It only took a few throws for the young softball pitcher to get frustrated.
Her dad would take her to a local park to practice. She’d pitch and he’d catch. After each pitch he’d have something to say.
He actually had a lot to say. The father gave his daughter at least three pieces of feedback after every pitch. There was a lot of room for improvement.
Instead of getting better, the constant stream of feedback made her worse.
It sucked the joy out of the game for the girl. It would get inside her head. She’d overthink a process that’s meant to rely on muscle memory.
It was never long before she’d ask in an exasperated voice, “How much longer do we have to do this?”
She wanted to quit.
Many customer service employees face a similar feedback deluge. A lack of feedback is clearly a problem, but there’s mounting evidence that too much feedback causes problems too.
The Impact of Too Much Feedback
Some might call it micromanagement, but it’s not just the formal supervisor to employee conversations. Employees get feedback from multiple sources.
Here are other examples:
- Informal dialogue with supervisors
- Conversations with co-workers
- Reactions from customers
Employees in some industries, like contact centers, are inundated with metrics. Data is also feedback. It tells us how things are going and helps us make decisions for the future.
Too much feedback can hurt performance.
A 2007 experiment by Nicholas H. Lurie and Jayashankar M. Swaminathan consisted of an inventory management simulation where certain participants received more feedback than others. The group that received the most feedback performed 11 percent worse than the group that received the least.
A meta analysis of feedback experiments published in 1996 revealed that 38 percent of feedback interventions result in decreased performance. The authors of the paper noted two conditions where performance was most likely to decline.
The first was complexity. The more complex the feedback, the more someone has to think about it. The young softball pitcher is a great example of what happens when you overthink something.
The second was personal. The more personal the feedback, the harder it was to process. “Make sure you give each customer a friendly greeting” is easier to swallow than, “You really need to work on your abrasive personality.”
An overabundance of feedback causes three types of problems.
The first is a lack of priority. Excessive feedback obscures priorities. For example, a contact center agent might be asked to maintain a certain average talk time and achieve a first contact resolution rate.
Which one is really the most important?
You might be tempted to say first contact resolution, but talk time will probably be the highest priority because agents get continuous, real-time feedback on that metric.
Ironically, companies that have re-focused agents on first contact resolution haven’t experienced a spike in talk time. Both metrics look good when agents focus on the top priority.
The second problem caused by too much feedback is a lack of focus.
Like the young softball pitcher, an employee thinking about a million ways they need to improve will have a hard time staying in the moment.
An overbearing manager might be tempted to give employees instruction at every turn. Soon, employees become so focused on not doing it wrong that they lose the ability to trust their own instincts to do things right.
The final problem is ego.
Feedback that challenges the ego is hard to listen to. Constantly challenging an employee with feedback that feels personal causes their emotional defenses to dig in.
Any manager who has delivered a poor performance review to an employee who expected stellar marks has seen how quickly an employee can get defensive.
Finding the Feedback Sweet Spot
Too much feedback is bad. Too little feedback is bad. So, how do you find just right?
Here are a few suggestions.
Agree upon performance
Make sure you have a clear agreement with employees on what good performance looks like. This makes it easier to provide feedback that’s about results and doesn’t feel personal.
One at a time
Try to keep feedback focused on just one thing at a time. If it’s a behavior, hone in what the employee can do that will have the biggest impact. If it’s a metric, select the most important one.
Give them space
Nobody likes to be micromanaged. Give your employees some space to apply feedback and make their own adjustments.
The extreme opposite of micromanagement is no feedback at all. Avoid this problem by providing periodic, focused feedback to help employees continue to improve performance.