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Feedback vs feedforward: this is the most essential management skill you need to learn and apply in your business


“Here’s a list of all the things they need to do better.”

As the owner of a fast growing start-up who was used to doing everything himself, my client was adjusting to the new reality of managing people.

I took a quick look. It was a very long list.

“Have you also got a list of what they’ve done well?”

“When they get it right, I tell them. But right now they’re getting things wrong so we need to focus on that for a while. When I see some improvement, we can focus on the positives.”

It’s usually pretty easy to get specific about problems and how they need to be fixed. It seems like we have a natural tendency to go towards what’s not working. From our viewpoint, it’s so easy to see what people are doing wrong.

We are biologically and professionally geared to look for problems. Even the very language of business can tend towards the negative: problem solving, trouble shooting, identifying threats and weaknesses, post-mortems.

Excuse me, I think you’re doing that wrong

There’s no question it’s essential to help people do their work well. Providing immediate, clear and constructive correction is vital. But it’s often out of balance, out of time or simply avoided. The negative feedback gets stored up and becomes a long list like my client had placed in front of me.

Mr. One Minute Manager Ken Blanchard calls this approach the ‘gunnysack’ manager – they store it all up and then dump the negatives in a pile on someone’s head. It can be weeks after the event. Possibly at an annual performance review.

The result? A little like the ice bucket challenge: a big shock and major discomfort followed by heightened survival instincts. Heart rate up. Breathing shallow. Body clenched.

As a method of developing people, this is problematic. It usually results in rage or resentment and may not even deliver any positive change. The receiver becomes defensive and may be more closed off to development.

Catch people doing things right

Of course it’s important to gain and share insights into areas for improvement. But it’s also worth asking the question: “Are we at least as specific and thorough, if not more so, with the things that are going well?” In other words, do we have an organisational habit of focusing on what’s good?

One measurable way in which high performing teams behave differently from others is in the ratio of positive to negative feedback. Research indicates this is nearly 6:1.

The positivity ratio directly relates to performance results. So positivity isn’t just a fluffy feel-good, caring-sharing thing, it’s also a key to productivity.

Importantly, when feedback is given it is often demotivating because it focuses on what went wrong in the past – not on what can go right in the future. This is especially demotivating for people who are achievers by nature. But it’s not really good for anyone.

Communicate the possibility

Good feedback makes your good people better. Bad feedback turns your performers into underperformers and makes underperformers even less likely to step up.

To avoid this, you might like to try “feed forward”.

The feed-forward approach is simple.

1. Goal

Choose a situation you’d like to change or improve. Keep it focused and positive. You can observe what needs to improve without dwelling in the problem.

“We almost missed the deadline this week. It was stressful and I’m worried we will miss it or make mistakes. I’d like us to get the reports together a lot earlier.”

2. Action

Discuss and decide on two specific things that could be different in the future and what actions are required to achieve your goals.

“In future let’s see if we can: collate the data on the Monday by end of day and deliver the figures for inclusion on the report when it gets put together on Tuesday. That will give us Wednesday to review.”

3. Results

Notice change. Promptly. Applaud victories. Celebrate achievements.

“That was so much easier for everyone. We did a great job. Thanks for making that happen. Your work helped everyone do a better job.”

4. Repeat with the next challenge.

If the issue is chronic under-performance, the problem may have been aggravated by the corrosive effect of poor feedback or it may be due to a lack of courageous, constructive conversation.

There may also be a lack of clarity on what was required from the very start. Ask questions, be curious, work together to find a solution rather than resorting to doing it yourself or reassigning it.

Taking the wrong management approach for the situation can also be a culprit. Check out Ken Blanchard’s situational leadership model for help on this.

Are you the solution or the problem?

If you want to step up, you need to let go of stuff. That means you’ve got to let other people do it. They may not do it the same way you would. Or to the same standard. They may get it wrong.

These are the realities you need to live with if you’re the manager or the owner of a growing business. It’s the same if you’re a spouse or a parent for that matter.

Unless you want to do everything, forever, you’ll need to let go. But you’ll also need to help other people do great work if you’re going to be great.

Avoiding the day to day opportunities for balanced feedback because you’re busy or you want to avoid discomfort or you hope that people will just learn for themselves will usually result in:

  • behaviour staying the same or getting worse,
  • more responsibility ending up on you or other team members and
  • greater pain for everyone when the situation becomes critical.

My client shifted his habit of focusing on problems. He found a balance that worked for him and his team. His habit became one of delivering feedback more immediately – whether it was corrective or congratulatory. Performance and engagement went up. And he felt more excited, more in control and more connected.

“It’s been just as good for me as it has been for the guys who work for me. I enjoy myself more. We all do.”

Try to shift your focus towards what you want in order to get more of what you want. Marshall Goldsmith is one of my sources of inspiration. If you want more positive ways to feedback, check out feed forward – and the improved results it can bring.

Andrea Travers has a consuming passion for helping people and businesses to flourish. She is a Coach Consultant Facilitator at Wentworth People.