Merge's Blog

Feedforward – stay future-focused when offering feedback

forwardGiving negative feedback to employees is one of the hardest things that leaders have to do, so I often offer up how-to tips and ideas on the blog. One of my (many) past suggestions has been to stay future-focused in your conversation. Well I recently heard a new term to describe this approach – feedforward – and I liked it so much, I thought it was worth revisiting in today’s post.

Feedforward is focused on offering an employee suggestions for the future with a goal of helping them as much as you can. Supporters of the feedforward model suggest that because feedback focuses on the past, on what has already occurred, it is limited and static. Whereas feedforward, because it focuses on the infinite variety of opportunities that can happen in the future, is expansive and dynamic. Now I don’t think it really matters what word you choose because “feedback”, if it’s done well (and is future-focused), is just “feedforward” in disguise. But I do acknowledge that the word “feedforward” is an obvious and visible reminder of the importance of looking ahead rather than into the past. So let’s call it feedforward.

Here’s how it works. Give your staff member two suggestions for the future that might help him achieve a positive change in the behaviour that you want to target. Remember, you must not give ANY feedback about the past. So for example, if your employee recently gave a very disorganized presentation to senior management, feedforward could be to suggest that he summarize the recommendations at the beginning of the presentation. Or you could suggest that he provide his background data in an appendix. However, you CANNOT refer back to the presentation that went wrong. This needs to be two-way in order for it to work. Your employee must commit is to listen attentively to your suggestions and take notes WITHOUT commenting on them in any way, including agreeing or disagreeing with you.

There are two advantages, in my opinion, of thinking in terms of “feedforward”.

  1. The future can be changed, but the past cannot. When we talk about feedforward to our people, we can help them visualize and focus on a positive future, not a failed past.
  2. Feedforward is more likely to fire up your star performers. Top employees like getting ideas that are aimed at helping them achieve their goals.

So I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you think there is value in thinking in terms of “feedforward” rather than “feedback”, or is it just word-smithing? Are there any other advantages you see in addition to the ones I listed? Any disadvantages? Let’s discuss.

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