The science of feedback: Is more feedback always better?

Is it possible to give too much feedback?

A few weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with a client discussing about whether it’s possible to give too much feedback. While I don’t think the ‘feedback overload’ scenario is common, I do think this is a really interesting topic worthy of further investigation.

Feedback is a complicated process. Employees need time to process feedback, take action, and consolidate new skills – humans can also only do so many things at once. So it seems intuitive that there must be a real state of ‘feedback overload’.

I was interested to jump into the research and understand if the science shows that employees really can be overloaded by feedback. And if so, what are the warning signs that you might be overloading employees with feedback?

Most employees will benefit from more feedback

One caveat: Feedback overload isn’t an issue for the majority of employees or workplaces

Most employees aren’t getting enough feedback. We recently looked at some research that showed nearly 65% of employees want more feedback than they’re currently getting. While you’re reading this article, it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s much more likely that your employees are suffering from not enough feedback, rather than too much.

As the Journal of Applied Psychology put it: “While employees should be aware of the fact that upper limits on the frequency of feedback exist, in most work settings feedback tends to be much too infrequent.Therefore, while we feel it is necessary to be aware of the frequency effect, in most situations more frequent feedback would be beneficial.”

How does feedback overload happen?

Until recently, most academic thinking on feedback has suggested that more frequent feedback leads to better learning and performance on tasks.

However, recent study results have showed that feedback frequency exhibits an inverted-U relationship with task performance. Put simply, this means that feedback produces better performance until the individual gets to a state of overload.

The most recent study done in this space was by University of Michigan researchers, who engaged participants in a 70-minute simulation exercise. Here are the details of the experiment:

Each participant was given feedback at a frequency of 35, 17.5, 10, or 5 minutes. In this case, the impact of feedback overload kicked in between a 10 and 5 minute feedback interval. Performance rose with the amount of feedback, peaking when feedback was given every 10 minutes. When feedback was then increased to every 5 minutes, performance significantly dropped.

Interestingly, the biggest negative effects of feedback overload happened during the early learning phase when the research participants were busy trying to get a feel for the task.

If you’re interested in reading more about this study, there’s a good summary write up here.

Feedback overload happens at a different point for each employee

A different study looking at 342 call centre employees showed that each individual has their own threshold for feedback overload.

All employees in the study received feedback 27 times a year, based on electronic and physical monitoring of each employee’s calls with clients. Although everyone received the same amount of feedback, some employees felt overwhelmed by the feedback, while others didn’t.

Demonstrating again the impact of feedback overload, researchers noted:

“The greater the “feedback overload” employees reported, the more stressed they were, the less they wanted to respond, and the lower their performance as rated by their bosses.”

So how do you get it right?

I’ll state again that for most employees, you’re at a far greater risk of not providing enough feedback than providing too much feedback.

In any case, there are three common warning signs that can indicate feedback overload:

Warning sign one: Employees are getting frustrated and seem to be ‘overthinking things’

The effects of feedback overload tend to be most pronounced when you’re in an early learning phase trying to get a feel for the task. You’ll know what this feels like if you’ve ever been coached on how to ski, surf, play golf (or any other reasonably complex sport) by someone who’s reasonably good, but isn’t an instructor.

The untrained instructor can tell you plenty of things that you’re not doing right. But you’re so busy trying to fix your grip that you’ve forgotten about your feet. And what was it you were meant to be doing with your hips?

In this scenario it’s easy to get into a state of overload where you’re simply ‘overthinking’ things.

Fundamentally, employees should always feel that they know which ‘levers’ they can pull to improve their performance. Good feedback should reinforce the most effective ‘levers’ that employees have to improve their performance right now. Feedback overload complicates this by introducing too many new potential ‘levers’ to be prioritised and thought about simultaneously.

Warning sign two: Employees are focusing too heavily on the most recent feedback/data

Today’s business environment features a huge amount of random noise. In this environment, giving too much feedback at short intervals can lead employees to over-focus on the most recent (and noisy) data, and miss the longer-term trends.

This is important because employees will always treat their most recent feedback as the most important. (If you’re interested, you can read more about the salience and incorrect prioritization of recent feedback here).

Because employees will prioritise based on their most recent feedback, a typical sign of feedback overload is rapid swings in priorities, even on a weekly basis.

In this scenario, you’re just not giving employees enough time to understand what’s truly important and change their behavior, before you impose a new priority in your next feedback session.

Warning sign three: Employees are losing the ability to self assess their own performance

Whilst managers should have a significant role in performance ‘calibration’, it’s never your job to judge employees own performance for them.

I’m quoting from Consequences of individual feedback on behavior in organizations (the emphasis is mine): “For those in the position of giving feedback, it is necessary that they realize that very frequent feedback may connote a loss of personal control to the recipient, and also that frequent feedback from others may lead recipients to rely on external sources and not develop their own skill at judging their performance. Neither state is desirable.”

If your employees become completely dependent on you to assess whether they’ve done a good job, it’s a sign that you might be overdoing it with feedback.

In conclusion: More feedback is better, and will improve performance (up until a point)

As I’ve discussed in this piece, feedback overload is real. It is something that all managers should be aware of. But fear of feedback overload should never stop you from delivering regular and meaningful feedback (unless you’re seeing clear signs that you might be overdoing it).

One final test if you suspect that you might have overdone it with the feedback – simply ask your team. If your people are genuinely suffering from more feedback and guidance than they know what to do with, they’ll almost certainly tell you. People are generally pretty honest about whether you’re helping or hindering their performance.

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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