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Feedforward, a great leadership tool

August 23, 2005

Providing feedback has long been considered to be an essential skill for leaders. As they strive to achieve the goals of the organisation, employees need to know how they are doing.

They need to know if their performance is in line with what their leaders expect. They need to learn what they have done well and what they need to change. Traditionally, this information has been communicated in the form of "downward feedback" from leaders to their employees.

Just as employees need feedback from leaders, leaders can benefit from feedback from their employees. Employees can provide useful input on the effectiveness of procedures and processes and as well as input to managers on their leadership effectiveness. This "upward feedback" has become increasingly common with the advent of 360 multi-rater assessments.

But there is a fundamental problem with all types of feedback: it focuses on a past, on what has already occurred -- not on the infinite variety of opportunities that can happen in the future. As such, feedback can be limited and static, as opposed to expansive and dynamic.

Over the past several years, I have observed more than 10,000 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 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 feedforward -- that is, to listen to the suggestions for the future and learn as much as they can. The exercise typically lasts for 10-15 minutes, and the average participant has six or seven dialogue sessions. In the exercise participants are asked to:

Pick one behaviour that they would like to change. Change in this behaviour should make a significant, positive difference in their lives.

Describe this behaviour 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 feed forward -- two suggestions for the future that might help them achieve a positive change in their selected behaviour.

Listen attentively to the suggestions and take notes. Participants are not allowed to critique the suggestions or even to make positive judgemental statements, such as, "That's a good idea."

Ask the others what they would like to change.

Provide feedforward.

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 ". The words provided are almost always extremely positive, such as "great", "energising", "useful" or "helpful." The most common word mentioned is "fun!"

What is the last word that most of us think about when we receive feedback, coaching and developmental ideas? Fun!

Here's why

Here are 11 reasons why feedforward can often be more useful than feedback as a developmental tool.

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." By giving people ideas on how they can be even more successful, we can increase their chances of achieving this success in the future.

It can be more productive to help people be "right," than prove they were "wrong". Negative feedback often 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.

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 judgement. We all tend to accept feedback that is consistent with the way we see ourselves. We also tend to reject or deny feedback that is inconsistent with the way we see ourselves.

Successful people tend to have a very positive self-image. 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.

Feedforward can come from anyone who knows about the task. It does not require personal experience with the individual. One common reaction to the previously described exercise is that participants are amazed by how much they can learn from people that they don't know!

For instance, if you want to be a better listener, almost any fellow leader can give you ideas on how you can improve. They don't have to know you. Feedback requires knowing about the person. Feedforward just requires having good ideas for achieving the task.

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. Successful people's sense of identity is highly connected with their work. It is hard to give a 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.

Feedback can reinforce personal stereotyping and negative self-fulfilling prophecies. Feedforward can reinforce the possibility of change. It is based on the assumption that the receiver of suggestions can make positive changes in the future.

Face it! Most of us hate getting negative feedback, and we don't like to give it. I have reviewed summary 360 feedback reports for over 50 companies.

The items, "provides developmental feedback in a timely manner" and "encourages and accepts constructive criticism" almost always score near the bottom on co-worker satisfaction with leaders. Leaders are not very good at giving or receiving negative feedback. It is unlikely that this will change in the near future.

Feedforward can cover almost all of the same "material" as feedback. Imagine that you have just made a terrible presentation in front of the executive committee. Your manager is in the room. Rather than make you "relive" this humiliating 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.

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. If you can only use two of the ideas, you are still two ahead. Just 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". Successful people tend to have a high need for self-determination and will tend to accept ideas that they "buy" while rejecting ideas that feel "forced" upon them.

Feedforward can be a useful tool to apply with managers, peers and team members. Rightly or wrongly, feedback is associated with judgement. This can lead to very negative -- or even career-limiting -- unintended consequences when applied to managers or peers. Feedforward does not imply superiority of judgement.

It is more focused on being a helpful "fellow traveller" 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 team-building 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.)

People tend to listen more attentively to feedforward than feedback. One participant is 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. 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!"

In summary, the intent of this article is not to imply that leaders should never give feedback or that performance appraisals should be abandoned. The intent is to show how 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!

Quality communication -- between and among people at all levels -- is the glue that holds organisations together. By using feedforward leaders can dramatically improve the quality of communication in their organisations, 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 organisation -- one whose employees focus on the promise of the future rather than dwelling on the mistakes of the past.

Marshall Goldsmith is one of the world's top executive coaches and the author of 18 books on leadership, including The Leader of the Future and The Organization of the Future.

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