From feedback to feedforward: redefining performance management

July 19, 2019 Aaron Kinne

5-minute read

road ahead

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.”  

In a revealing Workhuman Radio interview, 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 literally powerless to do anything about it.”

Click here to hear Joe’s full 26-minute interview.

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. 

And if you think it’s 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.” 

“Feedforward” – a bold new way of looking at performance management

What’s the answer to this sorry state of affairs? 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.”

So how do we change the mindset of management 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 to support the work of the organization.”

Again, it comes down to moving beyond the old way of doing performance management – an approach that is essentially dysfunctional. 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. This is supported by the research of Dr. Rock, who has found that giving feedback is so unpleasant that many managers take the easy path – they don’t give feedback at all. 

Getting management on board

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 really 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

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 that “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 he or she really sees 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 becoming 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.” 

It all starts with trust

All of this, of course, has to begin with a level of trust. And Joe acknowledges that building trust is not simple or 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.


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About the Author

Aaron Kinne

Aaron Kinne is a senior writer at Workhuman.