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November 1, 2007

FEEDFORWARD IS BETTER THAN FEEDBACK

Over the past several years, I have observed more than 50,000 leaders as they participated in a fascinating experiential exercise. In the exercise, participants are each asked to play two roles. In one role, they are asked to provide “feedforward”—that is, to give someone else suggestions for the future and help as much as they can. In the second role, they are asked to accept feed-forward—that is, to listen to the suggestions for the future and learn as much as they can.

The exercise typically lasts 10 to 15 minutes, and the average participant has six to seven dialogue sessions. In the exercise, participants are asked to:

  • Pick one behavior they would like to change. Change in this behavior should make a significant, positive difference in their lives.
  • Describe this behavior to randomly selected fellow participants. This is done in one-on-one dialogues. It can be done quite simply, such as, “I want to be a better listener.”
  • Ask for two suggestions for the future that might help them achieve a positive change in their selected behavior. If participants have worked together in the past, they are not allowed to give any feedback about the past; they are only allowed to give ideas for the future.
  • Listen attentively to the suggestions and take notes. Participants are not allowed to comment on the suggestions in any way. They are not allowed to critique the suggestions or even make positive judgmental statements such as, “That’s a good idea.”
  • Thank the other participants for their suggestions.
  • Ask the other participants what they would like to change.
  • Provide feedforward—two suggestions aimed at helping the other person change.
  • Say, “You are welcome,” when thanked for the suggestions.
  • Find another participant and keep repeating the process until the exercise is stopped.

When the exercise is finished, I ask participants to provide one word that best describes their reaction to this experience. I ask them to complete the sentence, “This exercise was …” Surprisingly, the most common word mentioned is “fun”—the last word most of us think of when we receive feedback, coaching and developmental ideas.

REASONS TO TRY FEEDFORWARD

Participants are then asked why this exercise is seen as fun and helpful as opposed to painful, embarrassing or uncomfortable. Their answers 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. Athletes are often trained using feedforward. Racecar drivers are taught to look at the road ahead, not at the wall. Basketball players are encouraged to envision the ball going in the hoop and imagine the perfect shot. By giving people ideas on how they can be even more successful, we can increase their chances of achieving this success in the future.

2. It can be more productive to help people be “right” than prove they were “wrong.” Negative feedback often becomes an exercise in, “Let me prove you were wrong.” This 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, as it necessarily involves a discussion of mistakes, shortfalls and problems. Feedforward, on the other hand, is almost always seen as positive because it focuses on solutions, not problems.

3. 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. Successful people’s sense of identity is highly connected with their work. The more successful people are, the more this tends to be true. It is hard to give dedicated professional feedback that is not taken personally. Feedforward cannot involve a personal critique, since it is discussing something that has not yet happened. Positive suggestions tend to be seen as objective advice—personal critiques are often viewed as personal attacks.

4. Feedforward can cover almost all of the same material as feedback. Imagine that you have just made a fool of yourself in front of the executive committee. Your manager is in the room. Rather than make you relive this fool-making 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.

5. 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 some ideas for the future. Please accept these in the positive spirit that they are given. If you can only use one of the ideas, you are still ahead. Just ignore what doesn’t make sense to you.” With this approach, almost no time is wasted on judging the quality of the ideas or proving that the ideas are wrong. This debate time is usually negative; it can take up a lot of time, and it is often not very productive. By eliminating judgment of the ideas, the process becomes much more positive for the sender, as well as the receiver. Successful people tend to have a high need for self-determination and tend to accept ideas that they buy while rejecting ideas that feel forced upon them.

6. 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—even career-limiting—unintended consequences when applied to managers or peers. Feedforward does not imply superiority or judgment. It is more focused on being a helpful fellow traveler than an expert. As such, it can be easier to hear from a person who is not in a position of power or authority. An excellent teambuilding exercise is to have each team member ask, “How can I better help our team in the future?” and listen to feedforward from fellow team members in one-on-one dialogues.

7. 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 have in my life!” 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. 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!”

This is not to imply that leaders should never give feedback or that performance appraisals should be abandoned. Rather, feedforward can often be preferable to feedback in day-to-day interactions. Aside from its effectiveness and efficiency, feedforward can make life a lot more enjoyable. When managers are asked, “How did you feel the last time you received feedback?,” their most common responses are very negative. When managers are asked how they felt after receiving feedforward, they reply that feedforward was not only useful, it was also fun!

Marshall Goldsmith is an authority on leadership and author of the 2007 book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” published earlier this year by Hyperion. He is co-founder of Marshall Goldsmith Partners, a network of executive coaches that grooms leaders by measuring improvements in behavior.