The Double Meaning of Feedback

Feedback means different things to different generations. When boomers ask for it, they are probably looking for an evaluation, while Gen Y is likely expressing a desire to learn more

Posted on Across the Ages: November 25, 2008 9:51 AM

Have you ever felt frustrated with an employee who continually comments that they'd like more feedback—when you feel that you've given the person just about as much feedback as is humanly possible or remotely sane? What more is there to say?

From there it's an easy slip into the negative stereotypes, particularly, as is commonly the case, if the person requesting feedback is a member of Generation Y: this person is annoyingly "needy." Clearly they require constant praise—the workplace equivalent of plastic trophies for every task.

In fact, almost certainly, something quite different is going on.

"Feedback" is one of those loaded, double-meaning words in today's workplace—words that connote very different things to members of different generations.

If you're a Boomer, consider what you expect to happen when you have a "feedback session" with your boss. In all likelihood, the purpose of this exchange would be to assess your performance, to render a judgment. Because Boomers love to win, your hopes may be high for a prize—but still it's not exactly the sort of thing one wants to go through on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis—once or twice a year is plenty, thank you very much.

If you're a member of Generation X, the meaning of "feedback" is similar—it relates to an assessment or judgment. But the hoped-for outcomes may be a bit different. More money is great, but so is a longer leash—more freedom to operate in your own preferred way.

But for members of Generation Y, "feedback" means something very different. Ys learn through personal interactions. They are accustomed to reaching out to friends and family for suggestions, coaching or factual input on any number of topics, as they go along. Rather than being linear learners—I learn, then I go off and do—Ys are "on demand" learners. They start a task, uncover a need for additional information, seek that specific bit out, and move along. This cycle might happen multiple times every day.

So, when a Y says "I'd like more feedback," they are almost always expressing a desire to learn more. They are not in the assessment/judgment mode, along with its inevitable prize or demerit outcome. They are not looking for trophies (although they're not looking for lumps of coal, either). They don't want you to judge them, but rather to teach them. They hope you'll share ideas, input, suggestions, or coaching.

People who comment that Ys "can't take criticism" are again missing the point. It's not that they can't take it—it's that that is not what they're seeking. They are in the learning, not the grading phase. They are asking you to teach, not to score.

Feedback has a very different meaning for Ys—and labeling them as a trophy-loving generation completely misses the point.

I admit I caught myself falling into this Boomer mindset trap just last week. I was attending a conference that included a discussion of a new web service called Rypple. It's in the beta stage, but you can try it out. It's designed to allow you to receive short, quick "feedback" anonymously from people you select to ask (you need to designate a number of people so the anonymity of any one respondent can be protected). So, for example, after a meeting, you could send a quick question—"How could I make my recommendations stronger?"—and receive a variety of suggestions back.

My first reaction, I admit, was a little skeptical (okay, maybe even negative)—as you know, I'm a Boomer. My gut was saying "Ugh—why would I want to subject myself to that?" (Interpretation—to being "judged" multiple times a day). And the anonymous part felt really threatening. The only thing worse than being continually judged is being continually judged anonymously.

But the Ys at the conference were loving the service—already sending out requests for feedback after their presentations. And, as I thought about it, I recognize that my initial reaction was a classic Boomer view—rooted in judgment and assessment—while they were busy learning.

What's your view of feedback? Are you moving toward finding better ways to learn?

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.