Feedback vs feedforward: which works best?

feedforward imageIn this article Kate Griffiths comments on why feedback as a mechanism for improving performance is not working. She suggests an alternative option which initial tests have shown is faster and more effective and she explains the reasons why.

I was running a leadership development programme for the NHS Leadership Academy earlier this week and it came to the session on feedback. The previous session was highly creative as it is all about the participants performing for each other in groups so they are buzzing at the end of that session. As soon as they heard the word feedback, the energy in the room dipped. I commented on that and asked them what that was about? From the response I got, it was clear that many had negative associations with the whole process feedback.

In a way this is hardly surprising if you think about when feedback counts in the business lifecycle. Often it comes at the end of the performance year and is wrapped up in the whole appraisal process. I recall when I worked at PwC the mad dash in February and March as staff collated as much feedback as possible with the aim to show how well they had done throughout the year. Is it any wonder in such a climate that feedback is often perceived in a cynical way?

The questions you have to ask here are:
• How timely and specific is feedback given in this way?
• How true is it?
• How much transparency is there in the process as a whole?

Leaders are often working with a bell curve formula, which means that they have to distribute their ratings to members of their team so that the overall outcome sits within the normal distribution pattern. This means that even if every member of the team has excelled they cannot be presented as equally excellent. This can lead to much disillusionment in the team and a degree of despondency in the leader if he/ she is of the “responsive” type.

How can you change this perception of feedback?

Barbara Friedrickson’s research shows that you need to take a different approach to feedback by spending plenty of time acknowledging others. In essence it is closer to the precept lying behind Appreciative Inquiry as conceived by David Cooperrider. There is far more power in building on what is positive and already working. In short what this means is that the key to using feedback effectively is to offer around five pieces of data that affirm what the individual is doing well first before you go to a developmental place. This works because you are increasing the level of trust; the other person feels valued and in turn is far more likely to pay this feel good factor forward. It goes without saying that this strategy only works when you come from an authentic place and it is implemented over time not all at the same time. What it does is create a virtuous cycle which impacts positively for you too. It also means that because there is a degree of mutual respect in place that on the occasions you have to have those more challenging conversations, it is far easier because there is a level of good will already in place. I like to think of it as making deposits into the bank, which you can draw on at a later date.

All this may seem fairly obvious but actually it is something that many people struggle with. Think about it for a moment. Imagine you are on holiday and you go to two hotels. The first offers an exquisite experience that you will remember for a long time; at the second everything goes wrong from the noise levels to the type of service you receive. What are you most inclined to do? Will you spend your energy complaining about the second hotel or extolling the experience at the first hotel? In general there is a greater tendency to complain about the poor experience rather than saying how wonderful the other experience was. We know this from research done into the way the brain is wired. We are hard wired into negative thought patterns. It is far harder than you realise to break free of this pattern.

So what’s the way forward?

There is another fundamental flaw with feedback of the developmental kind and that is that it is always retrospective, in other words dissecting the past. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the future? Marshall Goldsmith certainly thinks so and in his article on feedforward, he expands on this.

Feedforward is all about giving people ideas and suggestions for how to make something even better next time. When I have run sessions based on these principles, those involved have commented on how inspiring and fun it has been. This is key to improving performance, which only happens when we are having fun. The key factor to remember when running one of these sessions is to brief the person sharing their dilemma to respond to suggestions with a thank you only, no comment on their thought about the ideas offered. Even positive views like that’s a good idea are a form of judgement.

Go on give it a go and let us know how you get on with the technique.


Kate Griffiths is the co-founder of Transformational Leaders Ltd, the holding company for Art of Leadership. Together with Kath Roberts she works with the Boards of Corporates to transform leaders from the inside out. They help organisations create spaces where employees truly looked forward to arriving at work each day; where you can show up wholeheartedly because you’re valued, appreciated and given the freedom to work autonomously whilst mastering your talents and living your purpose.