Janes - Feedback & Motivation
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Motivation and Feedback

Mary Janes

Boise State University


This paper looks at motivation as it relates to human performance. Definitions of motivation are given, and models that incorporate the concept of motivation, including Thomas Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model and John Keller’s ARCS model are looked at. David McClelland’s theory of needs is also cited in conjunction with the ARCS model.  In addition, practical ideas for motivating employees are suggested.  Feedback and its role in motivation are considered, along with methods for giving feedback, including an alternative technique known as ‘feedforward.’ The relationship of feedback to motivation is also discussed.


Motivation and Feedback


            In simple terms, motivation can be described as what moves a person to act.  However, human beings are complex creatures, and thus it must be considered that what motivates them is also complex.  Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are two major ways in which people might be motivated.  Intrinsic motivation involves being motivated by internal factors, such as satisfaction with a job well done or personal enjoyment of the work, while extrinsic motivation involves being motivated by external factors, such as praise or monetary rewards.

Going beyond the definitions of motivation given above, it is also important for the human performance technology (HPT) practitioner to consider the factors that motivate people to perform.  As Driscoll (2000) asks, “How do we help learners develop self-regulatory skills to set their own goals and manage their own learning and performance?” (p. 304)  Although Driscoll discusses motivation as it applies to education and learning, the concept can also be carried over to the field of HPT when considering just how to help performers develop the self-regulatory skills Driscoll mentions.

Motivation and Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model

There are several models of motivation that can be looked at in considering this issue.  One model that incorporates the concept of motivation, along with several other factors, is Thomas Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model.  Figure 1 below illustrates this model. Because it is a systematic model that looks at multiple aspects of the workplace environment as well as the performer him or herself, this model is useful in helping an HPT practitioner doing a gap analysis to determine if motivation is a performance issue in the first place.

If the HPT practitioner looks at the performers’ environment and behaviors, and determines that a performance gap does not lie in the area of the information component of the model (data and knowledge) or the instrumentation component (instruments and capacity), then motivation can be considered.  Gilbert classifies two aspects of motivation, incentives and motives, which can be correlated with extrinsic and intrinsic motivation as described above. When considering incentives, Gilbert (1978) talks about making sure that both monetary and non-monetary incentives must be made available to the performer, and that the monetary incentives must be “made contingent upon performance” (p. 88).  As far as the motives component of the model is concerned, Gilbert’s suggestions for the HPT practitioner, or performance engineer, include “assessment of people’s motives to work” (p. 88) and “recruitment of people to match the realities of the situation” (p.88).


Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model




Information (Sd)

Instrumentation (I)

Motivation (Sr)

Environmental Supports (E)










Person’s Repertory of Behavior (P)










Figure 1. Adapted from Gilbert’s table in Chapter 3 of his book Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Behavior



            When it comes to actually affecting motivation though, how can this model be applied? It is important to note though that Gilbert (1978) makes this observation about his own model:


The behavior engineering model serves one purpose only:  It helps us to observe behavior in an orderly fashion, and to ask the “obvious” questions (the ones we so often forget to ask) toward the single end of improving human competence.  Indeed, its purpose is to put behavior in some perspective, with reference to what we might do to engineer superior performance. (p.95)


Thus it would seem that according to Gilbert himself, while we can use his model to help diagnose whether motivation is a factor in a performance gap, the model itself isn’t designed to help us close such gaps. 

Keller’s ARCS Model

            A model that does lend itself to that end is John Keller’s ARCS model. Although Keller’s model was developed in an attempt to try to understand motivation to learn and was originally field tested in an educational setting (Keller, 1987), the model is fairly generic in scope, and can be applied by HPT practitioners as well as instructional designers.  In talking about motivation, Keller (1987) states:

Typically, motivation is viewed as highly unpredictable and changeable, subject to many influences over which the teacher or designer has no control. Consequently, both teachers and designers often view their responsibility as providing good quality instruction, and assume it is the student’s responsibility to decide whether or not to take advantage of the opportunity to learn. (p.2)


Although in the previous statement, Keller refers to learning and instructional design, when looking at Keller’s model, it is a simple thing to substitute HPT practitioner for teacher or designer and to talk about providing good quality performance interventions and opportunities to perform. As Keller (1999) states, “The only differences are in the primary tactics that one might use to stimulate people’s motivation to work as opposed to their motivation to learn” (p.378).

            Keller’s model incorporates four main components:  attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction.   These are the major components of the model and underneath each of these there are a variety of subcategories.  “These major categories remain constant; the subcategories always cover the primary motivational elements encompassed by each major category, but the wording and the number of subcategories will vary with the circumstances” (Keller, 1999, p. 378).

            Attention, the first component of Keller’s model, involves just what it says, attracting and sustaining the performer’s attention.  As Keller (1999) states, “People need and desire stimulation and variety, although in differing amounts” (p. 379).    It is very important to consider the ‘differing amounts’ portion of that statement.  One suggestion in regard to this is that people should be matched with jobs so that adequate stimulation is provided but overstimulation does not occur (Keller, 1999). Perceptual arousal, inquiry arousal, and variety are some of the subcategories mentioned by Keller (1999).

            In addition to matching workers to jobs as mentioned in the previous paragraph, attention tactics for motivating people to work as suggested by Keller (1999) include providing stimulation in the environment, reducing stress, and helping workers adapt tactics to the situation at hand.

            Relevance is the component of Keller’s model that seeks to answer the “why” question.  In other words, performers want to know why they must perform. This goes beyond the obvious reason of performing for a paycheck.  In fact, studies have shown that although both monetary and non-monetary incentives have an effect on motivation, too much emphasis has been placed on the monetary source of motivation (Gratton, 2004).  It is also important to consider that in the modern business climate, job security and promotions are not virtually guaranteed as they once were, which causes employees to wonder why they should work hard (Caudron, 1995). 

            One theory that may offer additional insight into relevance is the theory of needs developed by David McClelland and associates (Chyung, 2003).  This theory speaks of three needs that can affect personal relevance.  These are: the need for achievement, the need for affiliation and the need for power.  Those with a great need for achievement like to “be involved in situations where they have responsibilities and can predict successful outcomes...” (Chyung, 2003, p.4).  Those with a need for power “desire to have power to control/influence others’ behavior” (Chyung, 2003, p.4).  And those with the need for affiliation put importance on interpersonal relationships. (Chyung, 2003).  These three needs are areas that the HPT practitioner might want to consider when thinking about the relevance component of the ARCS model.

            Subcategories pertaining to relevance that are given by Keller include: goal orientation, matching motives to the situation, and familiarity (Keller, 1999).  He also offers some practical tactics to use in motivating people to work.  These include helping the performer develop the perception of being best at something, setting goals, and providing cooperative work situations for workers to achieve goals (Keller, 1999). (The last method would probably be best suited to those who have a high need for affiliation as discussed in McClelland’s theory.)

            The confidence portion of the ARCS model concerns the need of performers to feel competent and to have control over important areas of their lives (Keller, 1999).  Although successful performance may lead to this, Keller (1999) does point out that, “A common and frequently incorrect assumption is that experiences of success increase confidence, but success does not always have this result.  It depends on a person’s attributions regarding success” (p.381).  Thus it is important for the performers to feel successful because of their own efforts and capabilities, not simply because they were lucky or had a manger that smiled upon them.  These beliefs are not likely to contribute to increased confidence (Keller, 1999). 

            Subcategories that Keller (1999) describes for the confidence portion of the ARCS model include personal control of situations, opportunities for success, and performance requirements. Practical suggestions offered for increasing performer confidence include:  allowing workers to share control in areas where they are personally responsible for the achievement of goals, and making sure goals are achievable while remaining challenging (Keller, 1999).

            The final component of the ARCS model, satisfaction, involves the basic desire human beings have “to feel good about themselves and their accomplishments” (Keller, 1999).  As Keller (1999) points out satisfaction can come from extrinsic rewards such as financial benefits, but that there are other “powerful incentives that cost the organization very little and that should be part of any motivational system” (Keller, 1999).  These can include public recognition of a job well done from management, subordinates or peers.

            Subcategories to the satisfaction component of the ARCS model include both natural and positive consequences and equity (Keller, 1999).  Satisfaction tactics given by Keller (1999) include using rewards that are not just materialistic, but are symbolic, such as public recognition of accomplishments.  He also speaks of the importance of providing meaningful feedback fairly and on a consistent basis (Keller, 1999).  The importance of feedback will be discussed in greater depth in a later section of this paper.

Other Suggestions for Motivating Employees

            As has been mentioned elsewhere in this paper, it is important to recognize that motivation is a complex issue because there are a variety of factors which influence what motivates performers and why.  Indeed, Caudron (1995) states that, “...there is no one-size-fits-all approach to motivation.  Instead it is a process in which successful managers employ a combination of several approaches” (p. 13).

            Many methods can be employed to motivate employees at little cost to the employer.  Although it would be necessary to analyze the situation carefully in order to determine which of these methods might work, it is wise to take them into consideration.  Nelson (2003) suggests many ways to motivate performers, including the following: “Personally thank employees for doing a good job—one on one—verbally, in writing, or both.  Do it in a timely manner, often and sincerely” (p.10).   Other suggestions include providing open channels of communication so that employees may meet with and talk to managers, creating an enjoyable work environment, and providing employees with an opportunity to be involved in decision making where possible.  (Nelson, 2003).  Many of these strategies are in line with various strategies suggested by Keller.

            Another important aspect of the idea of keeping open lines of communication is that people have different internal motivators and management should learn from employees themselves what motivates them (Caudron, 1995).  HPT practitioners should keep this concept in mind as well, as it may be possible to use information gleaned from performers, perhaps through surveys or informal interviews about what motivates them to help the practitioner to devise better motivation related performance interventions.


Feedback and Feedforward

            As Keller (1999) and Nelson (2003) have both noted, feedback is an important tool in motivating employees.  However, just giving feedback on a performance does not especially mean it will lead to an improvement in performance.  There are several factors that must be considered when preparing to give feedback in order to make it effective as a motivational tool as well as in making it an aid to increase and improve performance.

Keys to Effective Feedback   

            In order for feedback to be effective, it must be timely.  As Cousine and Beagrie state, (2001) state, “Feedback shouldn’t be confined to the straitjacket of an annual review or performance appraisal—the action or assignment being discussed may be a distant memory by then” (p.19). By providing feedback on a timely basis, the performer also has the opportunity to use it in conjunction with the next performance. 

            Tosti and Jackson (1999) go further to make the distinction between formative and summative feedback and to distinguish between the times when these two types of feedback should be given.  Formative feedback, which provides information on the quality of a performance should be given before a performance, while summative feedback, which provides information on the quantity of a performance should be given after the performance (Tosti and Jackson, 1999).  The idea of giving feedback before a performance is also incorporated into a concept known as ‘feedforward’, which will be discussed in greater depth later in this paper.

            Tosti and Jackson (1999) also describe the difference between positive and negative feedback. Positive feedback is given in the form of praise or encouragement when the giver wants to reinforce a good performance.  Negative feedback, despite its negative connotations, “is sometimes both useful and necessary” (Tosti and Jackson, 1999, p. 398).  Situations where negative feedback may need to be employed occur when “the desired result is to stop behavior and there is no particular behavior to be substituted” (Tosti and Jackson, 1999, p.398).  More often though, it is possible to offer an alternative behavior instead of negative feedback.  In other words, instead of telling the performer it is a mistake to do a certain thing, it is often more effective to tell the performer what they can do instead.

            Another important aspect of effective feedback is that it must be valid and meaningful.  McManus (2001) aptly illustrates this point with an analogy of waiters and waitresses in a restaurant:

While a less-than-average tip might indicate dissatisfaction, it does not provide usable feedback to the service provider. Rarely do we tell waiters what our expectations will be. We don’t tell them that the value of their tip will be contingent on the speed of service, the number of times they refill the water glass, and the friendliness they display during the course of the meal. Instead, we leave the table without giving specific feedback along these performance dimensions, leaving the waiter to decide why the tip was less than desired and what actions should be taken next time to increase the potential for a better tip. (p. 19)


In other words, human beings are not mind readers.  In order for feedback to be effective, it must clearly and specifically describe the areas of the performance it addresses.

            In addition to being timely and focusing specifically on the area of the performance it addresses, feedback must also fit the situation.  As Tosti and Jackson (1999) state, “Effective feedback should fit the needs and expectations of the performer, as well as the nature of the performance itself” (p.399).  In other words, feedback should be tailored to what the giver of the feedback knows about the performer and the performance.  This ties in with Nelson’s (2003) assertions about managers keeping open communications with employees, because open communications help the manger to understand how to tailor feedback to the performer.      

            The way in which feedback is given is also a key constituent to its effectiveness.  As Cousine and Beagrie (2004) state for the giver of feedback, “It is...essential that you prepare in advance and know specifically what you want to say, as well as what you want to change or achieve” (p.27). It is also important that the giver of the feedback is plain spoken and specific about the performance, and that the person giving the feedback “gives detailed examples and focus on the actions, not the individual” (p. 27).

Feedforward as an Alternative to Feedback 

            Earlier in this paper, formative feedback was mentioned as a feedback that should be given before a performance (Tosti and Jackson, 1999).  Another name for this type of feedback, as described by Goldsmith (2003) is ‘feedforward.’  Goldsmith (2003) describes a basic problem with relying only on feedback:

...it focuses on [the] past, on what has already occurred—not on the infinite variety of things that can be in the future. As such, feedback can be limited and static, as opposed to expansive and dynamic. (p.38)


Goldsmith goes on to offer a variety of reasons why feedforward can be more effective than feedback.

            One reason he cites is that feedback is generally given after a performance.  Although this is not true in the case of what Tosti and Jackson (1999) call formative feedback, I would argue that formative feedback and feedforward are essentially the same thing.  Because the past cannot be changed, feedback about a performance after the fact is not always helpful.  But Goldsmith (2003) notes that by giving the performer information on how they can improve the next time around, “we can increase their chances of achieving...success in the future” (p.38)

            Another issue with feedback is the perception of the person receiving it.  As Goldsmith (2003) states, “In theory, constructive feedback is supposed to ‘focus on the performance not the person’. In practice, almost all feedback is taken personally...” (39). Often it is difficult for people to separate their feelings about the feedback from the feedback itself, and therefore, it is perceived as criticism.  In addition, many givers of feedback don’t enjoy having to give what they perceive as a criticism of a person’s performance (Goldsmith, 2003). The advantage of feedforward then, is that “it cannot involve a personal critique because it is discussing something that has not yet happened” (Goldsmith, 2003, p. 39).

            Another advantage of feedforward is that because it focuses on a task or performance and not the performer. It can be given by any individual who knows something about that task or performance.  It does not require that the giver of the feedforward know the performer (Goldsmith, 2003).  This further distances the information given from the performer, and focuses it on the performance.

            This does not mean, however, that feedforward has to be given by someone who does not know the performer.  Consider again McClelland’s theory of needs.  If the performer is known to be a person who is motivated by the need for achievement, feedforward can be a very useful tool for improving performance.  Many people who are highly motivated by this need are also very successful.   As Goldsmith (2003) notes, “Successful people like getting ideas that are aimed at helping them achieve their goals” (p.39).  And just because a person is successful, it of course does not mean they will be successful in every single thing they do.  Feedforward is a way to help such people to improve their performance in a way that motivates them as well.

            Feedforward is also useful because it can cover many of the same types of points that feedback can.  Goldsmith (2003) gives an example of giving an unsuccessful presentation in front of a committee, where the performer’s manager is in the room during the presentation.  In a situation like this, it is difficult to give feedback without it coming across as negative.  However, giving feedforward before the next presentation gives the performer options to change in the future rather than to dwell on what he or she did incorrectly in the past.  As Goldsmith (2003) states, “These suggestions can be very specific and still delivered in a positive way.  In this way [the] manager can ‘cover the same points’ without making [the performer] feel even more humiliated” (p. 39).

            Another advantage of feedforward given by Goldsmith (2003) is the efficiency of the technique.  When feedback is given, oftentimes there is debate on the merits of what is said.  Whether this debate is spoken out loud, or whether the person receiving the feedback debates it in his or her own mind.  With feedforward, ideas can be given in a non-threatening way, more as suggestions than judgments. As Goldsmith states, “With this approach, almost no time gets wasted on judging the quality of the ideas or ‘proving that the ideas are wrong’” (p.39).

A Caveat about Feedforward

            Despite all the advantages of feedforward mentioned, Goldsmith (2003) does not say that he does not believe it is never appropriate to give feedback, and in fact, states the following in regard to his article on feedforward:

The intent of this article is not to imply that leaders should never give feedback or that performance appraisals should be abandoned.  The intent is to show how feedforward can be preferable to feedback in day-to-day interactions. (p.40)


I would put the emphasis on using feedforward in day-to-day interactions.  If during a gap analysis, an HPT practitioner discovers that motivation is a performance issue, then feedforward might be incorporated into a performance intervention by suggesting to managers that they use the technique informally in daily interactions with performers as well as in a more formal manner.  This more formal manner might be employed during team meetings where upcoming goals and performances are discussed.  In these situations, managers could use feedforward techniques to give employees suggestions for improving upcoming performance.


The Relationship between Feedback and Motivation

            As discussed earlier, giving feedback can be a practical method of applying the satisfaction component of the ARCS model (Keller, 1999).  But what is the actual relationship between feedback and motivation?  To reiterate, the satisfaction component of the ARCS model involves personal satisfaction, or feeling good about something, in this case, the performance.  When the performer receives specific and immediate feedback about a performance, this can lead to increased satisfaction, particularly in those who are extrinsically motivated when the feedback is positive.

            But I would argue that formative feedback (or feedforward) can be a useful tool in applying all four parts of Keller’s model, not just the satisfaction component.  Giving formative feedback can grab a performer’s attention and focus him or her on the performance. An example of this is a manager taking an employee aside and informally giving him or her a few suggestions on how to go about doing a mundane daily task.  This would especially be attention getting if the manager doesn’t generally provide this kind of feedforward.

              If worded correctly, formative feedback can also be used to provide relevance to the performer about why the importance is important.  This is more useful in the case where the giver of the formative feedback knows the performer and has some insight into what is personally important to the performer. 

            Finally, formative feedback can be useful in increasing confidence.  If the giver of the feedback offers suggestions that may help improve the performance before worker actually does the performance, this guidance may increase the performer’s confidence in his or her own abilities.  This is especially true if this feedforward is given in the manner prescribed by Goldsmith (2003), i.e. in a friendly, informal manner.



            Motivation as it relates to performance can be a very complicated issue simply because people themselves are quite complex.  It is an important thing for HPT practitioners to take motivation into account, though, when a gap analysis is done.  Oftentimes, managers focus on lack of skills as a reason for poor performance when in fact, motivation may be the issue.   Feedback is also something that must be taken into consideration by HPT practitioners, as feedback has an impact on motivation, and often, changing the way feedback is given can be a low-cost method for improving motivation.

            Although the suggestions given in this paper for improving motivation and feedback are not ends in themselves, they can be considered means to the end of improving performance.  When designing performance interventions that involve employee motivation, the HPT practitioner should look at these suggestions as possible starting points.









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