I have observed more than 50,000 leaders from around the world as they participated in a fascinating experiential exercise, in which I ask participants to play two roles.
In one role, they provide "FeedForward": They give another participant suggestions and as much as they can help with a specific issue. In the second role, they accept FeedForward: They listen to suggestions from another participant and learn as much as they can.
Step by Step
The exercise typically lasts 10 to 15 minutes, and the average participant has six or seven such sessions in that time. Participants are asked to:
- Pick one behavior they would like to change. Change in this behavior should make a significant, positive difference in their lives.
- Describe this behavior to randomly selected fellow participants in one-on-one dialogues. It can be done quite simply, e.g., "I want to be a better listener."
- Ask for FeedForward that might help them achieve a positive change in their behavior. If participants have worked together in the past, they are not allowed to give any feedback about the past. They are only allowed to give ideas for the future.
- Listen attentively to the suggestions and take notes. Participants are not allowed to comment on the suggestions in any way, nor are they allowed to critique the suggestions, even to make positive statements, such as, "That's a good idea."
- Thank the other participants for their suggestions.
- Ask fellow participants what they would like to change about themselves.
- Provide FeedForward - two suggestions for helping the other person change.
- Say "You are welcome," when thanked for the suggestions. (The entire process of both giving and receiving FeedForward usually takes about two minutes.)
- Find another participant and keep repeating the process until the exercise is stopped.
When the exercise is over, I ask the participants to complete a sentence - "This exercise was …" - with the one word that best describes their reaction to the experience. The words selected are almost always positive, such as "great," "energizing," "useful," or "helpful." One of the most common words used is "fun."
What is the last word most of us think of to describe the experience of receiving feedback, coaching, and developmental ideas? Fun!
Reasons to Try FeedForward
I ask participants why this exercise is fun and helpful as opposed to painful, embarrassing, or uncomfortable. Their answers offer a great explanation of why FeedForward can often be more useful than feedback as a developmental tool.
1. 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. Race-car drivers are taught to look at the road ahead, not at the wall. By giving people ideas on how they can be even more successful, we can increase their chances of achieving this success in the future.
2. FeedForward can come from people we have never even met. It does not require personal experience. One very common positive reaction to the exercise is that participants are amazed by how much they can learn from people they don't know. For example, if you want to be a better listener, almost any fellow human can give you ideas. They don't have to know you.
3. Face it! Most of us hate getting negative feedback, and we don't like to give it. I have reviewed summary 360-degree feedback reports for more than 50 companies. The items "provides developmental feedback in a timely manner" and "encourages and accepts constructive criticism" almost always score near the bottom on co-worker satisfaction with leaders. Traditional training does not seem to make a great deal of difference. If leaders got better at providing feedback every time the performance appraisal forms were "improved," most would be perfect by now!
4. FeedForward can cover almost all of the same material feedback can. Imagine you have just made a terrible presentation in front of the executive committee. Your manager is in the room. Rather than make you relive this humiliating experience by detailing what went wrong, your manager might help you by offering suggestions for future presentations. These suggestions can be very specific and still delivered in a positive way - without making you feel even more humiliated.
5. FeedForward tends to be much faster and more efficient than feedback. An excellent technique for giving ideas to successful people is to say: "Here is an idea for the future. Please accept it in the positive spirit in which it is offered. If you can use it, great! If not, just ignore it." With this approach almost no time is wasted judging the quality of the ideas or trying to refute the suggestions. This kind of debate is usually negative, wastes time, and often counterproductive. By eliminating judgment of the ideas, the process becomes much more positive for the sender, as well as the receiver.
6. FeedForward can be a useful tool with managers, peers, and team members. Rightly or wrongly, feedback is associated with judgment. This can lead to very negative - even career-limiting - consequences when given to managers or peers. FeedForward does not imply superiority of judgment. It is more focused on being a helpful colleague than an expert. As such, it can be easier to hear from a person who isn't in a position of power or authority.
7. People tend to listen more attentively to FeedForward than feedback. One participant in the FeedForward exercise noted: "I think that I listened more effectively in this exercise than I ever have in my life!" When asked why, he said, "Normally, when others are speaking, I am so busy composing a reply that will make sure that I sound smart that I am not fully listening to what the other person is saying. In FeedForward, the only reply that I am allowed to make is 'thank you.' Since I don't have to worry about composing a clever reply, I can focus all of my energy on listening to the other person!"
When to Use FeedForward
The intent of this column is not to imply that leaders should never give feedback or that performance appraisals should be abandoned. The intent is to show how FeedForward can often be preferable to feedback in day-to-day interactions. Aside from its effectiveness and efficiency, FeedForward can make life a lot more enjoyable. When I ask manager how they felt the last time they received feedback, the most common responses are negative. When managers are asked how they felt after receiving FeedForward, they reply that FeedForward was not only useful, it was also fun.
Life is good.
My recent book, MOJO, is a New York Times (advice), Wall Street Journal (business), USAToday (money) and Publisher's Weekly (non-fiction) best seller. It is now available online and at major bookstores.
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(This column has been modified from "Try FeedForward Instead of Feedback" in Coaching for Leadership, M. Goldsmith and L. Lyons, eds. Jossey Bass, 2005.)