We’ve all heard that feedback is supposed to be good for us. After all, receiving feedback—especially the tough kind—is how we learn to get better. Ken Blanchard teaches us that “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” And Marshall Goldsmith helps us time-travel to our improved future self with feed-forward.

I suspect many agree we need feedback to know how we can improve because we’re not wired to see (accurately or completely) either our faults or strengths. However, even with positive intentions, is it possible there’s such a thing as too much feedback?

My quick answer to this is a resounding, “Yes.” When the flow of feedback exceeds our ability to process it, it overwhelms our senses and creates stress.

Do You Thrive or Shrink When Receiving a Steady Stream of Feedback?

I’ve observed situations where the manager delivered textbook quality feedback—timely, behavioral, business-focused, specific) only to see some team members thrive and others shrink.

The individuals who thrived on a steady flow of constructive performance feedback seemed to take energy from the input. They responded much as athletes might, hungry for that minor adjustment that will make a big difference in their performance. To these individuals, performance improvement is part of raising their game and the more and faster the input, the quicker they can make corrections and improve their effectiveness.

For those who seemed to shrink or become overwhelmed by the unyielding flow of feedback, the comparison appears less flattering, yet that is deceiving. These individuals aren’t necessarily weaker employees or individuals who have less potential for growth. Instead, many of them are individuals who process feedback differently than their counterparts. Savvy managers recognize this difference in processing speed and absorption rates and adjust their feedback tone and tempo accordingly.

Beth and John: Too Much of a “Good” Thing

One manager, Beth, developed a reputation as a keen observer and no-nonsense provider of feedback. In her mind, the frequent input was intended to help individuals make immediate adjustments in their customer service behaviors. She was a firm believer that feedback was best served at the moment.

John, a capable and developing professional valued input on his performance; however, he found that Beth served feedback up so fast, it quickly became overwhelming. Also, John thought that some of Beth’s feedback pushed into the micro-managing range.

John admitted to developing an avoidance strategy, hoping not to draw her fire. He knew this was wrong, but he couldn’t figure out how to comply with her identified improvements at a rate that satisfied her.

As a data point on performance, at the time of this assignment, John’s customer service scores were consistently the highest in the group. Beth’s style made him in his words, “feel like a laggard.”

Effective Managers Adapt Feedback Flow to The Needs of Their Team Members

Although the names are changed, this situation was genuine. When I interviewed John, he indicated his appreciation of Beth’s input. He didn’t believe it was unfair. He just couldn’t figure out how to react to all of the information fast enough to satisfy her. He also struggled to prioritize it.

When discussing the situation with Beth, she had previously viewed John’s lack of adoption of some of her feedback as resistance. While he always seemed to agree with her during the discussion, she could sense it stressed him. When she didn’t see the requested changes implemented, she began to label him as passive-aggressive.

Bringing both parties together to discuss the situation uncovered John’s real stress point—he wanted feedback at a slower rate so he could focus on developing and implementing an improvement strategy. The two agreed to focus future feedback on more salient issues, and John asked for Beth’s help in coaching him with his improvement initiatives one-at-a-time.

Both John and Beth recently were promoted to new roles, and both credit the other for helping them learn a valuable lesson.

3 Feedback Lessons for Managers

Feedback remains a popular and powerful tool to promote performance improvement. Good managers work hard to improve their skills for delivering timely, quality feedback. However, sensitivity to how the individual receives and reacts to feedback is an integral part of the process as well. Here are three ideas for managers to use to strengthen in this area.

1. Observe and Tailor

Focus on identifying how your team members respond to feedback and then tailoring your approach to meet their processing styles. Success in learning what works and what doesn’t work for your team members takes deliberate focus and experimentation. It’s imperative for you to cultivate trust with each member as well. And remember, it’s your job to flex to their needs, not the other way around.

2. Ask How You Can Do a Better Job with Feedback

I’m a big fan of managers asking the question “How am I doing?” and then doing something constructive with the input. In this case, ask team members for feedback on your feedback skills.

While there’s often a discomfort to speaking-truth-to-power, your genuine interest in improving your support of them will help alleviate that discomfort. Of course, you can use an anonymous survey format as well. (I’m happy to share my brief feedback practices/culture survey if you are interested. Drop me a note.)

3. Criticize Less and Coach More

No one loves a critic, but a good coach is career and life-changing. Step up to your role as a coach and invest your time and energy in helping individuals translate feedback into strengthened performance. Help them prioritize the improvements and deliver ample feedback (including the positive kind) as you work with them.

4 Ideas If You’re Receiving More Feedback than You Can Handle

Not every manager will follow the above guidance, so sometimes you have to reverse roles and deftly (or bluntly) provide feedback to your manager that will help you and them.

1. Ask for a Feedback Pause

One client did just this with her boss, and it worked. The flood of feedback had overwhelmed her, and she requested a moratorium while she worked on prior input for her decision-making and critical thinking approaches. The slow-down in the rate of flow of information, particularly for tactical or low priority issues allowed her to focus on exploring and implementing strategies for the more significant issues.

2. Change the Narrative with Your Manager

Your ability to ask for a time-out may be limited depending upon your relationship with your boss. If that’s not plausible, change the narrative and go more in-depth on the significant issues. Share your ideas and strategies and ask for input. Additionally, ask the boss for coaching help. Your visible commitment to improving may stave off the flood of tactical feedback.

3. Ask for Help Prioritizing Areas for Strengthening Performance

Another tool for changing the narrative is to ask for input on prioritizing feedback and improvement initiatives. A conscientious manager will both help and potentially recognize their need to parse out the trivial information from strategic performance feedback.

4. Talk Openly with Your Boss on How You Process Feedback

In the case of Beth and John described earlier, it wasn’t until the two talked openly about how John received and processed on feedback that the situation improved. While not every boss will be receptive, the good ones care about uncovering how to help you.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

It’s essential for managers to strive to deliver quality feedback and to temper the flow to the needs and processing capacity of their team members. After all, if the signal to noise ratio is off, all you get is static and stress.

Art's Signature


Check out Art’s growing library of  Challenging Conversations articles.