Offering feedback has been an essential skill for leaders to possess for ages. As they strive to achieve the goals of the organization, employees need to know how they are doing; they need to learn what they have done well and what they need to change. Traditionally, this information has been communicated in the form of feedback from leaders to their employees.
But as Marshall Goldsmith aptly points out, there is something inherently wrong with feedback: it focuses on the past and not on how to improve in the future. As such, feedback can be limiting. Feedforward on the other hand gives someone suggestions for the future on how to improve and it does so in a way that keeps the receiver off the defensive.
Before we go on, I’d like to point out that no one is implying that you should never give feedback, or that performance appraisals should be tossed out the window. However, feedforward can often be preferable to feedback in daily interactions.
Communication between and among people at all levels and between departments and divisions is the glue that holds organizations together. By using feedforward leaders can dramatically improve the quality of communication in their organizations, ensuring that the right message is conveyed, and those who receive it are receptive to its content. The result is a much more dynamic, open organization—one whose employees focus on the promise of the future rather than the mistakes of the past.
Remember you want to focus on the future and not dwell on the issue at hand. Perhaps you felt an employee could have done a better job presenting some key information to you, or that an employee isn’t handling a stressful situation so well. Try using these lead-ins:
- As you move ahead, you might be more successful if you…
- One suggestion for the future is…
- Start to… I think that would be helpful.
- For the future, I would appreciate it if you would… It would help me (or the team) to…
- I’ve seen several people increase their effectiveness by… Maybe that’s an idea you might try.
- From now on, …
- Going forward, …
Still Not Convinced?
Goldsmith has watched over ten thousand executives try out this feedforward process. At the end of each session he asked participants to provide one word that best describes their reaction to this experience by completing the sentence, “This exercise was …” The words provided usually extremely positive, such as “great”, “energizing”, “useful”, or “helpful.” Do you know what one of the most commonly-mentioned words was? “Fun!” Fun? Have you ever heard someone describe a feedback activity as fun?! I certainly have not!
Goldsmith then asked participants why they felt this exercise was fun, here are some of their responses:
- We can change the future. We can’t change the past, but feedforward helps people envision and focus on a positive future, not a failed past
- It’s more productive. It’s easier to help people learn to be “right,” than prove they were “wrong.” Negative feedback often becomes an exercise in “let me prove you were wrong” which tends to produce defensiveness on the part of the receiver and discomfort on the part of the sender. Even constructively delivered feedback is often seen as negative. Feedforward, on the other hand, is almost always seen as positive because it focuses on solutions – not problems.
- It can come from anyone who knows about the task. It doesn’t require personal experience with the individual. One very common positive reaction to the exercise is that participants are amazed by how much they can learn from people they don’t know! Feedforward’s only requirement is having good ideas for achieving the task.
- It can reinforce the possibility of change. Feedforward is based on the assumption that the receiver of suggestions can make positive changes in the future.
- Feedforward can cover almost all of the same “material” as feedback. Imagine that you have just made a terrible presentation in front of the executive committee. Your manager is in the room. Rather than make you “relive” this humiliating experience, your manager might help you prepare for future presentations by giving you suggestions for the future. These suggestions can be very specific and still delivered in a positive way. In this way your manager can cover the same points without feeling embarrassed and without making you feel even more humiliated.
- People tend to listen more attentively to feedforward. One participant in the feedforward exercise noted, “I think that I listened more effectively in this exercise than I ever do at work!” When asked why, he responded, “Normally, when others are speaking, I am so busy composing a reply that will make sure that I sound smart – that I am not fully listening to what the other person is saying I am just composing my response. In feedforward the only reply that I am allowed to make is ‘thank you’. Since I don’t have to worry about composing a clever reply – I can focus all of my energy on listening to the other person!”
Aside from its effectiveness and efficiency, feedforward can make life and work a lot more enjoyable.