Feedback is a tricky thing. People constantly claim to want it, but sometimes when it’s offered, we can quickly become very frustrated, especially if it seems like the other person might be insulting our ideas. For managers, striking the balance of how detailed feedback should be, and how frequently it should be offered, can be a challenge.
Giving feedback too frequently can make employees think you’re micromanaging, trying to correct them every step of the way. But if you only give feedback on rare occasions, employees can feel like they’re not being supported. And when feedback is too infrequent, your helpful advice can feel like threatening corrections.
So where’s the middle ground? Lots of feedback is good, but how much feedback is too much?
As it turns out, receiving feedback is cognitively and emotionally demanding, especially when you’re learning. New employees tend to get discouraged if their performance is corrected too often. They need the freedom and flexibility to make mistakes—that’s how we learn. At the same time, saying too little at this stage can make employees uncomfortable if they get the impression that you’re trying to spare their feelings by mincing words.
We always need to choose our words carefully, but employers and coworkers offering feedback to new employees need to be especially cautious. It takes time to build a culture of honesty and open dialogue.
University of Michigan researcher Chak Fu Lam ran a research study where undergraduate students participated in simulated feedback sessions. They were asked to complete a task and were given feedback either two, four, seven or 14 times over 70 minutes. Overall, performance tended to improve with increases in feedback frequency. But it could be overdone—performance peaked in scenarios where feedback was given seven times (every 10 minutes), and then completely tanked when it was given 14 times (every five minutes).
Outside of an experiment, no manager can possibly give feedback every 10 minutes. So where’s the balance? There are no strict rules (of course), since feedback preferences vary depending on role, experience, and personality. But there are different strategies that you can use that to help you get closer to the target:
1. Don’t assume your opinion is wanted.
Too often, we give feedback because we feel we must. Unfortunately, that feeling usually takes us where our opinion may be least appreciated. Effective managers and feedback givers don’t just assume their workers want feedback; they know that employees are busy focusing their energies on the task at hand.
Let your team know that feedback and guidance will be happily given when it’s asked for. Then offer encouragement as frequently as possible, and try to reserve your criticisms until they’re requested or a project looks like it might be at risk. Employees who trust your judgment and seek you out for guidance are more effective at their jobs than those who wait to be approached.
2. Get to the point.
3. If you’re unsure, ask.
Sometimes, we’re genuinely unsure if people even want feedback, or how much of it they would benefit from. If you’re not sure, rather than nervously offering feedback at random intervals, ask the team.
“I have some ideas that might be useful for your project. Let me know if you’d like to hear them” is music to people’s ears. It allows them to politely decline if they’re busy or not prepared for feedback, and benefit from your answer if they’re stuck or looking to make improvements.
Giving feedback is a tricky but necessary part of the working world. Striking the right balance of honesty and diplomacy, then making sure that recipients follow through, isn’t as straightforward of a task as it sounds. By taking the time to communicate with your employees and understand exactly they’re looking for, you will ultimately develop a stronger working relationship.
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