Feedforward: feedback that works

Do you like receiving feedback? Or do you like giving it?

If the answer is no to either of those questions, you are not alone. Many people dislike or even fear feedback. And this is probably because people often encounter constructive, corrective feedback more frequently than positive, reinforcing feedback.

We have encountered many managers and leaders over the years who have said: ”If I’m not saying anything about their performance, they can correctly assume that all is going well”. Good leadership and indeed good followership involves letting people know about their performance regularly, in fact it needs to be part of the DNA of the workplace. Not just at appraisal or review time. We hear so many people surprised at appraisal time, saying “I had no idea they felt like that about me and my work”. This applies to the feedback they get regardless of whether it is good or bad.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Feedback, when done well, can be one of the most important tools for success in your career. Without it, you are flying blind; you don’t know how your actions and behaviours are perceived by others, or what the impact is – good OR bad. Because we need to give and receive much more positive feedback too.

Understanding the impact that you have

Understanding the impact you have and how you affect others is supremely important in your own learning and throughout your career. It doesn’t matter what stage of your career you are at or at what level you are, you can still learn through the feedback you receive. We learn just as much through the positive feedback that we get. We can have positive blind spots as well as not so positive blind spots.

Sometimes these natural strengths that we all have, are such a natural part of our behaviours that we don’t even know that we do it. So when someone points them out to us, not only does it help us to use them more, they can also help us with the areas we need to develop in. But if they are a strength blindspot you may not even know that they could help you with your development.

An example of positive/ strength blindspots

“When I was younger someone gave me feedback on how good they thought I was at selling. The person thought I was a great sales person because I always kept in touch with clients and that always led to more sales. I also followed up and suggested the next steps in the process. They said I was not only good at it but they had observed me in different situations and learned a great deal from me.

was very shocked to get the feedback, as personally I never saw myself as a sales person at all. They had observed me in some situations and asked me what I was thinking during these follow-ups with clients. That question really made me stop and think. As this was such a natural strength for me I really didn’t know how I did it. I was just not aware.

So I reflected on what I did and said “well, I just believe passionately that I have something that the client really needs and that they may not even know what they need so it is my role to help them work out the next steps in the process.” I was also genuinely interested and curious in “how” they were doing and what was currently making things easy for them and where they needed help, and support.

On reflection this made me realise how I was using my strength, which up until then had been a positive blindspot for me. The feedback has allowed me to use my strength to help me with a development area. When times were tough and I had to go into difficult situations with clients, I used my natural strength to help me. I simply used my passionate belief that I have something that will help them, which they don’t even know that they need. I also had my genuine desire to support them. This helps me when times are tough and I don’t want to go to that meeting!”

Let’s call it feedforward

In an effort to revive the whole concept and create a new way of looking at it, why don’t we call it feedforward! This is a better description of what feedback can do for you, it can feed you (or others) information that can move you/them forward, to more effective interactions and better results.

Why feedforward often doesn’t happen:

  • People don’t see the benefits of giving feedforward or the consequences of not
  • They’ve had bad experience with it
  • They don’t know how to do it (giving and/or receiving)
  • They don’t think they have the time to do it
  • They don’t think it’s their responsibility to give others feedforward
  • They are afraid of how the other person may react

“The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”

Sydney J Harris

Why feedforward is so important

Everyone – yes we’ll stick out our necks here and say everyone – wants to do a good job, to meet or even exceed their goals, to deliver results. Feedforward is the tool that can help you assess whether you are behaving in such a way that you can deliver the best results possible. This means a balance of positive and constructive feedforward.

As the example above highlights, we all have blindspots. It’s very hard to really look at yourself completely objectively. In addition, unless you have the chance to see or hear yourself recorded, you don’t really see or hear what other people experience. You are also not aware of how you can affect the way they feel through your behaviours.

The best feedforward is objective and behavioural, it focuses on behaviours, which are often easier for others to see.

If someone can show us what we do well and what we can do better, we can repeat and multiply what we do well – and change what’s not working for us.

A client we recently worked with was blown away by the positive feedback he received in his 360 feedback process. Becoming aware of what others appreciated in him, lifted him and energised him to do more with all his strengths and capabilities. He just hadn’t realised quite how much he impacted other people in a good way. Up until then his impact had been accidental and now with his new awareness it can be intentional and even more consistent.

Feedforward is not just a “nice to have”. It is much more important than that. When feedforward is shared in a good way; constructively, supportingly, objectively and respectfully – it can make the other person really listen – and only when we really listen can we understand and experience the feedforward and start to see the benefits of it – what it can do for us.

Let us share another of our many personal and professional examples of feedforward to explain what we mean.

One of the best experiences I’ve ever had with feedback, came from my manager some 20 years ago when I was relatively new as a leader. I thought I was quite a good communicator and took pride in my ability to express myself clearly. In a meeting with a senior person in the organisation, I posed some questions, challenging what he had said – in what I thought was an effective way, although I didn’t really get a great response. After the meeting, my manager came up to me and said: “I know you have a lot of good things to say and your questions are relevant, but whenever you challenge someone, your body language and your tone of voice become aggressive, and for that reason, people get defensive and don’t quite hear what you say – and you aren’t having the impact you could have, if you asked your questions another way. And I think it’s a shame, because as I said, you have a lot of good things to say and could contribute more.”

I was horrified! I had no idea that was how I was coming across. And at first I didn’t want to take it onboard – it couldn’t be true, surely!

And as the shock subsided, I realised that she had actually given me a great gift. She could just as easily not have said anything (it probably would have been easier) but she cared enough to tell me as it was, because she wanted me to grow, she wanted me to be able to be more, to do more. And I was grateful beyond words. If she hadn’t told me I might still have been putting people off, unaware of my impact.”

As this example shows, if you give honest, helpful feedback, focused on observed behaviours and the impact of these, which emanates from good intention and care for the other person, then feedback is incredibly useful. It becomes constructive feedforward.

In the next issue of our magazine IMPACT (out in July 2021), we will continue exploring this topic by focusing on how to create a feedforward culture and how to do feedforward well.

Author: Mandy and Elisabet

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