Because of 'Because': Examining the Use of Causal Language in Relative Performance Feedback
49 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2014 Last revised: 11 Apr 2017
Date Written: February 28, 2017
This study examines how the use of causal language in conveying relative performance feedback impacts subsequent task performance and affect. Studies on performance feedback and evaluation in accounting research have focused on the use of quantitative performance measures and the availability of relative performance information; few studies have examined whether the qualitative comments influence employee reactions to the reviews. Research in linguistics has shown that causal language, defined as language reflecting the search for reasons (commonly expressed through words such as “because” and “thus”), impacts how recipients process information that they have received. We posit that causal language clearly links explanations to relative performance feedback and in turn impacts subsequent task performance and affect by impacting how employees process the information. However, like much research on performance feedback, we predict that the effect of causal language in relative performance feedback depends on whether the feedback is positive or negative. Using a 2x2 between-subjects experiment, we find that greater use of causal language in delivering negative performance feedback leads to improved subsequent performance and affect; on the other hand, greater use of causal language in delivering positive feedback actually diminishes performance (while having no significant effect on affect). These seemingly contradictory results are explained by causal language’s role in facilitating employee sense-making after receiving relative performance feedback. Our results indicate that employees’ cognitive processes and reactions to performance feedback are influenced by the language used in explanations. Our study contributes to the call to greater research on the provision of performance feedback, which is considered an essential part of an organization’s management control systems.
Keywords: Performance Feedback, Language, Performance Measurement
JEL Classification: M40, M41, M55
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation