Sustainability 2020, 12, 3011; doi:10.3390/su12073011 www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability
Performance Feedback, Goal Clarity, and Public
Employees’ Performance in Public Organizations
and Sungjoo Choi
Graduate School of Public Administration/Professor/Seoul National University, Seoul 08826, Korea;
Department of Public Administration/Professor/Kyung Hee University, Seoul 02447, Korea
* Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org
Received: 11 March 2020; Accepted: 01 April 2020; Published: 9 April 2020
Abstract: Scholars have emphasized the importance of supervisory feedback in improving
individual performance. Subordinates benefit from clear communication of organizational goals
and expected behaviors of employees, which are linked to the improvement of individual
performance and organizational effectiveness. We examine the dynamic relationship between
feedback on performance and individual performance, which is mediated by performance goal
clarity. Given the potential influence of contextual factors on the relationship, we also test the
moderation effect of autonomy on the relationship between performance goal clarity and individual
performance. The data collected from the local government workforce in Korea were analyzed
through structural equation modeling. The findings show that performance feedback is significantly
and positively related to individual performance, mediated by performance goal clarity. In addition,
the mediation effect of performance goal clarity was positively moderated by autonomy. The results
imply that performance feedback can contribute to the improvement of individual performance by
helping employees clearly understand the performance goals they need to accomplish. The higher
levels of autonomy may promote the positive link between a clear understanding of performance
goals and individual performance.
Keywords: feedback; goal clarity; and performance
Managing organizational performance is directly related to organizational sustainability.
Sustainable organizations adopt strategies and activities that are accountable for the demands of the
organization and its stakeholders, while also protecting, maintaining, and increasing the human and
financial resources that the organization will need in the future . The enhanced organizational
performance in responding to external demands and managing internal resources may offer
organizations a higher probability of sustainability. Public organizations are not exceptions. Over the
past several decades, a large volume of literature in public management has delved into strategies to
enhance the performance of public organizations and has demonstrated the critical role of
management in leading to higher performance [2,3].
Managing performance in public organizations, however, has been quite challenging due to the
complex nature of organizational goals. The goals of public organizations are inclined to be more
ambiguous, dynamic, and sometimes multifaceted than those in private organizations.  Operating
in highly political environments, public organizations have often struggled to pursue multiple values
(e.g., equity, efficiency, democratic values) to cope with competing goals and to reduce goal
ambiguity [5–8]. Under such circumstances, managerial strategies and efforts to help employees
select among competing goals and prioritize between them will be necessary .
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Scholars [6,8] have suggested that performance feedback may alleviate the negative effects of
low goal clarity on performance in public organizations by guiding employees to focus on selected
goals by decision-makers in the organization. They highlighted the importance of enhanced
interactions between supervisor and subordinate, including clear communication of organizational
goals and expected behaviors of employees and sharing performance information, which are likely
to aid employees in accomplishing higher performance [7,9]. Thus, performance feedback may play
a more crucial role in managing performance in the context of public organizations, which have
suffered from unclear organizational goals, than in any other organizational setting.
Research that has shown the positive effects of performance feedback on organizational
effectiveness is not rare. Quite a few studies in business management have demonstrated the positive
effects of performance feedback on organizational effectiveness including individual and
organizational performance [10–15]. However, relatively less research has explored how active
utilization of performance feedback can help public organizations and their employees enhance
performance. Given a highly politicized and complex environment where public organizations
operate, the external validity of the findings from private businesses may be questionable, requiring
The purpose of this research is twofold. First, we examine if performance feedback will
contribute to employees’ performance in the context of public organizations. By analyzing the data
collected from public employees in local governments in Korea, we test if the positive link between
performance feedback and employees’ performance is also found in public organizations. Structural
equation modeling was adopted to estimate the hypothesized relationship between performance
feedback and individual performance. Second, we investigate the process of performance feedback
affecting individual performance. In particular, we focus on the mediating role of goal clarity
between performance feedback and individual performance, assuming that performance feedback
will clarify performance goals and desirable behavioral standards for employees, and eventually
assist them in improving their performance. Given that public organizations have suffered from
lower levels of goal clarity, we expect that performance feedback will draw critical attention from
public managers as a strategy to solve this chronic problem of public organizations [7,16].
First, we review the relevant literature. Grounded upon the literature review, the hypotheses
will be developed. Next, the data will be statistically analyzed to test the hypotheses. Finally, the
results and implications will be discussed.
2. Theoretical Framework
2.1. The Performance Feedback Effects
Performance feedback refers to “information about the actual performance or actions of a system
used to control the future actions of a system” [11,17] p. 310. It has some advantages, such as cost-
effectiveness, programmatic simplicity and flexibility, and an emphasis on positive consequences,
and therefore adopted as an organizational intervention technique to enhance performance  p. 3.
It is less likely to use aversive control procedures by weighing more on positive outcomes .
Performance feedback could be offered in various ways. Scholars have tested the effectiveness of
offering performance feedback in a positive and negative way [10,15]. Positive performance
feedbacks are favorable comments or appreciation expressed by supervisors to subordinates through
sharing performance information, whereas negative performance feedbacks are negative
performance information and criticisms from supervisors [15,19]. Positive performance feedbacks
serve as the reinforcer of desirable behaviors contributing to individual productivity and professional
development, but negative performance feedbacks could cause subordinates’ negative psychological
consequences, including a feeling of frustration and decreased self-efficacy [10,15]. Empirical
evidence has consistently shown that positive performance feedbacks are effective in promoting
individual performance [10,15]. The effectiveness of negative performance feedbacks is inconclusive.
Some found that a negative way of delivering performance feedback failed to bring higher
performance, whereas others demonstrated that both positive and negative performance feedback
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effectively helps to enhance performance only if supervisors focus on providing performance
information and deliver it consistently [9,15,20].
Previous studies have investigated the multiple functions of performance feedback are various
antecedents leading to performance [10,21,22]. Accurate feedback from a supervisor can yield a
number of positive results for subordinates, for example, a better understanding of organizational
goals and expected roles and levels of performance and information about job tasks that can facilitate
performance . Performance information received from supervisors could be used as a
developmental tool that aids employees in modifying their efforts and behaviors to remedy
performance deficits or to reinforce desirable behaviors and attitudes producing higher performance
[15,19]. Feedback could also generate an instrumental motive that encourages employees to seek for
the perceived feedback as well as to self-regulate based on the feedback . We, however, limit our
discussion to the potential function of performance feedback that clarifies organizational objectives
and performance goals for employees, which will, in turn, promote individual performance and
2.2. Hypotheses: Performance Feedbacks and Performance
Goal-setting theory and control theory offers theoretical grounds for postulating employees who
can benefit from performance feedback ultimately produce higher performance. Goal-setting theory
 noted that in the process of accomplishing the goals, feedback plays a guiding role in directing
individual workers to follow the behavioral standards and expectations and to pay attention to the
aspects of tasks indicated by feedback. In consequence, performance feedback can lead individuals’
future goal setting and behaviors to the direction of promoting their productivity, contributing to
higher performance of the organization [19,24]. In a similar vein, control theory explained that
performance feedback reduces the gap between the current level of performance of an individual and
the expected standards set by the organization . In case employees’ goals are not congruent with
those of the broader organization, the organization may not benefit from the contribution of
individual workers, which will not be incorporated with the organization’s needs. Individuals can
attain goals and outcomes valued by the organization through the process of adjusting their
understanding of the goals and expected behaviors to the established standards by following the
Many studies have convincingly demonstrated the positive connection between feedback and
performance under various circumstances [2,10,12,13,15]. Favero et al. (2016) examined how internal
management efforts including performance feedback provision affect school performance. The
results were consistent with the literature in public management, showing that managerial efforts are
effective in improving organizational performance. Su et al. (2019) found a positive link between
developmental feedback and employee performance with evidence of the impacts of contextual
factors on the relationship. The relationship between performance feedback and performance was
partially mediated by feedback-seeking behaviors. Employees with political skills were more likely
to request performance feedback from their supervisors and improve job performance. Similarly, Guo
et al. (2014) found that developmental feedbacks are positively associated with job performance.
Intrinsic motivation partially mediated the relationship between feedback and job performance. The
method of delivering the performance feedbacks also seem to affect the effectiveness of performance
feedback. Zheng et al. (2013) examined the relationship between positive and negative performance
feedback and task performance. It was observed that only the positive way of offering performance
feedback was positively related to employee task performance. Negative performance feedback,
although not significantly associated with task performance, reinforced the effects of positive
performance feedback on performance. Contrarily, Choi et al. (2018) conducted a research experiment
with participants consisting of students from a university to compare the effects of different types
and sequences of providing performance feedback. The results showed that both positive and
negative performance feedbacks were effective in enhancing work performance. The positive effects
were greater when the way of delivering performance feedbacks was consistent (positive–positive or
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negative–negative). Along this argument, we assume that performance feedback can contribute to
the improvement of individual performance.
: Performance feedback will be positively related to individual performance.
2.3. The Contextual Influences: Performance Goal Clarity and Autonomy
The generic theoretical discussion underscores the positive effects of performance feedback on
task performance . However, empirical evidence does not always seem to support it [14,27–29].
According to relevant meta-analysis, the relationship between feedback and performance is
equivocal, generating inconsistent research findings . Scholars suspect that it might be because
the relationship between feedback and performance is complex and possibly indirect, affected by
various contextual factors [9,14,29]. It thus requires a more sophisticated approach to delve into the
dynamic relationships between performance feedback, contextual factors, and individual
Whitaker and his colleagues (2007) explained two potential reasons. First, factors that can
potentially mediate the link between feedback and performance may exist. For example, according
to Morrison’s model of employee information seeking, individuals tend to seek feedback to reduce
uncertainty in the work process and increase job knowledge linked to higher performance. Reduced
uncertainty, then, leads to desirable work attitudes and higher performance. Similarly, Taylor et al.
(1984) noted that employees’ clear understanding of behavioral standards through feedback will
result in positive changes in performance . The arguments are also consistent with the logic
offered by the goal-setting theory discussed earlier. Second, feedback from different sources may lead
to different results. Renn and Fedor (2001) noted that feedback-seeking from the supervisor and
coworkers may affect the link between feedback and task performance differently . For example,
employees are more likely to seek sufficient and relevant feedback from a supervisor than coworkers,
which will have greater positive impacts on job clarity and performance.
We, thus, test the potential mediation effect of performance goal clarity between feedback and
individual performance. We also investigate the moderating effect of autonomy, which has often
been discussed as an important antecedent of higher performance, on the relationship between
performance goal clarity and individual performance.
2.3.1. The Mediating Effect of Performance Goal Clarity
Performance goal clarity has often been discussed as a mediating factor that intervenes in the
relationship between performance feedback and performance. Goal-setting theory suggests that a
clear understanding of performance goals through specific guidance will yield higher performance
than merely encouraging employees “to do their best” and not offering a clear direction toward goals
and expected behaviors [23,32]. Along the similar line, because organizational goal clarity plays a
directing role in channeling and concentrating team motivation to the attainment of the goal, work
teams will intensify their efforts toward the goals and accomplish them in more effective ways .
Organizational goal clarity can also help work teams envision desirable behaviors, which can
contribute to the organization and attain the knowledge of the goals valued by the organization
Empirical studies consistently found that a clear understanding of performance goals and roles
assigned to an individual mediates the relationship between feedback and performance. Whitaker
and his colleagues (2007) argued that the seemingly inconsistent relationship between performance
feedback and performance may be understood from the perspective of role clarity, which possibly
mediates the relationship between feedback and performance. They, indeed, found the mediation
effect of role clarity on the relationship between a feedback-supportive environment and an
individual’s performance. Gonzalez-Mule et al. (2016) also demonstrated that feedback coupled with
greater team autonomy may enhance team performance through clarifying the organization’s goals
and communicating performance information for work teams. Anderson and Stritch (2015), through
a laboratory experiment, have shown that individuals who were provided a clear direction of task
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goals were able to perform better than others who were not. Based upon these arguments, we predict
that performance goal clarity will mediate the relationship between performance feedback and
performance where more feedback will improve individual performance through clarifying
: Performance goal clarity will positively mediate the relationship between performance feedback and
2.3.2. The Moderating Effect of Autonomy
Previous research has suggested that various contextual factors may moderate the relationship
between performance goal clarity and performance [11,14,32,35]. Anderson and Stritch (2015), in their
experiment, found that task significance affects the association of task goal clarity and performance
in the way that when an individual perceives significance of the task, he or she is likely to feel
performance pressure and anxiety, which will reduce individual performance. Wallace and his
colleagues (2011) found that employees’ autonomous power is likely to bring higher performance
only when they feel higher accountability for their work. Even in regard to affectional outcomes (e.g.,
job satisfaction), job autonomy is inclined to affect the outcome conditional to other contextual factors
(job demand and goal ambiguity). Jong (2016) reported that job autonomy is likely to increase job
satisfaction of individuals, interacting with job demand and goal ambiguity.
In particular, we focus on employees’ work autonomy, which, coupled with performance goal
clarity, can boost its positive effect on performance. We assume that the synergic effect of autonomy
and performance goal clarity will contribute to individual performance. Prior research has often
discussed the positive impacts of work autonomy on performance and work attitudes (e.g., job
satisfaction, organizational commitment, job involvement) [36–40]. Autonomy, as an internal
cognitive state, which can be gained through sharing power and is involved in decision making, leads
to increased intrinsic work motivation and enhanced self-efficacy [38,41,42]. Autonomous employees
are expected to produce higher performance through sharing performance information, job-related
knowledge, and discretion over task, even in highly turbulent work environments [36,39].
Higher autonomy provides individuals with the ability to determine what goals they should
pursue for their organization to carry out higher performance and calibrate their efforts toward the
organization’s goals and individual goal accomplishment . Although individuals with higher
autonomy are motivated to make voluntary efforts towards goal attainment, there is no guarantee
that they are well aware of the organization’ goals, will select the goals consistent with those of the
organization, and take a series of actions beneficial to the organization. Some scholars warned that
autonomy may put the organization in a risk of disorder when autonomous work teams or
individuals pursue goals that are not congruent with those of the organization [11,43,44]. Thus, as
goal setting theory notes, clear understanding of goals, which can help employees concentrate their
effort on meeting the organization’s expectations over them, will be necessary to enhance the benefits
of work autonomy . Indeed, some practical experiment is supportive of the potential interaction
of autonomy and performance goal clarity. The Texas Instrument company did an experiment on
employees for the purpose of designing autonomous work groups. After announcing that employees
are autonomous and allowed to do what they want to do, the management encouraged employees
to direct themselves and independently act . The results were not desirable because employees,
who were not provided the direction of what are the organization’s expectations over them, did not
know what to do. However, once the organization provided feedback on the goals and goal processes
for work groups, highly autonomous work groups started to produce desirable outcomes for the
organization, exercising significant levels of authority over work processes and decision making
related to tasks . Along with the line of arguments, we posit that autonomy will enhance the
positive effects of performance goal clarity on performance. Employees who clearly understand the
performance goals, when provided greater autonomy, will produce higher performance than others
with lower autonomy.
: Autonomy will positively moderate the relationship between performance goal clarity and performance.
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2.3.3. The Effects of Control Variables
We controlled for key work attitudes that are likely to affect performance—public service
motivation and job satisfaction—and individual characteristics including occupational category
(administrators or technicians), supervisory status, tenure, education, and demographic factors such
as age and gender. Although not empirically consistent, scholars in public management argued that
public employees with higher public service motivation are likely to perform better than others [4,46].
The relationship between job satisfaction and performance is also not clearly defined. In general, job
satisfaction is predicted to be positively related to performance .
In the rank-in-person system, organizational tenure, which is likely to be significantly correlated
with seniority, tend to be positively associated with performance evaluations. Individuals with
longer seniority are more likely to receive higher performance ratings and also be eligible for
promotion. The majority of the public workforce in the rank-in-person system is composed of general
administrators, which may result in higher competitiveness among them than technicians. Human
capital such as educational attainment and supervisory status can be positively related to
performance. Performance of female employees, who are minorities in the organization, may be
underestimated and possibly receive less favorable performance ratings than their male colleagues.
Figure 1 describes the hypothesized model.
Figure 1. The mediated–moderated relationship between performance goal clarity and individual
3. Data and Methods
3.1. Sample and Data Collection
The sample was drawn from the local government workforce in Korea.
The local government
of Korea is composed of 17 metropolitan governments and 225 municipal governments. The
disproportional stratified random sampling method was used to select a sample, which was reliable
and representative of the local government workforce in Korea. Considering different sizes of
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metropolitan and municipal governments, 30 units from each metropolitan government and 10 units
from each municipal government were selected.
The anonymous survey was conducted November 16, 2017 to February 5, 2018. The computer-
aided web interview (CAWI) method was adopted to collect the data from participants. We initially
reached out individuals by telephone to ask if he or she is willing to participate in our survey before
conducting it. Then, we emailed out our survey only to the ones who accepted our invitation; 2766
out of 8817 initial contacts completed the survey, leading to 31.4% of the response rate.
attempted to contact the ones who did not respond to our request several times to encourage them
to participate in the survey. The survey items were developed to inquire of organizational
productivity, individual and agency level performance ratings, performance evaluations and
feedbacks, leadership, work attitudes, hierarchy and work autonomy, and demographic and personal
characteristics of a survey respondent.
Table 1 displays the characteristics of the sample. The sample was composed of administrators
(73.1%) and technicians (26.9%).
Approximately 60% of the survey respondents held rank 6 (30.5%)
or rank 7 (29.4%); 10.4% of them are on rank 5, 18.5% on rank 8, 10.5% on rank 9, and 0.7% on rank 4.
The average tenure of participants was 15.4 years. About 71% were college graduates. Women
comprised 38.7% of the sample. Compared to the characteristics of the population, we found that our
sample was representative of the population, sharing similar characteristics. The overall
characteristics of the population were as follows: Men (58.6%) and women (41.4%); administrators
(65%) and technicians (35%); rank 4 (1%), rank 5 (6.4%), rank 6 (28.1%), rank 7 (32%), rank 8 (15.5%),
and rank 9 (11.5%); and average tenure (16.3 years).
Table 1. Descriptive statistics.
Variable Mean Std.
Unit of analysis
performance 4.76 1.53 1 7
Responses to the question, “what is your performance
rating?” in a 7-point Likert scale: from ‘outstanding=7’ to
feedback 2.56 1.40 1 5 The number of times to meet and discuss with supervisor
regarding performance last year (1 to 5 times)
goal clarity 3.34 0.79 1 5 Index variable: the average score of responses to five
survey items which were measured in 5-point scale
Autonomy 3.03 0.70 1 5 Index variable: the average score of responses to two
survey items which were measured in 5-point scale
motivation 3.83 0.55 1 5
Index variable: the average score of responses to seven
survey items regarding satisfaction with job itself and
public service motivation, each of which was measured in
satisfaction 2.92 0.71 1 5
Index variable: the average score of responses to seven
survey items regarding satisfaction with salary, work
hours, work environment, and employee welfare, each of
which was measured in 5-point scale
1.27 0.44 1 2 General administrators = 1; technicians = 2
status 1.11 0.31 1 2 Non-supervisor = 1; manager = 2
attainment 2.83 0.72 1 5 PhD =5; Master=4; Bachelor=3; 2year college graduate=2;
High school graduates=1
The number of years employed as public employees
Gender 1.39 0.49 1 2 Male =1; female=2
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3.2. Dependent Variable
Individual-level performance. By law, the Korean government requires each agency to evaluate
individual-level and organizational-level performance on a regular basis.
Individual performance is
assessed by two different evaluation systems, depending on their rank. Performance of employees
who hold rank 4 or higher is evaluated once per year (on the last day of a year), based on the
performance agreement that they establish with their supervisor at the beginning of the year.
Performance of employees who hold rank 5 or lower ranks is evaluated by their supervisor twice per
year, in June and December (the last day of the year). The survey respondents were asked to report
the performance ratings they received from the evaluator at the end of the year (12/31). The local
governments in Korea adopt a 7-point rating scale to evaluate individual performance, which ranges
from ‘outstanding’ to ‘need improvement.’ In the case of using different rating scales, they were asked
to select one, which best describes the level of their performance evaluation. The average performance
rating reported by the survey participants is 4.7, which indicates the performance level between
‘moderately good’ and ‘average.’ Although the measure still relies on self-reported data, the way of
inquiring information can reduce the potential bias caused by self-assessment of performance. The
survey participants were asked to report the performance rating they obtained from their supervisor,
not their perceived level of performance.
3.3. Independent Variables
3.3.1. Performance Feedback
The variable was developed based on responses to the question, “how many times did you
discuss your performance with your supervisor during this year?
We assume that the more
frequently an individual received performance feedback from his or her supervisor, the more
information regarding performance goals, which he or she should attain, and the expected levels of
performance, would have been provided. The average number of performance feedback provided
for employees is 3 times this year, ranging between 1 and 5 times.
3.3.2. Performance Goal Clarity
The perceived level of performance goal clarity was measured by combining responses to
relevant questions. Sawyer (1992) developed the measures of goal clarity, which inquire of clear
understanding of duties and responsibilities, goals and objectives for the job, the relationship
between individual work and the overall objectives of the work unit, the expected results of my work,
and information of my work to get positive evaluations (or avoid negative evaluations) . Referring
to Sawyer’s (1992) measures of goal clarity, we selected relevant survey items that specifically focus
on measuring performance goals clarity. Five items inquiring of the following subjects were included:
1) Objectivity and measurability of performance goals; 2) a clear understanding of performance goals;
3) relationship between individuals’ performance goals and the organization’s goals; 4) a clear
understanding of goal priorities; 5) information to avoid poor performance ratings. All these items
were measured on a 5-point Likert scale. Cronbach’s alpha value (0.90) suggests that the measure is
internally consistent and reliable. We calculated the average scores of the responses to five survey
This variable measured the perceived level of autonomy employees exercise in their work.
Campbell and Pritchard (1976) developed the original measure of work autonomy . Because
many of the original items specifically focus on managerial roles, we selected two appropriate items
for our sample, 89% of which were non-supervisors. The measures evaluated the extent to which
employees felt free to determine their work processes, schedule tasks, and any work-related
decisions. The questions that were asked concerned whether employees have higher levels of
autonomy in their work and if a supervisor frequently delegates authority to subordinates. They were
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measured on a 5-point Likert scale. The responses to these questions (two survey items) were
correlated, leading to a Cronbach’s alpha value of 0.65. It suggests that the variable is internally
consistent and reliable. The responses to the questions were combined by calculating the average
scores of the responses to the survey items.
3.4. Control Variables
3.4.1. Work Attitudes
We controlled for the influences of public service motivation and job satisfaction on
performance. The seven survey items of public service motivation were developed based on Perry’s
(1996) public service motivation measures. The measure of job satisfaction was composed of seven
survey items including satisfaction with pay, working conditions, environment, and welfare
programs. Each variable was measured by averaging responses to the relevant questions. Cronbach’s
alpha for the measure of job satisfaction was 0.73, while it was 0.85 for the measure of public service
motivation; it shows that the measures are internally consistent.
3.4.2. Individual Characteristics
To take into consideration the impacts of individual differences on performance, we controlled
for six variables measuring individual characteristics: Occupation, tenure, educational attainment,
gender, and supervisory status. The occupation variable had two values: administrator coded as “1,”
and technician coded as “2.” Regarding this, 73% of the sample was administrators, while the rest of
the sample was technicians. The tenure variable measured the number of years an individual has
worked in government. For the gender variable, men were coded as “1,” while women coded as “2.”
The supervisory status variable had two values: managers coded as “2” and non-supervisor coded
as “1.” The educational attainment variable had five values: PhD degree coded as “5,” Master degree
coded as “4,” Bachelor degree as “3,” 2-year college graduates coded as “2,” and high school graduate
coded as “1.” Table 1 displays the descriptive statistics, while Table 2 reports bivariate correlations
Table 2. Correlations.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
3.Tenure −0.01 0.04*
4.Education 0.02 0.02 0.04*
6.Feedback 0.02 0.14** 0.02 0.03 −0.16**
0.10** 0.12** 0.02 −0.01 −0.07** 0.37** (0.71)
9. Public service
0.03 0.17** 0.09** −0.01 −0.11** 0.21** 0.36** 0.21**
−0.01 0.20** 0.04* −0.05** −0.04** 0.21** 0.36** 0.27** 0.27** (0.5)
Note: The average variance extracted (AVE) values were in the parentheses. **, p < 0.01; *, p < 0.05.
3.5. Model Specification and Testing Methods
We developed the models that propose the effect of performance feedback on individual
performance mediated by performance goal clarity and moderated by work autonomy. Although the
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data were collected at one point in time, the way we structured the questions may have created a
natural time lag between performance feedback and performance evaluation. The survey participants
were likely to report their performance rating that they received at the end of the year, given the
survey was conducted during the performance evaluation period. Then, we can reasonably expect
that performance feedbacks, which individuals received during a year, influenced the evaluation
results obtained on the last day of the year.
Before testing the hypotheses, the confirmatory factor analysis was conducted to evaluate the
measurement model for convergent and discriminant validity. The convergent and discriminant
validity of the focal constructs in our models, which include performance goal clarity, autonomy, job
satisfaction, and public service motivation, were examined through a series of confirmatory factor
analyses. Standardized loading estimates for all the items in the four constructs ranged between 0.52
and 0.93. The average variance extracted (AVE) values for all four variables (in Table 2) were over
0.5, which is the recommended cutoff point [49,50]. The AVE of performance goal clarity corresponds
to 0.71; autonomy, 0.71; job satisfaction, 0.5; public service motivation, 0.57. Composite reliabilities of
four variables were 0.91 (performance goal clarity), 0.83 (work autonomy), and 0.87 (public service
motivation). The composite reliability of job satisfaction was 0.67, which was lower than the
recommended cutoff point (0.70), but an acceptable level .
To test discriminant validity, we tested four models: one-factor model to four-factor and
compared the fit indices of the hypothesized models. The results are shown in Table 3. In the one-
factor model, all the variables were loaded on a single factor. In the two-factor model, autonomy, job
satisfaction, and public service motivation were loaded on one factor. In the three-factor model, job
satisfaction and public service motivation were loaded on one factor. In the four-factor model, each
variable was loaded on a single factor. The hypothesized four-factor model was shown to provide a
better fit than the other models. The fit indexes including 683.43 (chi-square), 0.96 (CFI), 0.03 (SRMR),
and 0.06 (RMSEA) are indicative of acceptable fit [52,53].
Table 2 displays that the AVE of each
construct was greater than its shared variance with any other construct, suggesting that discriminant
validity was supported for the four constructs .
Table 3. The comparison of the measurement models.
df RMSEA CFI SRMR
4-factor model 683.43*** 59 0.062 0.962 0.03
3-factor model 985.8*** 62 0.073 0.943 0.035
2-factor model 1634.83*** 64 0.094 0.904 0.057
1-factor model 6714.3*** 65 0.192 0.593 0.132
Note: 1-factor model (performance goal clarity, autonomy, job satisfaction, and public service
motivation (PSM) one factor); 2-factor model (performance goal clarity and autonomy one factor,
PSM and job satisfaction the other factor); 3-factor model (PSM and job satisfaction one factor,
performance goal clarity another factor, autonomy the other factor); 4-factor model, each
variable was loaded on a single factor.
To test the hypothesized relationships, structural equation modeling (SEM) was performed. To
examine the indirect effects of performance feedback on individual performance through
performance goal clarity, we adopted the bootstrap estimation method, using 1000 replications.
Asymmetric bootstrap confidence intervals have been widely used to test indirect effects .
Evidence of 95% bootstrap confidence intervals that are above zero indicates the statistical
significance of indirect effects . We also included a multiplicative term of performance goal clarity
and autonomy in the models, to test the moderating effect of autonomy on the relationship between
performance goal clarity and performance. We mean-centered each constituent variable before
generating the multiplicative term (or interaction variable). To probe the moderation effect, we
conducted a simple slope analysis by testing the effect of goal clarity on individual performance at
the low level of autonomy (one standard deviation (SD) below the mean) and at the high level of
autonomy (one SD above the mean) [55,56]. The result was plotted.
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Figure 2 provides the summary of the path estimates between feedback, goal clarity, autonomy,
and individual performance, where the effects of work attitudes (job satisfaction and public service
motivation) and individual characteristics were controlled. The fit indices of the model show that the
model fit was good: The Chi-square = 4.1 (p < 0.1), RMSEA = 0.034, CFI=0.998, SRMR= 0.004 . Table
4 shows the detailed estimates of structural path estimates. When testing the hypothesized model,
we compared it with alternative models to determine a direct relationship between performance
feedback and individual performance. The alternative model 1 deleted the direct effect of
performance feedback and individual performance. The fit indices of the alternative model included
the Chi-square = 365.9 (p < 0.001), RMSEA = 0.166, CFI = 0.74, SRMR = 0.043 (Table 5). The alternative
model 2 added the indirect paths of autonomy, generic work motivation, and public service
motivation on individual performance. The fit indices of the alternative model included the Chi-
square = 18.44 (p < 0.001), RMSEA = 0.056, CFI = 0.98, SRMR = 0.007 (Table 5). We, thus, verified the
validity of our hypothesized model. Table 5 displays the summary of the fit indices of the
hypothesized model and alternative models.
Figure 2. The results of the mediated–moderated relationship between performance goal clarity and
Table 4. The estimated structural path coefficients (N=2630).
performance goal clarity
performance goal clarity
performance goal clarity
Public service motivation
performance goal clarity
Performance goal clarity
Public service motivation
Performance goal clarity*autonomy
performance goal clarity
performance goal clarity
performance goal clarity
performance goal clarity
performance goal clarity
(1) = 4.1*, RMSEA = 0.034, CFI = 0.998, SRMR = 0.004, ***, p < 0.001; **, p < 0.01; *, p < 0.1.
Sustainability 2020, 12, 3011 12 of 18
Table 5. The summary of fit indices of the hypothesized model and alternative models.
df RMSEA CFI SRMR
The hypothesized model 4.1* 1 0.034 0.998 0.004
Alternative model 2 18.44*** 2 0.056 0.988 0.007
Alternative model 1
Note: ***, p < 0.001; **, p < 0.01; *, p < 0.1.
H1 posits that performance feedback will be positively related to individual performance. The
direct relationship between performance feedback and individual performance was found to be
positive (0.037, p < 0.001), which is consistent with our expectations. It suggests that more frequent
feedback on performance was positively associated with the enhanced performance of employees.
Individuals who had more opportunities to meet their supervisor and communicate performance
goals, performance information, and expected behaviors were more likely to attain higher evaluation
ratings of performance.
H2 postulates that performance goal clarity would mediate the relationship between
performance feedback and performance. We expected that more frequent feedback would help
employees better understand the performance goals and expectations they should meet, in turn
improving performance. Especially in the public sector where multiple goals compete and conflict
with each other, performance feedback will play a critical role in prioritizing the goals and guide
employees in the way that they can select goals and concentrate their efforts on the organizational
priorities. To test the mediation effect, we performed the bootstrapping estimation. The results in
Table 6 show that the indirect effect of performance feedback on individual performance through
performance goal clarity was also significant (0.022, p < 0.001, 95% confidence interval [0.015, 0.030]),
which is supportive of H2. Performance feedback was positively related to higher clarity of
performance goals (0.165, p < 0.001). Higher goal clarity was also positively related to individual
performance (0.136, p < 0.001). They indicate that performance goal clarity significantly mediates the
relationship between performance feedback and individual performance. More frequent feedback
and discussion on performance will first clarify performance goals for employees, in turn aiding in
their higher performance. The indirect relationships between autonomy, job satisfaction, public
service motivation, and individual performance, which are mediated by performance goal clarity,
were also significant. Table 6 displays the results of the bootstrap estimation.
Table 6. The results of the bootstrap estimation.
Indirect effect Coef. Bootstrap
Performance feedback performance goal clarity
individual performance 0.0224*** 0.004 [0.015, 0.030]
Autonomy performance goal clarity individual
performance 0.029*** 0.005 [0.019, 0.039]
performance goal clarity
individual performance 0.013** 0.004 [0.005, 0.022]
Public service motivation performance goal
clarity individual performance 0.038*** 0.007 [0.024, 0.052]
Note: 1000 replications, ***, p < 0.001; **, p < 0.01; *, p < 0.1.
H3 assumes that autonomy will positively moderate the relationship between performance goal
clarity and performance in the way that employees, who clearly understand the performance goals,
when provided a higher level of work autonomy, will produce higher performance than others with
lower autonomy. The moderation effect of autonomy on the relationship between performance goal
clarity and individual performance was significant (0.041, p < 0.05). The hypothesis was supported,
suggesting that employees with higher autonomy will benefit more from performance goal clarity,
Sustainability 2020, 12, 3011 13 of 18
achieving higher performance. Figure 3 plots the moderation effect of autonomy on the relationship
between goal clarity and individual performance.
Figure 3. Plotting the moderation effect of autonomy.
The models control the effects of work attitudes and individual characteristics on individual
performance. Job satisfaction (0.178, p < 0.001) and public service motivation (0.159, p < 0.001) were
both positively associated with individual performance. In addition, the relationships between job
satisfaction and public service motivation, and performance were mediated by goal clarity like that
between feedback and performance. Employees with longer tenures were more likely to attain higher
performance ratings. It might be attributed to the characteristics of the personnel system in the
Korean government, which has heavily relied upon seniority in making important personnel
decisions including assignment of works and roles, promotion, and wage.
Tenure, thus, is inclined
to have a positive effect on a performance rating. Female employees tended to receive lower
performance ratings. The negative correlation between tenure and women may indicate that female
employees have shorter tenures than their male colleagues, which may lead to relatively lower
performance ratings for women. Occupational category, supervisory status, and educational
attainment were not significantly related to individual performance.
5. Discussion and Conclusions
Prior research has investigated how performance feedback can contribute to individual
performance . Empirical evidence has not consistently indicated that feedback on performance
positively influences individuals’ job performance [14,24,27,28]. Such inconsistency may suggest the
existence of a dynamic relationship between feedback and performance, which might be influenced
by a variety of contextual factors. Indeed, our research has shown that performance feedback may
contribute to the improvement of individual performance by clarifying the performance goals they
need to focus on. We also found that when an individual has been given higher autonomy in their
work, while also having a clearer sense of the organizational and performance goals, he or she could
Low goal clarity High goal clarity
Sustainability 2020, 12, 3011 14 of 18
further improve their performance. These findings support theoretical arguments of the potential
benefits of feedback over performance improvement.
This research adds to the literature in some meaningful ways. First, little research has analyzed
the potential dynamic relationships between feedback, performance goal clarity, autonomy, and
individual performance in the context of public organizations. This study has demonstrated that
promoting a feedback-rich environment and supporting a coaching approach to performance
management can possibly alleviate the chronic problem of goal ambiguity in the public sector,
ultimately enhancing public employees’ productivity, and organizational performance. Furthermore,
it highlighted the importance of employees’ work autonomy, which can boost the positive effects of
performance feedback and performance goal clarity on individual performance. Given public
employees’ autonomy in their work has often been considerably limited by the complicated sets of
legal and political constraints, our findings will have an important practical implication on effective
performance management in the public sector. Second, an objective measure of individual
performance was adopted to test the feedback effects. Some previous studies used perceptual
measures of feedback and performance or attitudinal outcomes to test the feedback effects, which
might cause the results to be highly vulnerable to mono-source bias . We have improved the
robustness of the results by using a more objective way of measuring performance feedback and
individual performance. Performance evaluation results and the actual number of feedback
experiences were adopted to test the relationships.
The primary finding of this study is that feedback can help public employees overcome the
challenges of goal ambiguity, ultimately attaining higher performance evaluations. The result is
consistent with the arguments of goal-setting theory  and control theory, which noted that in the
process of accomplishing goals, feedback plays a guiding role in directing individual workers to
follow the behavioral standards and expectations valued by the organization and to pay attention to
the aspects of tasks indicated by feedback. Our findings showed that employees who had more
chances to receive feedback from their supervisor were likely to accomplish higher performance
evaluations than others. It suggests that as theoretical arguments indicated, feedback on performance
will improve individual performance by providing proper instructions and guidelines for employees
to obtain desirable outcomes for both employees and the organization. As a result, performance
feedback can help individuals set future goals and behaviors in the direction of promoting their
productivity, therefore contributing to higher performance of the organization .
Another interesting finding is the moderation effect of autonomy, which may influence the
relationship between performance goal clarity and individual performance. According to the result,
employees who have a higher level of autonomy on their work are likely to take greater advantage
of a clear perception of organizational expectations over individual performance and behaviors.
Autonomy allows individuals to retain control over how to channel their efforts towards high
performance and to accomplish goals congruent to the organization’s . Employees’ voluntary
efforts towards goal accomplishment, armed with a firmer insight into what goals the organization
want employees to accomplish and how they behave, will generate synergic effects on organizational
goal attainment [11,14,44]. In a similar vein, Locke and Latham (1990) in goal-setting theory also
argued that autonomous employees can select goals consistent with those of the organization and
invest more effort in meeting with the organization’s expectations over them .
The results of this study provide important practical implications for employee development
and performance management in the public sector. Performance evaluations, which are rarely
conducted only once or twice per year, will not be sufficient for helping employees in improving their
performance . Supervisory feedback, either formally or informally, can fill in the gaps between
employee demand on feedback and formal performance evaluations and feedbacks . In addition,
more opportunities for feedback may help employees to obtain development-related advice on a
more consistent basis [14,57], which will ultimately contribute to their career development as well as
organizational effectiveness. Encouraging employees to seek feedback on their work and behaviors
will create a feedback environment where the overall level of employees’ understanding of
organizational goals and behavioral expectations is elevated. Eventually, such organizational culture
Sustainability 2020, 12, 3011 15 of 18
will facilitate the organization’s performance management practices and developing its highly
Further research is required to address the limitations of this study. We tested our hypotheses
by analyzing cross-sectional data, which may be limited in establishing the causal link between
performance feedback and individual performance. Although not relying completely on
respondents’ perceptions, our measure of individual performance was developed based on self-
reported data. Self-reported performance ratings may be less accurate than those provided by
evaluators; said otherwise, the potential gaps may exist between self-reported ratings and actual
performance ratings. Nevertheless, it still reduces the potential mono-source bias, which may be
associated with self-assessment of performance. Future research could improve such limitations by
developing longitudinal research designs with more objective measures of individual performance.
- How many times did you discuss about your performance with your supervisor last year?
Performance goal clarity (alpha = 0.88; 5 point scale from “very disagree to very agree”)
- Individuals clearly understand their performance goals.
- Individuals’ performance goals can be objectively measured.
- Individuals’ performance goals are clearly ordered by their priority.
- Individuals’ performance goals are properly aligned with organizational goals.
- The reasons for an individual’s poor performance evaluation are clearly explained.
Autonomy (alpha = 0.65; 5 point scale from “very disagree to very agree”)
- Individuals have a high level of work autonomy.
- Supervisors often delegate work authority to their subordinates.
Public service motivation (alpha = 0.87; 5 point scale from “very disagree to very agree”)
- I am strongly committed to work.
- I do my best with very challenging works.
- I prioritize the interest of the local community over my private interest.
- I feel strong accountability for the society.
- I can sacrifice myself to help others.
- I feel sympathetic for people in difficult situation.
- I feel good when my idea contribute to public policy.
Job satisfaction (alpha = 0.87; 5 point scale from “very dissatisfied to very satisfied”)
- I am satisfied with salary.
- I am satisfied with workload.
- I am satisfied with work hours.
- I am satisfied with performance pay.
- I am satisfied with employee welfare.
- I am satisfied with work environment.
- I am satisfied with training and education.
1. The Korean government has the rank-in-person system that requires specialized skills and
expertise relatively less than other personnel systems . Public employees often rotate
different jobs and learn different skills. They traditionally acquire necessary skills and
knowledge that are required to perform their duties from their supervisors and previous job
holders. Performance appraisals also are conducted weighing much on evaluators’ subjective
assessments. Thus, employees are more likely to rely on performance feedbacks from their
supervisor that are perceived to be directly connected to performance appraisals than any job-
related documentation (e.g., job descriptions, manuals).
2. When disaggregated to metropolitan and municipal governments, the response rates
Sustainability 2020, 12, 3011 16 of 18
correspond to 18.7% (509 out of 2722) and 37% (2257 out of 6095), respectively.
3. The rank-in-person system offers the basic personnel system in the Korean government. The
Korean public personnel system preferably hires generalists who have general administrative
ability and knowledge rather than specialists who have special skills and expertise. There are
three types of occupations in the Korean government: 1) General administrators, 2) specialists
(e.g., police, teachers), and 3) political appointees and supporting positions. The general
administrator category is comprised of administrators (65%) and technicians (35%). The
population of the survey corresponds to the group of general administrators in the local
governments in Korea.
4. Individual performance is evaluated twice per year in June and December.
5. Because the survey was conducted around the end of the year (November 2017–February
2018), the question asks how many times a respondent obtained performance feedbacks during
the year of 2017.
6. Comparative fit index (CFI) values range from 0 to 1. A CFI value of 0.9 or larger indicates
acceptable model fit. The standardized root mean square residual (SRMR) ranges from 0 to 1,
with a value of .08 or less indicating an acceptable model. The root mean square error of
approximation (RMSEA) ranges from 0 to 1 and smaller values of RMSEA indicate better
model fit. A value of .06 or less indicates acceptable model fit .
7. The values of covariance between the four construct are 0.25 (performance goal clarity and
work autonomy), 0.15 (performance goal clarity and job satisfaction), 0.18 (performance goal
clarity and public service motivation), 0.09 (work autonomy and job satisfaction), 0.1 (work
autonomy and public service motivation), and 0.23 (job satisfaction and public service
8. Tenure can serve as an important determinant of employee promotion. Employees are inclined
to have higher performance ratings when their turn for promotion comes.
Author Contributions: Data curation, S.P.; Methodology, S.C.; Writing-Original Draft, S.P. and S.C. All authors
have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.
Funding: This study was financially supported by the Public Performance Management Research Center in the
Graduate School of Public Administration at Seoul National University. [Project Number: 0678-20180008]
Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest
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