Feedback too critical? Try the feedforward approach

When I reflect on my career, most of the best moments are tied to a feeling of accomplishment:

  • Finishing a big project
  • Achieving an important goal
  • Starting a business

Each represented a meaningful step forward professionally and were usually accompanied by some positive recognition. They also left me motivated to do more. 

On the flip side, almost all of my worst moments have been tied to receiving some sort of negative feedback. Now I know what you’re thinking: I must be pretty sensitive to criticism. Perhaps there’s some truth to that, but I think it has more to do with how we typically approach feedback. 

Chances are when you hear the word feedback, you think of a negative experience. When someone says, “Hey, can I give you some feedback?” it’s rarely an exchange that leaves you feeling positive and motivated.

Feedback has become synonymous with criticism. When we offer others feedback, it’s usually a list of failures or flaws in their past performance. Being criticized never results in positive emotions. And since there’s nothing we can do to change our past performance, the experience often creates frustration as well.

Learning requires feedback (both positive and negative). Without it, we don’t know what we are doing well, where we need improvement or how to improve. But, the negative emotions triggered in the process often get in the way.

There is a better way.

It’s called “feedforward.” The concept was originally created by executive coaching guru, Marshall Goldsmith. In essence, it shifts the focus of feedback from criticism of past performance to suggestions for future improvement. That may not sound like a big difference, but it feels completely different to the person on the receiving end.

The basics of giving feedforward

The next time you need to provide feedback, try using the feedforward approach. Here are the basics:

  1. Reinforce what is working. Before you dive into what needs to be different, identify and share the positives you’ve observed. If an employee you supervise presented a proposal to the team, start your feedforward by pointing out what worked well about the presentation. Look for both execution (“Your ideas were very well organized.”) and intention (“The approach you chose to take was well thought out.”). When you provide positive reinforcement to behaviors, you are likely to see more of them in the future.
  2. Coach, don’t criticize. In sports, a good coach emphasizes improving performance for the next play. When a player makes a mistake, a coach uses the opportunity to teach and motivate a different result in the future. Coaches understand the importance of keeping players feeling positive, particularly during game time when the consequences really matter. As managers, using feedforward means seeing mistakes or failures as opportunities to teach and inspire better performance in the future. Coaching is about supporting learning opportunities with positive emotions.
  3. Provide ideas for “next time.” Consider the difference between these two statements:
    • “You had far too many slides for a 10-minute presentation. You only needed half as many.” (Feedback)
    • “Next time you present, I’d recommend trying to cut down the number of slides. I use one slide per minute as a helpful guideline.” (Feedforward)

The intended message is the same in both examples. But, the second statement doesn’t trigger a defensive response because it’s a suggestion for the future, not a criticism of the past. It’s far more likely that an individual will both hear and internalize the second statement because it empowers them to make a choice.

Conclusion

Feedback is vital to growth. But, if we can’t hear or internalize the feedback due to our emotional response, it is totally ineffective. To accelerate learning and improve performance, try minimizing the negative emotion inherent in feedback by focusing on the future rather than on the past. Next time, try feedforward