Give Feedforward Not Feedback

One of the toughest parts about being a manager is having uncomfortable conversations with reports. But when someone messes up, you need to address the issue and provide feedback. It’s not a fun interaction for you or the other person, but there’s no other way to deal with it.

Or is there?

The problem with feedback is that it’s usually negative. We talk about what went wrong so we can avoid doing that same thing again. But according to recent research, negative talk can actually lead to negative outcomes, rather than positive ones. (Shocker.)

A 2015 collaborative study published in Group & Organization Management analyzed more than 43,000 utterances made by over 40 problem-solving teams in two organizations. Researchers found that positive talk promoted positive action, while problem-focused language and efforts led to more of the same. These psychologists had some simple advice for executives: “Managers should develop an awareness of how the moment-to-moment conversational dynamics in team interactions contribute to positivity spirals and ultimately to team performance.” So, not only does pep talk work in the short term, it causes a spiral of positive thoughts and actions.

You can see for yourself how this relates to feedback by testing out a sample exercise devised by Marshall Goldsmith. A prolific author and editor, his works include two New York Times bestsellers, a Wall Street Journal number-one business book, and a Harold Longman Business Book of the Year. Marshall Goldsmith is such a highly decorated thinker in the fields of business and education that, when he agreed to be a guest on my radio show, I devoted the entire hour to talking with him on TalentTalk.9 During his interview, he mentioned a new term I had never heard before: feedforward, which is obviously the antithesis of feedback. The latter involves commentary through hindsight. The former is a future-facing means of providing input that is inherently more positive than the alternative.

Goldsmith describes why this process works in more detail in a 2014 article he wrote for Inc. magazine: “We can change the future. We cannot 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.” Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? Yet managers persist in delivering their considered opinions once it is too late – as feedback.

Feedforward Exercise

Try Goldsmith’s exercise using real-life issues at your next meeting. Ask your team to pair off, and have each person tell their partner what they need from them going forward. That’s it. When they finish, their partner does the same for them. Then, everyone changes partners until each person has shared with at least three other people, including the one in charge of the meeting.

The results? You can expect new ideas for what is to come, and a positivity spiral arising from the ways in which you discussed it. Part of the reason for this is that you have removed the negative blockers and you have removed the possibility of blame from the equation. With feedback, the giver is usually analyzing what the receiver did in the past. As Goldsmith points out in the Inc. article, people do not always take this type of criticism well. Feedforward, on the other hand, he says, “cannot involve a personal critique, since it is discussing something that has not yet happened”!

We discovered this benefit first hand at PeopleG2. The concept of feedback now feels so negative to us – and we recognize when others employ feedforward effectively. I was sitting in a meeting at another office once, when a manager announced, “Hey everyone! I need you to shut off your computers and pay attention to me this time. Also, John, could you let other people talk once in a while? Great. Thanks!” I laughed out loud by accident, and everyone asked what was so funny. I told them about feedforward, and heads started nodding. After asking a few questions, it was apparent that John’s behavior had been going on for weeks and nothing had worked to change it. While it might not always work to call out your coworkers in such a direct and public way, letting them know what awesome things they can do in the future (without referencing the past) is a great way to put a positive spin on information that might have otherwise been negative.

This extract from The Power of Company Culture by Chris Dyer is ©2018 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd