Providing Feedback on Leadership Potential Affects Employee Performance

Topic(s): feedback, leadership, motivation, performance
Publication: The Leadership Quarterly, 2018
Article: How Feedback about Leadership Potential Impacts Ambition, Organizational Commitment, and Performance
Authors: N.K. Steffens, M.A. Fonseca, M.K. Ryan, F.A. Rink, J.I. Stoker, A.N. Pieterse
Reviewed by: Mona Bapat, PhD

Research has found that performance evaluations, positive and negative, can influence employees’ motivation to work. Studies have shown that this is because the performance evaluations tell employees how well they perform compared to their peers, and in turn, how central they are to their organization.

However, performance evaluations only address how well employees meet the expectations of their current job. Little is known about how feedback regarding leadership potential can impact employee motivation. This information could be helpful to leaders who are trying to groom future organizational leaders.

Researchers (Steffens et al., 2018) conducted two studies. The first was to determine how feedback on leadership potential could impact employee leadership ambition and organizational commitment. The second was to determine how such feedback could impact employee perception of procedural fairness and subsequent job performance.


In the first study, the researchers recruited 256 people with work experience to participate in an online experiment. Participants were randomly assigned to three groups: one group read a scenario giving them feedback that they have high leadership potential, one group was told they have low leadership potential, and a control group with no information about leadership potential. After reading the scenarios, participants completed a questionnaire.

Analyses revealed that those who were told they have low leadership potential showed lower leadership ambition compared to those who were told they have high leadership potential and those in the control group. The relationship between leadership potential and organizational commitment was not found to be significant in this study.


In the second study, the researchers recruited 264 undergraduate students who participated in a multi-stage computerized experiment that involved doing arithmetic and word completion tasks.

These tasks were first performed individually and then in groups. Leaders of the groups were chosen by a score calculated from their individualized performance score added to a randomly generated number. Participants were also assigned to one of three groups: one receiving feedback of low leadership potential, one of high leadership potential, and a control group. At the end of the experiment researchers revealed to them how leaders were chosen. Finally, the participants completed a questionnaire about their attitudes toward the leader designation process.

The researchers found there was a slightly larger increase in performance among those in the high potential group compared to those in the control group. The researchers also found that those receiving feedback of high leadership potential viewed the process as fairer than those receiving feedback of low leadership potential.


The authors comment that professional development programs targeted at a few employees with leadership potential could inadvertently undermine the performance and ambition of those not recruited for leadership positions.

Therefore, the authors recommend that organizations design more inclusive approaches that emphasize the importance of the interests of the entire organization, and foster employees’ capacities to grow into leadership positions. In addition, positive feedback can be a very strong motivator, so organizations would benefit by emphasizing positive feedback to all employees corresponding to their unique abilities and contributions.


Steffens, N.K., Fonseca, M.A., Ryan, M.K., Rink, F.A., Stoker, J.I. & Pieterse, A.N. (2018). How feedback about leadership potential impacts ambition, organizational commitment and performance. The Leadership Quarterly, 29, 637-647.