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The Benefits of Feedforward In Team Performance


Wait – what’s that? “Feed…forward”?

Yes. Much more than a buzzword, feedforward more aptly describes what we mean when we suggest feedback is needed in our teams and organizations. It is widely agreed that for individuals, teams and organizations to improve, we must have dialogue around what works and what needs adjustment. We also know that this dialogue best serves us when had in a timely fashion.

But let’s face it – very few of us are really interested in a description of what we did wrong, and that’s what feedback has become. Perhaps as troubling, feedback through performance reviews has become a normalized dysfunction in many organizations. Certainly we know that to improve, we must know what to do differently, but if feedback in organizations is so effective, why did a survey of over 1,000 millennial employees by Trinet and Wakefield find that 22 percent preferred to call in sick rather than to have their review? Another 35 percent have complained to their peers, 15 percent have cursed, and 15 percent have cried due to having their feedback-filled performance review.

What’s Wrong with Feedback?

When feedback is negative (and what’s important is how the feedback is received, not how it is intended), our brain chemistry produces stress hormones that trigger our “fight or flight” reactions. We tend to either shut down or defend, both of which disallows learning and development. This becomes an unfortunate process that not only leads to limited learning but also tends to reinforce negative behaviors. Feedback relies on judgment and “ratings,” not learning and development. We are helpless in the face of negative behaviors that we cannot fix or change because they occurred in the past.

It is certainly easy to defend our current understanding of feedback, which suggests people can learn from the past. That ability, however, is challenged when the lessons are presented as failures. That focus is on the bad person we were instead of the improved person we are becoming.

As we give and receive feedback, the unintended consequence of hurt feelings is quite common. This is normally due to the feedback “not being given in a way the receiver can embrace,” according to Jennifer Gonzalez, editor-in-chief at Cult of Pedagogy, in an interview with Joe Hirsch, author of “The Feedback Fix.” (You can listen to the interview here:

According to Hirsch, when we give feedforward, we focus on a person’s future development. Since feedback typically focuses on the past, often judgmentally, it becomes obvious how feedforward approaches may be more effective.

Feedback isn’t Always Negative.

This is absolutely true; however, compared to feedforward, feedback is less than what is possible. Positive feedback on someone’s talents suggests they are good at something: “You are really great at leading your team.” Now that’s feedback any team leader would appreciate! The downside is that it leaves the appreciation in a “status quo” state and does not increase the talent or potential. Let’s put that type of feedback through the feedforward lens: “You’re such a good team leader. Would you consider training other leaders in our organization?” Do you see how that appreciates the talent and asks for more?

So what does feedforward look like in practice?

Instead of the typical process – waiting for a team to finish a project, then critically point out what went wrong (at best using the “sandwich” approach of recognizing something that went well, then a critical error or problem, finishing with something nice to say) – the feedforward method begins sooner. The leader would engage midway into the project, make suggestions on areas of possible adjustment/improvement, and then ask questions to inspire the team around achieving those potential improvements.

The difference in approach is that:

  1. The leader is more available – not hovering over shoulders, but also not completely disconnected and unavailable.
  2. The leader isn’t interested in catching what’s wrong with the work or team’s behavior as much as s/he is interested in facilitating learning and improvement opportunities for the team.
  3. The leader, after making a suggestion for a change, swiftly engages with the team for THEIR thinking and processing about possible adjustments.

We can see how the movement of the engagement is FORWARD in that there is little focus on what has already occurred; the suggestion is as timely as possible and the leader is facilitating the team to think and act on the next improved steps. A bonus idea here: Leader, get out of the way to allow the team to make those adjustments and be available to engage in the feedforward cycle again to the point of recognizing a job well done!

You’ll want to read Hirsch’s book to learn about feedforward in greater detail, including the six principles he shares to get your pump primed:


Regenerates Talent … it asks for more of the greatness in people.
Expands Possibilities … it’s a multiplier and creates opportunities.
Is Particular … it’s embedded in instruction and asks for focus.
Is Authentic … it describes the problem and asks the person or people for solutions.
Has Impact … it has the person or team create the next steps towards solutions.
Redefines Group Dynamics … it demands that all be engaged and participate with their talents.

How will you shift your leadership style to include feedforward?

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