Over the years you have probably heard numerous times about the value of honest feedback in helping others grow.
Thousands of coaches have obtained certificates to prove their ability to help others find solutions, and followed coaching models designed to help people without influencing them. Maybe you’ve used feedback and questions as the bread and butter of your coaching skills for years, and you’re used to stopping yourself each time you were about to propose a solution.
So it might surprise you to hear about a tool that, on the face of it, would cause you to lose your hard-won certification from the coaching federation, but in reality can take your coaching to a higher level. With this tool, yes, you can suggest actions to your coachee and yes, now you can influence. The tool is called feedforward – let’s explore it a bit.
Over recent years it has increasingly been acknowledged that feedback, the essential tool of the classic coaching approach, is not enough. Worse still, maybe feedback isn’t actually effective and maybe it could even be harmful. Let’s face it, most of us have had the experience where giving someone feedback just makes them defensive.
Hirsch, author of The Feedback Fix, points out some common negative effects of feedback:
- “When we get negative feedback about something that we can’t change or control,” Hirsch says, “our brains flood with stress-inducing hormones, cortisol, that trigger our threat awareness and put us on the defensive”. The parts of our brain that are responsible for creativity, decision and actions are in a state of mental paralysis.
- Feedback focuses primarily on evaluation, not on development. When we give feedback, most of our time and energy is spent on looking back and rating performance that’s already over, rather than focusing on what can be done from now on. When we compare behaviour against standards, we’re actually overlooking the essential goal of feedback, which is to create positive and lasting improvement.
- Feedback paradoxically might reinforce negative behaviours. “When we hear about flaws that we can’t fix anymore, because they’re in a past that we can’t change, it creates the feeling that we are unable to do anything about our future (called ‘learned helplessness’). Instead of committing ourselves to improvement, which is what we would hope would happen, we hold onto this debilitating view of who we are instead of focusing on who we are becoming.”
In short, the main limitation of feedback is that it describes something that happened in the past, even if it’s very recent. “People can’t control what they can’t change, and we can’t change the past,” says Hirsch.
In order to be more effective in helping others improve, instead of feedback, we should instead use a technique called ‘feedforward’. The concept is not a new one, and like feedback, it originates from information sciences, but it is only recently that it has started to be used for personal development by Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach and human science expert.
Feedforward is about providing future-oriented options or solutions. Let’s look at an example. When I started my career in HR, I was in charge of recruitment. I was considered an excellent professional, but very often my hiring time was too long. “The fact is”, I explained to a very good head hunter who was mentoring me, “that I want to be absolutely sure to get the right people onboard. If for some reason the line manager is not convinced about the candidate, I restart the whole process in order to present a new candidate, and maybe another one, and this takes a lot of time.”
“Well”, he replied “Your job is extremely important and I understand. You feel great responsibility and anxiety to do a good job, so you act quickly, find the best candidate and present them to the line manager. But here’s the problem: the line manager doesn’t see the selection process you have completed, they only see one option. People get anxious when they don’t have alternatives to consider. So in order to avoid choosing the wrong person, the line manager puts the candidate you presented on hold, and asks you to find another one for comparison. And once candidates are on hold, they get lost in the system, and there’s a high probability that you lose the right person. So why don’t you manage the impulse to close your search quickly. Yes, recognise the urgency but consider your anxiety as a normal feeling and manage it. Maybe you’ve found a few strong candidates, so why not present all of them, one after the other, in a single day. This way, the manager will be able to compare and choose, and they’ll feel reassured. It may take you more time at the start but you’ll save time later because you won’t have to repeat part of the process.”
This was a revelation to me, and from then on, I did exactly what my mentor suggested and was always successful. Note in my example that: 1) my mentor said nothing that I could take as a criticism 2) he was impersonal in describing possible errors and 3) he focused on the future and possible actions for success. He was very good at describing actions I could take in future and the related advantages. He provided me with feedforward.
Let’s compare this to what feedback would have looked like: “You see, you’re a great recruiter but you need to get better at planning. The way you’re organising the presentation of candidates to the line managers increases their anxiety, it’s just not effective…” And so on. It’s very likely that I would have become defensive and tried to justify the way I was acting at the time, reinforcing my view that I was doing the best that I could.
- Solution oriented: it provides clear indications without criticising.
- Future oriented: it avoids comments on past results.
- Behaviour focused: it describes precise actions.
- Empowering: it opens new paths for improvement.
- Respectful: it’s a proposal, not an instruction. People can make different choices.
- Participative: it helps build a solution together.
- Positive: it highlight the advantages of a future behaviour rather than the disadvantages of a past one.
Giving feedforward is quite simple: you describe the behavior and its consequences, exactly like feedback. But where feedback refers to the past, feedforward relates to the future. Feedback describes a past behaviour and why it was wrong, whereas feedforward describes a possible future behavior and explains why it could be right.
Can feedforward completely replace feedback? Not always. Feedforward works very well when the person is aware of themselves and their behaviour, and they are eager to improve. When self-awareness is low, good feedback is still necessary. As a rule of thumb:
Feedforward only: when the person is ready to grow and already used to analysing their own behaviour. Here, feedback is not necessary and could cause the person to feel low.
Feedback only: when the person is completely unaware of how their behaviour affects them negatively. In this case, giving suggestions before raising their awareness is not recommended because it can increase defensiveness.
Feedback + feedforward: when the person doesn’t easily see their limiting behaviours and once they see the need to change them, has no clue about how to do it.
Most of the time, I start from feedback, then pause to be sure that it’s been accepted and their awareness is raised. Then I let the coachees find a way to change and explore possible actions. If this process isn’t working, I consider stopping the session and letting them think about a solution for a few days, or I start the process of feedforward instead. Remember that any actions you suggest as coach are options that coachees can choose to adopt or not. They are choices, because we are coaching people, not managing them. This means that the responsibility for implementing any action remains with the coachee, no matter where the suggestion comes from.
Here is a comparison between feedback and feedforward, in order to better understand the differences between these two tools.
In summary, feedforward is already used by the best coaches. They are experts in organisational issues, interpersonal dynamics, and building a success-oriented mindset. They know that helping a coachee to find a solution by asking questions often goes nowhere, because it doesn’t go beyond the coachee’s own perception, experience and vision. In order to really open up new possibilities and help a coachee step up to another level, coaches have to expose themselves a bit more, and feedforward is the best way to do it.