How Millennials use feedback to their advantage

In the second of a five part series Jennifer J Deal and Alec Levenson explore Millennials’ desire for feedback.

The lack of feedback at work is a common theme we heard while speaking with Millennials and it drives some managers crazy as they complain that Millennials want their hands held all the time, and want to know if they are doing every little thing right.

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The constant desire for feedback is described as both needy and childish; not the type of behaviour that is expected from self-directed professionals in a workplace where being innovative and taking initiative is encouraged.

While the requests for frequent feedback are understandably annoying to managers who already have too much to do and need work to get done without having to dole out constant praise, it is not exactly new.

These desires as expressed by Millennials are following the tradition Baby Boomers and Gen Xers established years ago of challenging their bosses and organisations to provide more and better feedback for employees. 

This desire for feedback is also consistent with Millennials’ experience outside of the workplace. Many Millennials in the UK have experienced school and university where they received frequent feedback on their progress through grades on papers, tests, and quizzes.

The world of social networking and texting has made it so feedback is typically available whenever an individual wants it. On Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks, people post pictures or notes about their personal lives and receive instantaneous feedback in the form of “likes” and comments from their friends. Video games also provide constant feedback. You win a race, rack up points, move up levels, etc and all of these activities include almost constant feedback.

And then there is what happens at work.

The Millennials we studied in the UK were either at work or involved with work in one way or another 8-12 hours a day, at least five days a week (often weekends as well). With all of those hours at work, how frequently do you think they get feedback?

A few times a day? Every day? Every week? No. Most say they get it quarterly (29 per cent), a couple of times a year (36 per cent), or only once a year (6 per cent). While 62 per cent of Millennials would like developmental feedback monthly or more frequently (daily or weekly), only 29 per cent say they get feedback that frequently.

Rewards or recognition are even less frequent. Millennials in the UK would like rewards and recognition for their good work either monthly 31 per cent) or quarterly (27 per cent). In contrast, they say they generally get rewards and recognition annually (47 per cent) or twice a year (17 per cent). 

What all those numbers mean is that Millennials are not getting feedback, recognition, or rewards anywhere close to as frequently as they want, and that bothers them a great deal —​ as their managers know.

While they do not expect to receive feedback at work as frequently as they get it when playing video games, they do want feedback more frequently than once or twice a year, which is about as often as they are getting it currently. If providing more frequent feedback seems overwhelming, it really does not have to be. 

Managers can work with Millennials who prefer frequent feedback by setting clear expectations for work. Once expectations are clear, feedback can be both quicker and clearer. There is a management book The One Minute Manager, which points out how quick and easy it is to provide both recognition and feedback to subordinates​.

Doing so does not have to take a lot of time. In fact, if feedback is provided more frequently it is likely to take less time because the relationship is better established and there is less ramp-up time to the conversation.

When feedback is provided immediately or soon after a relevant experience, the learning is more likely to stick —  and you don’t have to spend extra time reminding both sides the reason for the conversation.

If providing more frequent feedback seems overwhelming, it really does not have to be. Managers can work with Millennials who prefer frequent feedback by setting clear expectations for work​.

The bottom line is that most Millennials are working with people for 40+ hours a week (plus work outside of standard office hours), and yet most receive feedback or recognition no more frequently than every few months which doesn’t meet their needs or help them learn from their work so they can improve.

Millennials want relevant feedback about their performance frequently enough, so they can act on it. Remember for Millennials, feedback is about understanding what they did well, so they can continue to do well, and what they did not do as well so they can improve their performance.

Managers should work on making sure that employees receive feedback frequently enough to meet those needs. The door should be left open for employees to ask for feedback about their work if they are wondering about how something went.

The feedback does not need to be an exhaustive evaluation of every little thing they did; often an acknowledgement of the work will be enough. Managers who want Millennials to continue developing and to remain engaged will make sure that they receive frequent enough feedback.  

About the author 

Jennifer J. Deal is a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership and an affiliated research scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California.

Alec Levenson is a senior research scientist at the Center for Effective Organisations at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

This series is based on their new book What Millennials Want from Work.



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