“I have some feedback for you.”
No other sentence evokes such universal dread at work. Most people have a pretty rocky relationship with feedback, and for good reason: so much of the feedback people receive feels like a surprise attack. It’s typically vague, often poorly delivered, and frequently isn’t shared until long after it would have been helpful.
The experience of receiving feedback often leaves recipients feeling defeated, defensive, or angry. And that’s problematic because none of those emotions support learning and growth — which are supposed to be the point of feedback in the first place.
Feedback is the Achilles heel of management. When managers can’t master feedback in a way that fosters learning and growth for their people, those leaders (and their teams) will always fall short of realizing their full potential.
The Fundamental Flaw of Feedback
To perfect feedback, leaders must first recognize that it’s almost exclusively focused on critique of past performance, which can’t be changed. Past performance is history. Simply knowing what they did wrong (or right) in the past does nothing to guarantee that someone’s performance or behavior will change for the better in the future.
Future improvement requires information that informs and empowers people to change their behaviors and actions. Instead of criticism, they need advice, suggestions, and instruction. In other words, they need coaching.
Good coaches know that employees need both motivation and know-how in order to improve themselves. Traditional feedback frequently provides neither. Criticism often kills the recipient’s motivation and it doesn’t always give them the knowledge they need.
A Different Approach to Feedback
A coaching approach feels very different from the usual method of giving feedback. Because its purpose is to motivate future performance, some coaching experts (including Marshall Goldsmith) call it “feedforward” instead. A feedforward approach enables managers and teams to replace the unnecessary angst around feedback with opportunities to accelerate learning and performance.
Instead of focusing the feedback conversation on an evaluation or critique of past performance, feedforward puts the emphasis on sharing suggestions and guidance for how to get better results in the future. For example, a feedback approach that focuses on evaluating something that has already happened — and cannot be changed — might include the question “What could Jason have done differently to improve his presentation?” A feedforward question, on the other hand, inquires about growth and improvement, and could take the form of a question that fields some actionable insights that can be applied to future actions, such as “What two suggestions do you have for how Jason could improve his presentations in the future?” The emphasis on improvement (rather than critique) can have a powerful impact — particularly on the person who is on the receiving end of it.
How to Implement Feedforward
The introduction of a feedforward approach into an organization requires change both in mindset and in culture. (Thankfully, it’s a change most people will welcome as an opportunity to improve their negative relationship with feedback!) To implement this approach successfully, organizations must be sure to follow these guidelines.
- Train managers to think like coaches. The real power of feedforward manifests when managers recognize that their job is to improve future performance, not criticize the past. Training managers to use effective feedforward tactics (such as asking future-focused questions) and to think like coaches lays the foundation for the successful implementation of a feedforward program.
- Use feedforward questions in feedback processes. Organizations can draw on a variety of feedback processes, such as performance reviews, peer-to-peer feedback, 360-degree assessments, project debriefs, and some recognition programs. However, most of these systems usually incorporate questions and prompts within a feedback framework oriented toward an evaluation of past performance rather than within a feedforward framework that fuels the learning that supports future improvement. To be more effective, the feedback process should include asking for ideas and suggestions for future improvement. When the focus isn’t on being critical, there’s no reason not to ask people to put their names to their feedback, which makes it easier for recipients to follow up for more detail.
- Don’t confuse performance measurement with feedback and feedforward. Using a feedforward approach doesn’t mean ignoring (and not discussing) poor performance. But the purpose of feedback is to support learning and growth. Performance measurement requires different tools and starts by establishing clear expectations for all aspects of how an employee’s performance will be measured and evaluated, which makes possible pretty straightforward conversations about whether someone is meeting expectations. Once good performance measurement processes are in place, feedback (and feedforward) processes can helps shape the kind of questions or information needed for assessment and identify where an employee might need or want to accelerate their growth and skills. Unfortunately, performance expectations aren’t always established up front, and when that happens critical “feedback” is offered as a form of performance measurement. And because those measurements are often tied to pay increases, the stakes are raised, thus amplifying all of the other problems with feedback.
Although shifting an entire organization to the feedforward approach can be a big undertaking, its positive impact will be evident the first time it’s used. Once managers start to understand this approach, they often realize that it’s already being used in many settings that prioritize growth and learning, such as parenting, teaching, and coaching. Still a relative newcomer to the workplace, feedforward is becoming more prevalent as more leaders become aware of it.