Why "Feedforward" Works Better Than Feedback

Joel Trammell

Posted by Joel Trammell
June 30, 2017

Imagine you have an employee—a high-level manager—who just delivered a presentation to the board. Unfortunately, his presentation went terribly wrong. It hit all the wrong notes, and you know it didn't make a good impression on anyone in the room.

As a leader, what do you do?

This happened to me early in my career as CEO. I took the person aside after the board meeting and went through why the presentation didn't meet the standard I expected. I didn't yell or criticize him personally—I just did a post mortem on everything I thought was wrong with his portion of the meeting. Unfortunately, he left that meeting looking shaken. With the benefit of hindsight, I know now that he was probably thinking I was on the verge of firing him.

That wasn't my intention at all. This was a very capable person and highly valuable to the organization. I just needed him to change up his presentation style. But that day, I gave feedback instead of feedforward and left my employee feeling lost and frustrated.

"Feedforward," as the name implies, is essentially a managerial conversation that focuses on suggestions for the future rather than on a critical assessment of the past. If you read this blog regularly, you know that we write often about focusing on the future. Coaching conversations with employees are no exception. They work much better when they're rooted in a discussion of what comes next rather than in a review of problems.

Marshall Goldsmith is a big proponent of the "feedforward" idea. So is Professor Avraham Kluger, organizational behavior expert, who writes:

Unlike feedback, which has multiple detrimental consequences, feedforward creates positive emotions, fosters bonding, builds psychological safety, and promotes the elicitation and sharing of vital new information regarding keys for personal and organizational flourishing. 

After a couple of decades as CEO, I agree with this approach and wish I had used it with my employee after that board meeting. Instead of him walking out worried about his livelihood, I could've given him some practical suggestions for what to do differently.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't criticize. In fact, employees want your honest criticism of their performance. But once you've briefly outlined the problem, it's important to switch quickly into feedforward mode. Keep your employee from dwelling on their failures and instead help them see how they can improve outcomes in the future.

No matter how much you diagnose the problem, your employee can't change the past. Shifting to a feedforward approach will show employees exactly what you expect, in addition to building a growth mindset.

Another plus for you, the leader: feedforward is easier to give. Do you enjoy giving negative feedback? I didn't think so. Next time you need to deliver criticism, focus on positive future outcomes instead.

Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell

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