to the explained variance in objective feedback.


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Augusta State University


University of Alabama

Journal of Political and Military Sociology 2001, Vol. 29 (Summer): 160-176

Copyright Dr. George Kourvetaris Summer 2001

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