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‘Firehose of Feedback’? More Like a Drought

By Caitlin Collins
March 19, 2024
4 minute read

The landscape of workplace feedback is transforming radically, moving from traditional annual performance reviews to a more dynamic, ongoing model. A Wall Street Journal story described it as a “firehose of feedback,” conjuring up the image of an uncontrolled deluge of comments, criticisms, and suggestions. 

The idea of a feedback “firehose” certainly sounds overwhelming. However, it’s far more common for employees to experience a feedback drought. Betterworks’ 2024 State of Performance Enablement report found that 1 in 5 individual contributors do not even have 1:1 conversations with their manager, and 2 in 5 employees don’t receive any peer feedback.

But it’s not just about the volume of feedback. People are hungry for better feedback. They don’t see feedback as something they have to endure but as a chance for them to grow. Here’s how to deliver it so everyone can reach their full potential.

Provide feedback at the right time and place

Feedback must be timely and contextual to truly resonate and effect change. The real magic of feedback isn’t in its volume but in its relevance and timing. When feedback is given in the moment, it’s more meaningful and more actionable. 

This immediacy allows us to reflect, learn, and adapt with the context fresh in our minds, significantly enhancing our growth trajectory. In-the-moment feedback can catalyze learning and improvement in ways that delayed feedback simply can’t match.

Offer constructive and learning-oriented feedback

One of the crucial distinctions I’ve come to appreciate is between feedback that fosters development and feedback that demoralizes. It’s imperative that feedback be objective and focused on learning. This means stepping away from personal biases and emotional reactions that can cloud feedback’s purpose and diminish its value. 

Constructive feedback should empower individuals, encouraging them to grow and improve. It’s about building up, not tearing down. To this end, developing a skill set for both giving and receiving feedback in a manner that’s empathetic, constructive, and focused on learning outcomes is essential for cultivating a productive feedback culture.

Cultivate a culture of psychological safety

At the heart of a vibrant feedback culture lies psychological safety. This concept represents an environment where individuals feel secure and valued, not threatened, by the exchange of feedback. Creating such a culture means making sure that feedback isn’t a one-way street from the top down but a reciprocal exchange where everyone, regardless of position, feels comfortable both offering and asking for feedback. In this environment, an employee is comfortable providing “upward feedback” to their manager, a skip-level manager, or even leadership.

Psychological safety transforms feedback from a source of anxiety into a tool for empowerment, encouraging open, honest dialogue and fostering an atmosphere where everyone is committed to mutual improvement and success.

Build feedback into daily workflows

Integrating feedback into the daily workflow normalizes the practice and reduces its potential to intimidate. When feedback becomes a regular part of our workday, it loses its stigma and becomes a natural element of our professional development. 

Encouraging informal as well as formal feedback sessions can help make feedback more accessible and less daunting. Small, regular pieces of feedback — or microfeedback — can be particularly effective in promoting incremental improvements and reinforcing positive behaviors — without overwhelming employees. For example, if an employee repeatedly interrupts colleagues during a meeting, specific feedback immediately after the meeting can help the individual understand their behavior, reflect on it, and take steps to avoid repeating it in subsequent meetings. 

4 steps for providing feedback

Everyone who gives in-the-moment feedback can follow these four steps to be successful:

Ask questions: Before offering feedback, ask questions of the recipient to avoid providing feedback that is presumptive. For example, if your colleague seemed unprepared to lead a meeting, first ask how much time they had to prepare. Were they conducting the meeting as a last-minute request from their manager or is their workload so heavy that they didn’t have time to prepare properly?

Be specific: The goal is not to boil the ocean and use feedback to elicit major behavioral changes, but to help colleagues make manageable improvements to the behaviors that matter to them and can help them improve their effectiveness.

Tell them how they can improve: Provide tangible examples. This will help the feedback recipient take action and build trust because it is the advice meant to help. Feedback offered without such suggestions may be perceived as criticism.

Ask for feedback on your feedback: We all improve the quality of feedback when we ask for an evaluation. For example, were we specific enough and objective, and did we offer feedback in the right tone?

Some performance management solutions, like Betterworks, can simplify giving feedback through the help of AI tools that suggest how to rephrase feedback. Such tools can improve the overall quality of the feedback while also teaching employees how to improve their responses in the future.

Use feedback to foster performance and trust

By embedding these principles into the fabric of our workplace culture, we can transform feedback from a source of anxiety or defensiveness into a cornerstone of personal and organizational development. A healthy feedback culture not only supports the growth of each individual but also enhances the overall productivity and effectiveness of the team.

Viewing feedback through the lens of a “firehose” might evoke feelings of apprehension and overwhelm. However, we can shift our perception by approaching feedback with a mindset geared toward timely, constructive, and learning-oriented exchanges within a psychologically safe environment. 

Feedback, in its essence, is a gift — an opportunity to learn, grow, and connect more deeply with our colleagues and the work we do. It’s not about bracing ourselves for an onslaught but about opening ourselves to a flow of insights that can propel us forward.

Want to learn more? Check out our ultimate guide to giving and receiving feedback.

Do feedback the right way