Person in office
Feedforward means offering guidance for future actions with the idea of achieving better results. Image Credit: Shutterstock

“I love performance reviews!”

…said no one, ever.

Performance reviews in organsations entail the word feedback and it strikes dread in the hearts of both the managers and employees. Most of us shut down after hearing the words “I am going to give you feedback”. We think, “Oh no, we messed up.”

So, the latest trending word to fix this worry, is feedforward. What does that mean?

The answer is in the term itself: It means looking ahead, rather than looking back.

In his podcast, The Cult of Pedagogy, Joe Hirsch, an American expert on leader and communication calls people who give feedback “window gazers” — people who just stare through their window and tell you what they see. Essentially, he believes that people feel more judged with feedback and “…overwhelmed with excess information, without a plan”. On the other hand, people who give feedforward are “mirror holders”. They hold up the mirror to others, so they can see for themselves how to make things better.

What is feedforward?

Developed by Marshall Goldsmith, an American business educator and coach, the term feedforward provides comments for improvement of an ongoing action or behaviour. With this approach, the manager tells you what to do better next time. There is more focus on the task, rather than the person. In essence, the employee creates a specific plan for improvement.

Happy officewoman
In feedforward, the focus is on the future, and how the manager motivates them to do better next time. Image Credit: Shutterstock

“Feedforward means offering guidance for future actions with the idea of achieving better results,” explains Faris Samawi, a senior Dubai-based strategic talent leader and Human Resources consultant. The idea behind feedforward is to provide constructive input to ensure a strong performance before an event, he explains. “The focus is on the future, and how you motivate them to do better next time,” sums up Ewa Gadomska, a Dubai-based business mentor and entrepreneur.

Feedforward versus feedback

Woman tired in office
According to experts, people feel judged when they receive feedback. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Compared to Hirsch, Samawi is less critical of the word feedback. While accepting that feedforward emphasises what can be done to ensure desired future results, whereas feedback attempts to identify lessons from the past. “Feedback uses the lessons to drive improvement,” says Samawi.

The reason why people attach such negative emotions to the word feedback is because they feel they’re under scrutiny all the time. “For example, in an annual performance review, a manager might discuss areas for skill and performance enhancement, possibly making the employee feel criticised,” he says.

The key distinction lies in the temporal orientation: feedforward emphasizes what can be done to ensure the desired future outcomes, while feedback looks to identify lessons from the past and use them to drive improvements...

- Faris Samawi, strategic talent leader and Human Resources consultant

On the other hand, if the manager uses the method of feedforward, they can provide specific actions and resources for employee development, explains Samawi. With this approach, the manager is expected to focus more on empathy, rather than criticising the employee’s way of handling risks and challenges. The employee should feel that they’re in an open and honest environment, where they don’t immediately feel they’re on the defensive.  The other said benefits of this approach are to provide the team with the “growth mindset”, encourage them to look for new methods to solve problems and empowers the employees.

Different personalities, different approaches

Person listening to her boss
When it comes to dealing with different people, you need to use different approaches, which involve both feedback and feedforward. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Yet, it’s never so easy. Everyone’s different.

Gadomska believes that when it comes to dealing with different people, you need to use different approaches. It’s not as simple as choosing just feedforward or feedback; you need to assess their personality.

She explains the DISC system of four behaviour styles developed based on the research of American psychologist William Marston.

D-Dominant (red): These are the bold and assertive people, initiating actions, open to challenges, and making quick decisions. They don’t want to be controlled by anyone. They have a tendency to achieve immediate results. They would rather focus on the future, rather than the past. “They don’t like it when small problems are emphasised and small details. They only think about the big picture,” says Gadomska. “They hate repetition,” she says.

When it comes to dealing with different people, you need different approaches. For instance, there are people who interested in creating a stimulating atmosphere, making a good impression and speaking persuasively. They aren't so interested in the path and steps ahead; the atmosphere is more important to them

- Ewa Gadomska, business mentor and speaker

I- Influence (Yellow): They are more interested in creating a stimulating atmosphere, making a good impression and speaking persuasively. They also look for favourable working conditions, healthy relationships, and universal recognition of their skills. “They aren’t so interested in the path and steps ahead; the atmosphere is more important to them,” says Gadomska.

S- Steady (Green): They are far more patient, and want to work in a peaceful environment. “They would need to see the process. If I had to give them feedforward, they would need to see each step for themselves,” explains Gadomska.

C- Compliance (Blue): Such people want to work alone. They don’t like broad generalisations and require specific details, as they wish to make new plans and decisions. Such people are motivated by information and logic, and require clear parameters and instructions. They fear criticism and tend to be overtly critical of themselves.

Some feedback, some feedforward

Samawi explains that people require a combination of both feedback and feedforward, as it can foster better team spirit and a healthier working environment. “It’s complimentary to feedback,” he says and provides a sports analogy to elucidate his point.

“Consider sports—before a game, coaches provide feedforward to outline strategies and objectives, while after the game, feedback discusses successes and improvements. Both are vital for optimal team and individual performance, in sports, as well as in a corporate setting,” he says.

‘The word isn’t the problem’

Feedback and feedforward are all very well, but what’s important is how it’s conveyed, according to Lauren Kyle, a British Dubai-based business psychologist.

“Your tone is everything,” she says, calling feedforward just another word in the ever-changing landscape of vocabulary. “You need to express your feedback in such a manner that it appears positive and inspiring,” she says. “Feedforward is just another buzzword that’s trying too hard," explains Neil Sheth, the founder of Wrightfully.

“Feedback should push you forward, and I think that's enough for everyone," he says.

“It needs to be specific and helpful to the person. You can change the word and call it what you want, but it’s really the way you point out a problem," says Kylie. Choose your words well and think how you want to get the best out of someone,” she says. “Be it feedforward or feedback, you need to get your employees to look ahead, rather than dwell on past mistakes. It’s how you promote psychological safety and trust,” she says. “Be empathetic, whenever you talk to your team. Point out what they did wrong in a task, but also provide the strategy to avoid such mistakes in the future. That’s how they will learn, too. Don’t work in extremes; find the midway,” she says.