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Feedforward vs. Feedback as a Tool for Behavior Modification Published: Sunday, November 28, 2010 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Quality communication between and among people at all levels and every department and division is the glue that holds organizations together. By using feedforward, and by encouraging others to use it, leaders can dramatically improve the quality of communication in their organizations, ensuring that the right message is conveyed, and that those who receive it are receptive to its content. The result is a much more dynamic, much more open organization-one whose employees focus on the promise of the future rather than the mistakes of the past.

Giving and receiving feedback has long been considered an essential skill for leaders. But there is a fundamental problem with feedback: it focuses on the past, on what has already occurred, not on the infinite variety of things that can be, in the future. As such, feedback can be limited and static, as opposed to expansive and dynamic.

As the great sociologist Erving Goffman has shown so eloquently, when we relate with others we always present ourselves as something — by name, by title, by our demeanor, by the tone of our voice. And, in so doing, we always claim a certain amount of value or status for ourselves relative to the others in the situation. Others then must make an immediate choice: to grant us what we have claimed, or to either withhold confirmation or actually challenge us.

People do not take feedforward as personally as feedback. In theory, constructive feedback is supposed to "focus on the performance, not the person." In practice, almost all feedback is taken personally (no matter how it is delivered). Successful people's sense of identity is highly connected with their work. The more successful people are, the more this tends to be true. It is hard to give a dedicated professional feedback that is not taken personally. Feedforward cannot involve a personal critique, since it is discussing something that has not yet happened! 

In a feedforward exercise, participants are each asked to play two roles. In one role, they are asked provide feedforward —that is, to give someone else suggestions for the future on a specific matter and help as much as they can. In the second role, they are asked to accept feedforward—that is, to listen to the suggestions for the future and learn as much as they can.

Why is then that feedforward can often be more useful than feedback? The work of the great researcher and author Marshall Goldsmith on this matter pinpoints the following:

Fedforward is especially suited to successful people. Successful people like getting ideas that are aimed at helping them achieve their goals. They tend to resist negative judgment. We all tend to accept feedback that is consistent with the way we see ourselves. We also tend to reject or deny feedback that is inconsistent with the way we see ourselves. Successful people tend to have a very positive self-image.

  • We can change the future. We can't change the past. Feedforward helps people envision and focus on a positive future, not a failed past. By giving people ideas on how they can be even more successful, we can increase their chances of achieving this success in the future. 
  • It can be more productive to help people be "right," than prove they were "wrong." Negative feedback often becomes an exercise in "let me prove you were wrong." This tends to produce defensiveness on the part of the receiver and discomfort on the part of the sender.
  • Feedforward can come from anyone who knows about the task. It does not require personal experience with the individual. For example, if you want to be a better listener, almost any fellow leader can give you ideas on how you can improve. They don't have to know you. Feedback requires knowing about the person. Feedforward just requires having good ideas for achieving the task.
  • Feedback can reinforce personal stereotyping and negative self-fulfilling prophecies. Feedforward can reinforce the possibility of change. Feedback can reinforce the feeling of failure. Feedforward is based on the assumption that people can make positive changes in the future.
  • Feedforward tends to be much faster and more efficient than feedback. An excellent technique for giving ideas to successful people is to say, "Here are four ideas for the future. Please accept these in the positive spirit that they are given. If you can only use two of the ideas, you are still two ahead. Just ignore what doesn't make sense for you."
  • Feedforward can be a useful tool to apply with managers, peers, and team members. Rightly or wrongly, feedback is associated with judgment. This can lead to very negative unintended consequences when applied to managers or peers. Feedforward does not imply superiority of judgment. It is more focused on being a helpful "fellow traveler" than an "expert."

Leaders are not very good at giving or receiving negative feedback. It is unlikely that this will change in the near future.  With this approach almost no time gets wasted on judging the quality of the ideas or "proving that the ideas are wrong." This "debate" time is usually negative; it can take up a lot of time, and it is often not very productive. By eliminating judgment of the ideas, the process becomes much more positive for the sender, as well as the receiver. Successful people tend to have a high need for self-determination and will tend to accept ideas that they "buy" while rejecting ideas that feel "forced" upon them.


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