The science of feedback: What is the right frequency for workplace feedback?

New research suggests the right frequency for feedback is monthly. Surprisingly, it shows more frequent feedback (weekly) overloads employees and reduces performance.

What is the right frequency for feedback?

If you’re a regular follower of this blog, you’ll have noticed that I’ve been writing a lot on feedback recently:

Since we published the research piece looking at Is more feedback always better? I’ve been asked a number of times: “How often should I ideally provide feedback to direct reports?”

It seems that there’s a real desire from across the market to understand just how often managers should be giving their individual performers feedback – that is, what’s the optimum frequency to provide feedback.

This hasn’t exactly been an easy question to answer for a long time. There’s been a lot of research, but not much conclusive evidence on the best frequency for providing feedback to your direct reports.

Monthly feedback frequency

Employees want more feedback, but you can overload them. Where is the sweet spot?

In answering this question, we’re helped significantly by a brand new study (March 2015) of 800 insurance professionals.

The study is a relatively comprehensive look at the changes in performance of insurance professionals in response to feedback. Researchers varied both the frequency and detail of feedback that the employees received in order to assess the impact.

As we’d expect, more feedback doesn’t always help to drive better performance (largely because employees reach a state of feedback overload, as we discussed last week on the blog).

The researchers found that professionals receiving detailed feedback on a monthly basis outperformed all other groups involved in the study. Those receiving detailed monthly feedback improved performance on their key complaint measure by an impressive 46% relative to the control group over the course of the study.

For comparison, the performance of the groups receiving the more frequent weekly feedback was not statistically different from those in the control group.

Interestingly, researchers found that the employees receiving weekly feedback tended to overweight their most recent performance. Over the longer term, this hampered their ability to learn. This phenomenon is discussed in detail below (it’s fascinating and worth reading in full):

“The results… suggest that providing more detailed feedback is useful for improving performance. However, that is only the case when feedback is provided sparsely. Detailed feedback loses its usefulness when provided very frequently. Similarly, providing more frequent feedback, even when it is less detailed, does not seem to help professionals improve their performance.

Taken together, the results suggest that professionals fail to process the additional information rationally. The recipient of frequent feedback may fixate on the most recent information, leading him or her to underweight or ignore evidence that is more distant in time and thus limiting the amount of information actually used in decision-making.

This leads professionals to make the wrong inferences, reducing their learning and hampering performance improvement. By providing detailed but less frequent feedback, [The Company] communicates richer information in a single report, allowing professionals to identify true trends and ignore noise in the metric.”

It seems like employees receiving weekly feedback tend to overthink recent results, and fall prey to feedback overload. As the researchers noted:

“As soon as professionals stop receiving weekly information, their performance improves, and the deterioration of performance after receiving a bad report disappears.”

All in all, it’s a comprehensive and well-structured piece of research that has big implications for best-practice feedback and performance management.

Monthly feedback frequency as best practice is broadly supported by current Cognology data

This feedback frequency is supported by the data we have available to us at Cognology (our software powers performance and talent management for over 250 Australian businesses). Looking across our client base, a monthly feedback frequency appears consistent with what we’re seeing from best practice clients.

 

Frequency of feedback

As a quick reminder, when we most recently looked at Cognology product data on feedback frequency on the blog, we found:

“For the average employee, the number of annual feedback events has risen from just under three in 2011 to nearly nine in 2014. That’s an increase of over 3x in four years! Spreading this feedback out across the year, this increase means that employees received feedback roughly every six weeks in 2014 (compared to once every four months in 2011).”

Whilst the amount and frequency of feedback continues to rise across our entire client base, our best practice clients are on track, hitting an equivalent monthly feedback frequency in 2015 (12 feedback events across the year).

In conclusion: Best practice feedback happens monthly

In the absence of further studies, I think it’s safe to say that best-practice feedback frequency for professionals is monthly. At a monthly frequency, you get all the benefits of enhanced performance through regular feedback, but don’t risk the ‘feedback overload’ that seems to happen with a weekly feedback frequency.

I’d love to hear about your experiences setting the best frequency for detailed feedback. Have you tried weekly, monthly or quarterly conversations? What works best for your team and organisation? Understanding the right feedback frequency to get the most out of every employee is an exciting frontier as we move towards talent management for the future of work – so I’d love to get your input and thoughts.

As always, you can join the discussion in the comments below or on Twitter (tweet your thoughts to @cognology).

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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