How Managers Fail at Feedback: What Millennial Employees Really Want

UPDATED: June 8, 2023
PUBLISHED: May 6, 2015

Most companies miss the mark when it comes to providing feedback. In fact, more than half of companies still rely on annual goal-setting, with progress check-ins falling few and far between, as their primary roadmap for progression. That’s not good enough.

All generations crave feedback, not just millennials, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that millennials would represent the majority of the workforce by 2015, and in 15 years, this tech-savvy, hyper-connected generation will make up 75 percent of it. Managers need to understand how to give them effective feedback—right now, though, there’s a disconnect between the two when it comes to what feedback even means. While managers might think of feedback as weekly or monthly performance reviews, millennials are really asking for lightweight signals of positive and negative sentiment.

It’s time to get on the same page, or risk goal progress. Here are five ways managers can deliver feedback to make the most of their workforce:

1. Emphasize learning and growth.

Instead of praising millennials for a single action, try relating your feedback to a process. Praise for process encourages employees to think about what they could do better in the future. If you tell workers they’re brilliant, it implies they’ve made it and have few areas for growth. If you simply alter this feedback slightly to define next steps, it forces the employee to think ahead. Feedback that emphasizes learning and growth will inspire new behaviors and keep millennials from becoming stagnant.

2. Adopt a feedback loop approach.

What if your Fitbit sent you an email update at the end of the year telling you how well you did? It’s difficult to connect one-and-done feedback—like the traditional annual performance review—to active change. Consistent feedback is important for millennials, so when it’s time for a more formal conversation to take place they aren’t blindsided. Give employees time to react and understand potential roadblocks so they can alter their actions prior to a formal review.

3. Count on system-generated feedback.
Millennials have the need to quantify their daily activities, so it’s your job to make work progress another set of actions they can quantify. Studies show people who use Fitbit to measure how much they walk each day take 30 percent more steps than people who don’t. When you give millennials a system for feedback, you’re likely to see an increase in positive actions.

4. Don’t just rely on performance reviews.
While the majority of businesses rely on performance reviews to download feedback to employees, millennials need more. Consider mimicking a “one-click signal,” similar to a “like” on Facebook. The average ratio of likes to comments on Facebook is approximately 10 to 1 per post. Likes require less context and less time, but the recipient still has an immediate feel-good feedback signal. When applied in the workplace setting, this type of instant feedback is a reasonably quick solution to the constant need to offer up feedback. For example, at BetterWorks we’ve incorporated a “Cheer” option into our platform so managers and employees can quickly encourage and offer positive reinforcement to workers, similar to a Facebook “like.”

5. Bring transparency to goals.
While goal-setting can never replace the role managers play in providing feedback, tracking goal progress can add a layer of transparency and alignment. Begin by setting quarterly goals and creating a reporting system to track and align individual goals with business initiatives.

Millennials—and all generations—crave value at work and need effective feedback that nurtures growth and progression. They want to know the purpose of their job and why they’re asked the things they’re asked to do. The feedback you offer should always inspire employees to think about the future. It can—and should—play a role in helping your millennial staff feel valued as they progress in their skills and confidence.

Take it or leave it, but don’t defend yourself against it. Find out the best way to respond to feedback when you get it.

Kris Duggan is the CEO and co-founder of BetterWorks, an enterprise goals platform trusted by high-performing companies to engage, empower and cross-functionally align their workforces. BetterWorks drives companies to become operationally excellent and provides powerful insights about how work gets done.