As business leaders and executives, we tend to give feedback once a year, maybe twice if we’re good, during performance reviews. The problem with that kind of feedback is that it is just that, Feed “Back”. We look over the last year and give people performance feedback on events that may have transpired 10 months ago. So, we are telling someone what didn’t go well 10 months ago…. and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. And therefore, that kind of feedback feels a lot like criticism or what didn’t work. That is like coaching an Olympic athlete by watching them for a year and then coaching them an hour before their event at the Olympics.

There is another way to give feedback that I believe works a lot better – a way of flipping the focus from the past to the future. The strategy is called “feed-forward.”

The Old Way is WRONG?

When we give feedback to co-workers or they give feedback to us, the focus is typically on the past. However, as we all know, people can’t control what they can’t change, and we all know that we can’t change the past. More specifically, backward-looking feedback very seldom generates positive results.

For starters, it often focuses on “performance ratings” and not development. Most of the energy and time we spend on feedback is spent reflecting and rating performance that’s already over or behind us, rather than focusing on what can be done moving forward. Remember, the ultimate goal of providing feedback is to create positive and lasting improvement.

Another reason feedback doesn’t always work is that it can reinforce negative behaviors. For example, if you hear about a flaw that you can’t fix, since it happened in the past, it often creates a helpless feeling that because we are unable to do anything about the future, it was too long ago.

Finally, feedback can shut down our “mental dashboards,” meaning it floods our brain with stress-inducing hormones that tend to put us on the defensive. This approach can lead to a state of mental paralysis of sorts. We all know this feeling. When someone comes up to you and says, “Would you like some feedback”? What’s your immediate thought? “Absolutely not!” I personally would rather drink blended slugs.

Taking a Feed-Forward Approach

When you take a feed-forward approach with employees and colleagues, rather than rating and judging an individual’s past performance, you focus on his or her development looking ahead. So what you are really doing is “coaching” them into success.

In other words, feed-forward suggests that performance can be dramatically enhanced by encouraging team members to talk about, learn from and build on what is working (instead of what’s not working).

Here are some key elements of a typical feed-forward employer/employee discussion:

  • Focusing only mainly on an employee’s positive experiences and unique talents
  • Sharing stories about projects or assignments during which the employee felt energized, even before the results of their actions became known
  • Discussing what the peak moment of the experience was, and how that made the employee feel
  • What the employee did – his or her capabilities and strengths – that made this experience or work possible
  • What others did that allowed this work or progress to be made
  • Discussing current actions, priorities and plans for the near future

With a feed-forward approach, the above bullet points focus around the premise that employees, when queried, can better pinpoint their achievements that embody positive, successful performance, and also establish ways to come up with conditions that will enable similar, or greater achievements down the road.

Using a Feed Forward Strategy for Success:

At the end of the day, a feed-forward approach has two primary aspects that I encourage leaders to incorporate into their current employee communication strategy:

  1. Focus on strengths and achievements, and thinking about how these elements can be leveraged when developing goals and objectives.
  2. Focus on the future, priorities and actions, instead of merely spending time reviewing the past (which you cannot change).

The bottom line: Become a coach for your people. By replacing the traditional norm of feedback with a feed forward approach, business leaders can transform employee engagement and gain higher levels of overall performance, assisting employees to feel more driven to succeed.