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7 May, 2015

What’s The Difference Between Feedback And Feedforward?

The easy way to understand the difference between conventional feedback and feed-forward is to think in terms of the past and the future. Conventional feedback is past focused. It provides information about past activity and performance. Feed-forward on the other hand is future focussed. It provides information about what a person could do differently in the future. These suggestions for improvement enable people to make on-going adjustments in how they are performing.

Why use feed-forward rather than feedback? Well, one of the key reasons is that feedback is typically delivered poorly by managers. Many managers tend to focus only on what’s gone wrong. As a result, not only do employees often dislike receiving feedback, but many managers dislike giving it. The great majority of frontline managers avoid providing corrective feedback when it really is needed because of this.

The problem with feedback in this regard is that it focuses on the past. On what has and hasn’t occurred. Feed-forward, on the other hand, focuses on the future. On the variety of things that can be, not the limited things that have been. This difference has a profound effect on how the conversation might go, and therefore on the motivation and engagement of your employees.

Let’s take a corrective feedback conversation. It will often go something like this:

Frontline Manager (acting assertively): “Here’s the issue I’ve noticed. Why did you do that?”
Team Member (acting defensively): “These are my excuses.”
Frontline Manager (acting aggressively): “Well it’s not good enough. Here’s what you should have done. Get it right from now on.”

Put yourself in the team member’s shoes. What would you think and how would you feel about the effectiveness of your manager, the usefulness of the conversation, your level of engagement in the change requested, and your general level of work motivation resulting from this conversation? I’m guessing a rating of ‘low’ on all counts.

Take the same situation, but with a focus on the future. It may go something like this:

Frontline Manager (confronting the issue): “Here’s the issue I’ve noticed. Remind me, why will it be important for us to get this right when we experience the same situation again in the future.”
Team Member (thinking forward): “Well, for this reason and for that reason.”
Frontline Manager (inquiring further): “So what could you do differently when you face a similar situation in the future to ensure you get it right?”
Team Member (problem solving): “Well, I could do this or that.”
Frontline Manager (providing tips): “I think that the first of those ideas particularly has merit. Additionally, here’s another suggestion of something that’s worked for me that might help you”
Team Member (grateful for the guidance): “Thanks. That’s a great idea. I think that’s something I could use.”
Frontline Manager (seeking commitment): “So, can I get your commitment to putting that into effect the next time you face a similar issue?”
Team Member (feeling positive pressure for a change): “Yes.”
Frontline Manager (acting supportively): “Great. I know that you’ll have a similar situation face you after lunch, so let’s talk mid-afternoon to check how that changed approach has worked for you.”.

Again, put yourself in the team member’s shoes. What would you think and how would you feel about the effectiveness of this manager, the usefulness of the conversation, your level of engagement in the change requested, and your general level of work motivation resulting from this conversation? I’m guessing that your rating will be a lot higher on all counts.

I notice that discussions that are mostly past focussed feel more like an interrogation that creates defensiveness. On the other hand, discussion that is mostly future focussed feels like a supportive coaching discussion that emphasises problem solving and creates opportunities. To my mind, that is the essential difference between feedback and feed-forward.

 

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