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The skills you'll need to evolve from feedback to feedforward

Jason Lauritsen

Management trainer

“I have some feedback for you.”

No other sentence evokes such universal dread at work. Most of us have a pretty rocky relationship with feedback. And can you blame us?

So much of the feedback we’ve received in the past has felt like a surprise attack. It’s typically vague, often poorly delivered and frequently isn’t shared until long after it would have been helpful to know.

If you don’t like feedback, it’s okay to admit it. You aren’t alone.

The experience of receiving feedback often leaves us feeling defeated, defensive or angry. And that’s problematic because none of those emotions support learning or growth — which is the point of feedback in the first place.

Our relationship with feedback is the Achilles heel of management. As a manager, if you can’t master feedback in a way that fosters learning and growth for your people, you (and your teams) will always fall short of realizing your full potential.

The fundamental flaw in feedback

To perfect feedback, we must first recognize the most fundamental flaw of feedback is that it’s almost exclusively focused on critique and criticism of past performance.

That’s a problem because we can’t change past performance. It’s history. Simply knowing what I did wrong (or right) in the past does nothing to guarantee my future performance or behavior will change for the better.

To improve in the future, we need information that informs and empowers us to change our behaviors and actions. Instead of criticism or critique, we need advice, suggestions and instruction.

This is typically what we call coaching.

Good coaches know that to improve, you need both motivation and know-how. Traditional feedback frequently provides neither. Criticism and critique don’t always translate to know-how, and they often kill the motivation to try.

A different approach to feedback

This coaching approach feels very different from feedback. So different that some, including the legendary executive coach and author Marshall Goldsmith, have given it another name.

They call it “feedforward” to remind us that the purpose is motivating improved future performance.

Feedforward offers managers and teams the opportunity to avoid the unnecessary angst around feedback and replace it with the opportunity to accelerate learning and performance.

Using the feedforward approach at work is reasonably simple. When feedback is required, instead of focusing the conversation on an evaluation or critique of past performance, put the emphasis on sharing suggestions and guidance for how to get a better result in the future.

Often it can be as simple as asking a different question. A feedback question requires an evaluation of what has already happened. An example might be, “What could Jason have done differently to improve his presentation?” The question involves criticism of things that cannot be changed.

A feedforward question instead inquires about ideas and suggestions for growth and improvement. For example, “What two suggestions do you have for how Jason could improve his presentations in the future?” This question will yield some actionable insights that can be applied to future presentations.

Do you notice the difference? One focused on critique, the other on improvement. It’s a subtle but powerful difference — particularly for the person on the receiving end.

How to implement feedforward

Introducing feedforward into your organization is both a mindset and culture change. Thankfully, it’s a change most people will welcome, given our rocky relationship with feedback.

Feedforward requires an intentional focus both on training managers to use this new approach and integrating it into the systems you use to solicit feedback. Below are a few tips for how (and where) to start.

1) Train managers to think like coaches

The real power of feedforward comes when managers start to think like coaches, recognizing that their job is to improve future performance, not criticize the past.

I once coached youth sports with a coach whose favorite saying was, “next play.” It was his way of reminding the player (and himself) that you can’t do anything to change what just happened. The only thing you can change is what happens next.

Offering managers training in the tactics of feedforward (like asking future-focused questions) and how to think more like a coach is a vital first step to introducing feedforward.

2) Use feedforward questions in your feedback processes

There are a variety of feedback processes we use within any organization. Performance reviews, peer-to-peer feedback, 360-degree assessments, project debriefs and even some recognition systems are all feedback systems.

In any of these systems, review the questions and prompts being used through the lens of feedback versus feedforward. You will find that most of these tools are oriented toward an evaluation of past performance rather than fueling the learning that supports future improvement.

Instead, ask about ideas and suggestions for how to improve in the future. And since we aren’t being critical, there’s no reason not to ask people to put their names to their feedback. That way, the individual on the receiving end can follow up for more detail.

3) Don’t confuse performance measurement with feedback and feedforward

You might be reading all of this feedforward stuff and thinking, “So are we supposed to just ignore when someone isn’t performing and not talk about it?” This raises another common issue with feedback.

The purpose of feedback is to support learning and growth. It shouldn’t be seen or used as a tool for measuring performance.

The first step of performance measurement is creating crystal clear expectations for all aspects of how an employee’s performance will be measured and evaluated. If done correctly, then the conversation about whether someone is performing at expectations is pretty straightforward.

With good performance measurement processes in place, feedback (and feedforward) processes use that information as a foundation. It helps shape where and what kind of questions or information you might be seeking. It informs where an employee might need or want to accelerate their growth and skills.

What often happens, unfortunately, is that performance expectations aren’t established in the first place. So, then critical “feedback” is offered as a form of performance measurement. And since these measurements are often tied to pay increases, the stakes are high, which amplifies all of the other problems with feedback.

Feedforward works

Once you start understanding the feedforward approach, you’ll see it being used in many places where growth and learning are the priority: parenting, teaching, coaching and more. You just won’t see it very often at work. You can change that.

The beauty of this approach is that while it might be a big project to shift the entire organization to this approach, you can start applying it and teaching it right away. And it will have a positive impact the very first time you use it.

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