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How much feedback is too much?

3 min read


Everyone needs feedback. It’s hard to get motivated to reach a goal or complete a project, and impossible to stay motivated in the face of difficulty, when you aren’t sure if you are on the right track.  None of us are truly comfortable flying blind.   For any leader or manager, giving frequent, carefully crafted feedback is one of their most important (and most challenging) responsibilities (as I’ve written about here.)

Feedback should be frequent — but how frequent?  Much has been written about the futility of the traditional annual review, and how it offers far too little too late in terms of useful information.   So we can probably all agree that feedback needs to be given more than once a year … but once a month?  A week?  A day?  Every hour on the hour, like a traffic update?

Since feedback is a good thing, you might think that you really can’t have too much of it.  But according to new research, you’d be wrong.

Receiving feedback, it turns out, comes at some significant cost.  Processing what you are being told (whether it’s positive or negative) and responding to it appropriately (or even inappropriately) creates cognitive and emotional demands that can interfere with learning and performance.

In fact, if you plotted the relationship between feedback frequency and performance out on a graph, it would look like an inverted U.  In other words, as feedback frequency increases, performance improves … until it starts taking a nosedive.  Past a certain point, receiving and responding to too much feedback becomes a liability because it takes your attention away from the work you need to do.

For example, in a study conducted by University of Michigan researcher Chak Fu Lam and his colleagues, participants engaged in a 70-minute-long defense simulation exercise.  They were given feedback either two, four, seven or 14 times.  Lam found that overall performance increased with increases in feedback frequency until it peaked at seven instances (i.e., every 10 minutes), but it went significantly down when feedback was given 14 times (i.e., every 5 minutes).

Interestingly, the effects of receiving too much feedback were most pronounced during the early learning phase, when participants were trying to get the hang of the task.  So having to turn your attention away from what you are doing to process feedback is most disruptive when you working on something new and unfamiliar.

Unfortunately, there can be no hard-and-fast rule about how often you should give your team feedback.  The ideal amount will vary according to the nature of the work they do  — the duration of projects, complexity, how motivated they are, etc.  But here are some strategies to keep in mind when you are trying to find the sweet spot:

  • When your employee is taking on a new project in an area in which they lack experience, be careful not to overwhelm them with frequent feedback.  They will need their energy and effort to be focused where it belongs.  Instead, make it clear that you will gladly provide feedback and guidance when they ask for it.
  • Keep feedback straightforward and to-the-point, to minimize the amount of time employees will spend wondering what you meant.  Whenever possible, be specific about what they did right or wrong, and make concrete suggestions about exactly what they need to do differently.
  • When in doubt, ask your team directly if they would like more, or less, feedback. People generally have a good sense of whether it’s a help or a distraction.

Image credit, endopack, via iStockphoto