Quality communication is the glue that holds organizations together. By using feedforward—and by encouraging others to use it—leaders can dramatically improve the quality of communication in their organizations.
by Marshall Goldsmith
Leaders have to give feedback and performance appraisals have to be made. This is a given. Yet, there are many times when feedforward is preferable to feedback in day-to-day interactions. Feedforward is a group exercise, the purpose of which is to provide individuals with suggestions for the future and to help them achieve a positive change in the behaviors as selected by them. Aside from its effectiveness and efficiency, feedforward can make life a lot more enjoyable.
Here are 10 reasons participants in my classes see feedforward as fun and helpful as opposed to painful, embarrassing, or uncomfortable. These descriptions provide a great explanation of why feedforward can often be more useful than feedback as a developmental tool.
1. We can change the future. We can’t change the past. Feedforward helps people envision and focus on a positive future, not a failed past. By giving people ideas on how they can be even more successful (as opposed to visualizing a failed past), we can increase their chances of achieving this success in the future.
2. It can be more productive 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.” Feedforward, on the other hand, is almost always seen as positive because it focuses on solutions – not problems.
3. Feedforward is especially suited to successful people. Successful people like getting ideas that are aimed at helping them achieve their goals. They tend to resist negative judgment. I have observed many successful executives respond to (and even enjoy) feedforward. I am not sure that these same people would have had such a positive reaction to feedback.
4. Feedforward can come from anyone who knows about the task. It does not require personal experience with the individual. One very common positive reaction to the previously described exercise is that participants are amazed by how much they can learn from people that they don’t know!
5. People do not take feedforward as personally as feedback. In theory, constructive feedback is supposed to “focus on the performance, not the person”. In practice, almost all feedback is taken personally (no matter how it is delivered). Feedforward cannot involve a personal critique, since it is discussing something that has not yet happened!
6. Feedback can reinforce personal stereotyping and negative self-fulfilling prophecies. Feedforward can reinforce the possibility of change. Feedback can reinforce the feeling of failure. Negative feedback can be used to reinforce the message, “this is just the way you are”. Feedforward is based on the assumption that the receiver of suggestions can make positive changes in the future.
7. Face it! Most of us hate getting negative feedback, and we don’t like to give it. I have reviewed summary 360 feedback reports from many companies. The items “provides developmental feedback in a timely manner” and “encourages and accepts constructive criticism” always score near the bottom on co-worker satisfaction with leaders. It’s clear that leaders are not very good at giving or receiving negative feedback. It is unlikely that this will change in the near future.
8. Feedforward tends to be much faster and more efficient than feedback. An excellent technique for giving ideas to successful people is to say, “Here are four ideas for the future. Please accept these in the positive spirit that they are given and ignore what doesn’t make sense for you.” With this approach almost no time gets wasted on judging the quality of the ideas or “proving that the ideas are wrong”.
9. Feedforward can be a useful tool to apply with managers, peers, and team members. Rightly or wrongly, feedback is associated with judgment. This can lead to very negative – or even career-limiting – unintended consequences when applied to managers or peers. Feedforward does not imply superiority of judgment. As such it can be easier to hear from a person who is not in a position of power or authority.
And, finally, reason #10 why feedforward can work better than feedback is…
10. People tend to listen more attentively to feedforward than feedback. 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!”
Quality communication—between and among people at all levels and every department and division—is the glue that holds organizations together. By using feedforward—and by encouraging others to use it—leaders can dramatically improve the quality of communication in their organizations, ensuring that the right message is conveyed, and that those who receive it are receptive to its content. The result is a much more dynamic, much more open organization—one whose employees focus on the promise of the future rather than dwelling on the mistakes of the past. Try it for yourself and see!