Managing the Challenge of Constant Feedback with Emerging Adult Employees

Here’s how to give Millennials the guidance they want—and need

By Arlene S. Hirsch Mar 22, 2016
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Feedback is important to every generation, but the need for constant feedback is associated with Millennials. As digital natives, they are accustomed to getting immediate responses and unfettered access.

Millennials’ need for feedback may also be attributed to emerging adulthood, a new and prolonged transitional life stage (occurring between the ages of 18-29) positioned between adolescence and established adulthood. As emerging adults (EAs) begin their careers, they face unprecedented challenges as well as opportunities. Quality feedback helps them navigate this uncharted terrain.  

And once a year isn’t enough for feedback. Annual performance reviews have been standard business practice for the last 50 years. Yet the practice isn’t as effective in a workplace where there is an accelerated pace of change and constant employee turnover.

A survey of 1,000 employees ages 18-34 conducted for HR provider TriNet in September 2015 showed that 69 percent of respondents believe that the traditional performance review process is flawed. They reported feeling like they were being graded and talked down to. They wanted more frequent, specific and meaningful feedback, and to be part of a real, ongoing conversation.

Millennials especially want feedback, and if they don’t get it, they’ll likely start looking for work elsewhere, according to HR consultant Sema Burney and McGill University Management Professor Karl Moore, writing a column for Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail in February 2015.

That point resonates with Haydn Shaw, a consultant with FranklinCovey in Salt Lake City, and the author of Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart (Tyndale House Publishers Inc., 2013):

“Less than one in 10 Millennials think weekly communication is enough,” Shaw wrote for The Huffington Post in August 2014. “In fact, 35 percent want it multiple times a day, while 25 percent think once a day is fine. … Take the amount of feedback you would want, and then double it. Then double it again, and you'll meet the Millennials halfway." 

Don’t pass judgment on generational preferences, Shaw said. Use it to your advantage: “Ask yourself whether the feedback is a business necessity. Do people need the information to do their jobs well?"

SMART Feedback

Burney and Moore have repurposed the goal model known as SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based),  first created in 1981 by consultant George Doran, into a feedback model for Millennials. They say their new model builds competence and confidence without dampening enthusiasm or motivation. 

SMART means that goals should be:

  • Specific: Feedback must be connected to discrete performances and behaviors and designed to correct shortcomings and strengthen performance.
  • Measurable: Meaningful quantification adds specificity and objectivity.
  • Achievable: Expectations must be realistic and achievable, otherwise employees may become unmotivated and disengaged. (Don’t tell an employee that she can never be five minutes late to work ever again. Do tell her you expect her to report to work by a specific time each day. Don’t assume she already knows.)
  • Relevant: Feedback needs to be strategically aligned with organizational objectives in order to be meaningful.
  • Time-based: Feedback should occur in real time—on the spot and in the moment. Feedback delivered six months later has limited value.

Better, Shorter, Faster

Some managers balk at the idea of giving frequent feedback, perceiving it to be a constant drain on their time and energy. But Jeff Lawson, CEO of Twilio, a San Francisco-based cloud communications company, doesn’t see it that way. In a New York Times interview, Lawson shared his perspective on why twenty-somethings need so much feedback:

“They want to always be learning, always be growing ... It’s not that they’re looking for constant praise, but rather they want to keep score. They want to know how they’re doing.”

“If you get into the habit of regular feedback, it’s not confrontational; it’s just the ebb and flow of conversation and a constant tweaking of how you work with somebody.”

Shaw believes it’s possible to meet the need for continuous feedback without working extra hours if better feedback is given more quickly and more often. He recommends supplementing formal meetings with informal conversations, e-mails, texts and instant messages, and expanding the circle of influence to include peer-to-peer conversations.

Companies can take advantage of Millennials’ comfort level with technology and develop automated processes and systems that capitalize on new technologies to deliver feedback in a mutually beneficial manner.

Be Constructive

Feedback is like a Rorschach inkblot test: It means different things to different people. It can refer to praise, encouragement, constructive criticism, validation, attention or career advice.

In the Society for Human Resource Management/Globoforce 2013 biannual survey on employee recognition programs, more than 90 percent of respondents found that positive reinforcement had the greatest impact, most notably when direct supervisory feedback was coupled with feedback from peers and managers.

“There should be twice as much positive feedback as negative,” said Julie Benesh, Ph.D., program director in organizational leadership at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

Negative feedback must always be constructive, never punitive. Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif., uses “plussing” to convert negative criticism into constructive feedback. In plussing, a person can only criticize someone else’s idea if they also add a constructive suggestion.


Marshall Goldsmith, author of Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts—Becoming the Person You Want to Be (Crown Business, 2015) and CEO and founder of The Marshall Goldsmith Group in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., believes that all types of feedback are potentially problematic.

“[Feedback] focuses on the past, on what has already occurred—not on the infinite variety of opportunities that can happen in the future. As such, feedback can be limited and static, as opposed to expansive,” Goldsmith wrote in his blog.

Goldsmith prefers “feedforward” coaching that helps people envision and focus on a positive future rather than a failed past. This may be particularly appealing to twenty-somethings who are actively exploring an overwhelming number of options and trying to map out various possible futures.

“We can change the future,” said Goldsmith. “We can’t change the past.”

Give Millennials a Reason to Stay

If attracting and retaining young talent is a business necessity, it makes sense to give them what they want—or risk losing them, Shaw said.

“Not only does feedback make work more interesting, it reassures employees that they are still moving forward. Halted or stifled growth is unacceptable to Millennials. They are on a mission to constantly progress and feedback helps them do so,” wrote Burney and Moore. “If the key components of development are missing, Millennials do what they feel they must—they leave.”

So why not give them compelling reasons to stay?

Arlene S. Hirsch is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago, where she specializes in working with emerging adults and their families. Her books include How to Be Happy at Work (Jist Publishing, 2003), Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (Wiley, 1995), and The Wall Street Journal Premier Guide to Interviewing (Wiley, 1999). Her website is

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