Feedback vs Feedforward: Redefining Performance Management

March 16, 2023 Workhuman Editorial Team
feedforward vs feedback conversation

Ask anyone in your organization what makes them feel alive and invigorated at work, and it’s highly unlikely they’ll answer: “Oh, that would be performance reviews!”

Why is it that both employees and managers alike dread performance reviews? According to Joe Hirsch, managing director at Seneca Partners, TEDx speaker, and author of “The Feedback Fix,” “Feedback has become an instrument of fear, and not joy.”

While it can be valuable to look back, future-oriented solutions require feedforward assessments. What does that entail, though? Today we’ll take a look at what feeding forward means, the feedforward vs feedback approach, and why feedforward advice is ideal for growth and development.

The problem with positive or negative feedback in a review

On Workhuman’s podcast, How We Work, Joe observes, “Performance reviews take a look back at a past that [employees] can no longer change. And because it’s looking back and not looking ahead, people are powerless to do anything about it.”

Check out the full podcast episode now!

Joe points out that when we hear the words, “Can I give you some feedback?” our brain literally shuts down and our threat awareness goes up. After all, who looks forward to receiving feedback about their negative behaviors?

And if you think providing positive or negative feedback on a person’s performance is any better for managers, think again: “They’re going through their notes from the last few weeks – or maybe the last quarter – trying to piece together a picture of performance, acting like forensic psychologists.”

manager using positive feedback methods

What is feedforward performance management?

So where do organizations go from there? Joe believes the solution lies in moving away from the current feedback model to the power of “feedforward” – a bold new approach to thinking about the way people perform and achieve their personal best. “Feedforward is all about looking at not just who we are, but who we are becoming.

How do we change management’s mindset on this issue? Some might argue, “Hey, I’m a manager. I’m supposed to give people feedback so that they can do a better job.”

As Joe notes, “Managers inherently realize the tension of trying to help someone perform – yet also tend to do all the things they need to do to managerially support the work of the organization.”

Again, it comes down to moving beyond the old way of performance management – an essentially dysfunctional approach.

In Joe’s experience, when we ask managers if they are happy with the way performance management is working for them, they invariably answer, “It’s the worst thing I do.”

Managers are running from those conversations. To the point where some find giving feedback so unpleasant they take the easy path – they don’t provide feedback at all.

Benefits of using feedforward with examples

Joe believes that a feedforward approach not only promotes cooperation within the team but also encourages them to adopt a growth mindset and focus on a larger goal along with individual growth. The top benefits are:

1. Future forward orientation

Feedforward assessments focus on how you can improve a situation in the future. They don’t dwell on past mistakes but rather look toward the road ahead.

Feedback, both negative and positive, creates an uncomfortable environment which can lead to an unnecessary focus on small errors, thus creating a negative environment in the future.

Rather than nitpicking past errors, feedforward only learns from and leverages them for specific steps to reach a future goal. This shifts the focus to the optimization of skills.

For example, a feedback approach would focus on how customer service was less effective in the past and give critique to the employees. A future-forward approach learns from the past and provides suggestions to handle customers better in the future.

2. Non-judgmental feedback

The feedforward assessment offers objective advice focused on future-oriented solutions and helps employees strive for better performance and higher goals.

It encourages team members to be open and honest to achieve a collective goal. The manager assessing an employee is empathetic rather than critical of the challenges and opportunities they see for the person receiving advice.

A good leader makes the recipient of the assessment feel comfortable and open, and not defensive.

A non-judgmental feedforward approach creates momentum for change and focuses on solutions and possibilities. It is specific and creates space for efficiency.

For example, both employees and managers dread annual performance reviews. While managers want to avoid a negative environment, employees are already defensive before the meeting starts.

A feedforward culture focuses on non-judgmental and supportive feedback that leaves the employee and the manager feeling empowered. A non-judgmental review observes any shortcomings only to foster future growth, not critique.

3. Reinforcing positive interpersonal relationships

The feedforward approach creates an environment of cooperation, not competition, among the employees. It is a growth-oriented constructive assessment that reinforces positive interpersonal relationships.

Employees know what the other members are working on and can share areas of improvement, strengths, and weaknesses with each other. This builds a connected, empowered, and engaged team that works collectively for a larger goal.

For example, the feedforward culture aims to observe and nurture the unique capabilities of each employee and give them responsibilities accordingly.

This encourages interpersonal relationships within the team as the members are not competing for a single role.

While an employee with good design capabilities can build great process flowcharts on industry tools, their team member with good analytical skills can design the process itself.

4. Breaking through barriers

team members working together with growth mindset

Consistent feedforward assessments align with a growth mindset within the team. They help everyone stay on the same page by periodically checking in on their goals and making continuous improvements toward their learning.

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A growth mindset breaks the barriers of criticism and working in isolation and helps employees collaborate and accelerate growth. Feedforward also encourages resilience, effort, and learning as core values within a team.

For example, let’s say Joe is going to lead a sales pitch to a client for the first time. Though he is a subject-matter expert, he has never pitched to a client before.

Since this is uncharted territory for Joe, his manager and a coworker decide to support him in his preparation. Joe does a mock run of the presentation with his manager and coworker, both of whom already have experience with sales pitches.

During the mock run, they look for gaps in the presentation, confirm the data, and help Joe overcome any anxiety. On the day of the presentation, Joe is well-prepared, confident, and has the support of his team members, leading to an excellent sales pitch.

5. Discovering leaders within your team

The growth mindset requires new leaders within a team, and a culture of feedforward creates a perfect environment for that. Current leaders can also fine-tune their critical thinking and reflection skills.

Employees that are continuously reflecting, analyzing, and strategizing for self-improvement may be good future leaders. Great leaders will also foster growth in the team and make an effort to give positive feedforward to coworkers.

For example, Maria is part of a 15-member customer service team. She joins as an executive but quickly takes the initiative to learn the best practices and assist other coworkers in optimizing their performance.

This leads to overall higher productivity of the customer service team. The culture of feedforward encourages Maria to assist others and grow in the process rather than focusing only on herself.

This paves the way for Maria to take a leadership role within the team while taking the overall performance of the department higher.

6. Focusing on a better future

Feedforward helps employees focus on self-improvement and the future goals of the team. If every team member practices feedforward, they can align their goals with the team’s or organization’s goals, which is critical for long-term success.

For example, a product development team with coders and testers can either critique each other for faults or collaborate for the project’s success.

While a feedback culture may result in blaming, a feedforward culture will help the team support each other in doing their job better.

Developers can give constructive feedforward to the testing team and vice-versa, thus reducing the overall time to finish the job and raising the quality of the end product.

7. Practicing feedforward on a higher level

Businesses use key performance indicators (KPIs) or objectives and key results (OKRs) to measure the success of their operations. Leaders within the teams can implement collective feedforward assessments to meet the OKRs.

By implementing feedforward across departments, employees know how other teams are developing and can support each other to optimize the organization’s growth.

For example, the marketing and sales teams, through a feedforward approach, can learn from the pain points and work as a cohesive unit.

Feedforward assessments from the sales team can help the marketing team design better campaigns and utilize the budget better. Similarly, rather than critiquing the sales team, the marketing team can help them understand the target customer better.

What is the difference between feedback and feedforward coaching?

Contrary to feedback that looks at the past, feedforward aims at innovation and growth through collaboration. Here is how Joe compared the two methods:

Feedback method Feedforward method
Reiterates what the employee already knows from the past. Regenerates the employee’s talent by encouraging them to help others.
Focuses on and points out problems. Expands growth possibilities by looking at newer and better ways to do things.
It is a dump of information from the past. It is an ongoing instruction that focuses on one aspect of the work only.
It is often inauthentic, where the manager or employee ‘tries’ to be positive. It is authentic, defines a problem and its impact, and supports a person in finding the solution.
Feedback does not always offer a better plan of action. Feedforward aims to create a step-by-step improvement plan.
It flows top-to-bottom and follows a strict hierarchy. It involves the team and other departments for rich and varied input with different viewpoints and skills.

Now that we understand a clear distinction between feedback vs feedforward, let’s look at an example of a feedforward discussion.

Feedforward communication & coaching

A typical feedforward conversation focuses on the infinite possibilities to expand in the future. It is a 360-degree multi-rater assessment in which the participants undergo the following steps:

1. Choose a specific behavior that they want to change and that will make a significant positive impact on their lives.

2. Describe the behavior to random fellow participants in a one-on-one dialogue. For example, a simple statement could be, “I want to be a better team member.”

3. Ask for two suggestions or feedforward that will help you achieve this behavioral change. The participants cannot give feedback about the past, only feedforward about the future.

4. Participants may not critique or praise the suggestions but rather just listen carefully and take notes.

5. Thank the participants for their suggestions.

6. Ask other participants what they want to change and provide suggestions to help them change.

7. Thank the participants for providing their suggestions and keep repeating the process with other participants.

How to conduct a feedforward assessment?

The feedforward approach, Joe believes, emphasizes innovation without ignoring performance. Rather than criticizing the employee, managers should focus on supporting their efforts toward improvement.

This makes for a more comfortable, enriching environment for the employee. To achieve this, Joe breaks down the steps you need to take when conducting a feedforward assessment.

direct approach of constructive criticism with feedforward vs feedback

1. Set goals – Like any other project, a feedforward culture must have specific goals. For example, one of the goals could be to help your employees hone their skills so that they are more valuable to the company and eligible for a raise or promotion. When setting goals, it’s best to follow the SMART methodology in that the goal should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Here’s an example of what not to do when setting goals:

“We would like you to be better at sales presentations.”

As you can see, the goal is neither constructive nor a SMART goal.

On the other hand, below is a good example of setting a goal based on the feedforward approach:

“We would like you to leverage your product knowledge with great sales presentation skills. This will be achieved through six days of training with two top sales executives followed by a reverse presentation for assessment.”

Management must decide the goals after discussing them with their employees. Their input is vital, so it’s best not to ignore it.

2. Plan the assessment – The feedforward assessment comprises knowing who will be involved, creating a definite timeline for implementation, and selecting the right assessment tool. An important part of the assessment is to have the employee fill out a self-assessment form.

The assessment approach should not reference the past but follow a future innovation approach.

3. Conduct the assessment – The feedforward approach should first communicate the purpose of the assessment to the participating employees.

Collecting and analyzing data starts with great listening skills. This means not talking when the person being assessed is speaking, showing through facial expressions that you are listening, and, if required, repeating back what they’ve said to you to make sure you’re both on the same page.

It is important to conduct the assessment periodically, not only at the end of the year. Good feedforward opportunities are often at the end of a project or a task. This gives the employees a steady stream of inspiration and continuous performance improvements to pursue.

4. Take action – Based on the assessment, you need to develop an action plan. An example of this could be a list of training and development opportunities for employees to forward their areas of interest. You need to identify the resources required for taking action and have a specific timeline for implementation.

5. Evaluate the action and its results – SMART goals give you the benefit of evaluating whether you achieved the desired results. For example, by defining a timeline for completing the employee training, you’re able to track who completed it and how much they were able to get through.

Identify the areas for improvement in the current assessment cycle and plan for future assessments.

6. Overcoming common challenges – While feedforward advocates a collaborative approach, it is important to understand that some assessor-assessee discussions must be kept confidential. Ongoing assessments also help identify reasons for resistance to change among employees (if any) and handle disagreements.

Getting management to rethink constructive feedback

Against this backdrop, Joe believes that the mindset of management is ripe for change. He believes management is “open to new ideas if those ideas are proven, practical, and easy to do.”

Inspired by the work of Marshall Goldsmith, who first described the idea of feedforward as a way to get instant feedback, Joe began to dig deeper into the concept. The result was his book, “The Feedback Fix,” which outlines a six-part plan for fixing feedback as we know it.

So how do employees convey to their managers that they’re not getting the kind of feedback they need – that there’s a better way for managers to help them?

Joe believes the answer is rooted in the notion of engagement. In his view, “engagement is not what managers do for their employees. Engagement is what employees do for themselves. If we help people discover that better version of themselves, then all of a sudden, the fear of asking for feedback is gone.”

When that happens, people become agents of their own change and improvement. Instead of waiting for their managers to force change, employees start to do it for themselves.

Continuous, real-time conversations

manager using feed forward in a very positive way compared to constructive criticism

According to Joe, feedforward is all about continuous, real-time conversations. “Instead of waiting for formal review season to come around, these conversations are happening all the time. Just in time.”

And to those managers who say they don’t have the time for continuous, real-time conversations, Joe reminds them, “If you don’t spend the time now, you’re going to be spending a lot more time later. And the results are not going to be nearly as good.”

In the end, “Feedback is not about reports; it’s about relationships. If you really believe that the manager on the other side of that conversation has your best interests – that they really see you for who you are – then you trust that person, and you are open to what that person has to say.”

In the feedforward model, managers move from being a “window gazer”– someone who simply tells the employee what they see – to become a “mirror holder” – someone who holds up a mirror, so the employee can see their performance in a whole new light.

When managers become “mirror holders,” performance management becomes “more empathetic, more human.” Mirror holders enable employees to see themselves and “let the picture unfold for itself.”

Feedforward leadership starts with trust

All of this, of course, has to begin with a level of trust, and Joe acknowledges that building trust is not easy. But he does believe there are some concrete steps managers can take to build a sense of trust with an employee.

His first recommendation is for managers to adopt what he calls a “learn-it-all mentality” – to shed the perception that they, as managers, need to have all the answers and be problem solvers. Instead, he wants managers to ask questions, reflect, and create time and space for the employee.

“We need to encourage them to feel more human and real with us. And the way we can do that is not by imposing our view, but by allowing them to share theirs.” According to Joe, managers who take this approach are shocked by how much they learn.

Next, he believes it’s critical that managers start seeing performance reviews through the lens of employees’ strengths rather than their weaknesses. If managers don’t make that transition, then employees are going to feel small.

“The goal of feedforward is to make [employees] feel big, to enlarge their view of themselves by shifting that conversation from weaknesses to strengths.”

The interview ends with a story of a courageous friend – a mirror-holder – who held a mirror up for Joe. “It changed everything. It changed the way I saw myself. It changed the way I interacted with others. It literally redefined my relationships at work.”

In the end, it’s all about trust – a trust that’s built on ongoing, continuous conversations, reshaping the employee/manager relationship and enabling employees to reach their full potential.