Feed-Forward vs. Feed-Back: A Matter of Semantics?

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There is a lot of talk of feed-forward replacing feed-back. Why? Simply put, the vast majority of people don’t like feed-back: either giving it or receiving it. Why is that? Our brains are programmed to avoid conflict unless it’s a direct threat to our safety. If we are feeling safe and work is moving forward, why introduce tension and possible conflict? And yet, as bosses we can’t shy away from helping our staff to improve and grow.

Our Conundrum

Everyone knows that feed-back is necessary for personal growth and future success. This is our conundrum. We don’t like it, but we know it is important. So, what can we do?

Some managers have started delivering what they call feed-forward. It is often seen as a more forward-looking approach. It involves offering only suggestions, options, or solutions for future actions and behaviors.  This is in contrast to feed-back, which typically involves providing someone with an evaluation of their past performance in conjunction with suggested improvements for moving forward.

Consider this feed-forward scenario: A manager observes that one of their team members frequently interrupts colleagues during meetings. Instead of criticizing this behavior, the manager chooses to offer feed-forward. They suggest that in future meetings, the team member could practice active listening and ask questions before sharing their thoughts.  This approach leaves the past (problematic) behavior alluded to, but the focus is fully on future improvement.

In my view, these concepts are not fundamentally different. For me it is more semantics and emphasis than anything else.  Regardless of what we call it, best practices exist to offer someone insights to help them grow professionally and personally. 

Words Matter

Words matter, and the associations people have with certain words can significantly impact their receptivity to the message being conveyed. When many people hear the word “feed-back,” their stress levels rise, and they may become defensive. In contrast, “feed-forward” may elicit a more open and receptive mindset.  A CEO I coach had tremendous success when she started talking about feed-forward instead of feed-back with her leadership team.  They said that it made them feel “less judged and more optimistic about the future.”  I say, if you get more positive responses to the language of feed-forward, then go for it!

Feed-Back as an Act of Love

Regardless of the terminology, one essential concept to emphasize is that feed-back/forward should be understood as an act of love.  Yes, an act of love! This is what happens when a manager believes in someone’s future potential and helps them grow. When delivered with care and consideration, feed-back/forward is probably the most powerful tool for personal and professional development.

The Importance of Delivery

Ultimately, the key to effective feedback/forward is the delivery. Here are several best practices to consider:

Know Your Audience: People are unique, and their receptivity to feed-back/forward varies. Take the time to understand what motivates individuals and tailor your approach accordingly. Some may respond better to direct feed-back/forward, while others prefer a more subtle approach.

Emphasize the Future: Make sure that it is future oriented. Highlight the potential for growth and improvement rather than dwelling on the past.

The Three “C’s”: Effective feed-back/forward should be clear, constructive, and compassionate. Be clear about the specific behavior or action you’re addressing, provide constructive suggestions for improvement, and approach the conversation with empathy and care.

Practical Recommendations

I also want to share some practical recommendations if you tend to shy away from delivering feed-back/feed forward.

Practice: Giving feed-back/forward is a skill that can be honed through practice. Challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone and take risks. The more you practice, the better you’ll become at delivering meaningful and impactful feed-back/forward.

Awareness of Your Style: Consider whether you tend to approach delivering feed-back/forward from a soft or tough stance. Recognize your biases and try leaning into the opposite stance when necessary to ensure clarity in your communication.

Feed-Back/Forward for You: Create an environment where you encourage and value feed-back/forward from others. Ask your team for comments on your delivery style and be receptive to their input. This will help you continuously improve your approach.

De-emphasize Negative Associations: Shift your mindset and view feed-back/forward as an act of love and support. When you approach it with a positive intent, it becomes easier for both you and the recipient to engage in a productive conversation.

In summary, whether we call it feed-back or feed-forward, the underlying principles are the same: it’s about helping folks grow, achieve their potential, and contribute effectively to their teams and organizations. Choose the terminology that resonates best with the person and remember to deliver it with care, compassion, and a focus on the future.

Antonia Bowring is a highly credentialed, top New York executive coach. She works primarily with founders, C-Suite executives, and leadership teams. One of Antonia’s areas of expertise is helping neurodiverse leaders create the necessary scaffolding to leverage their gifts and maintain their focus. She is also the author of Coach Yourself! Increase Awareness, Change Behavior and Thrive. She is a frequent speaker to companies and groups on topics ranging from mindfulness, ADHD in the workplace, and communication best practices. Her articles through the Forbes Coaches Council are widely read and The American Reporter named her one of the 10 leadership coaches to watch in 2022. In addition to coaching, Antonia has a vibrant strategic facilitation practice that includes facilitating the CEO Forum (East Coast) of UCLA Anderson School of Management, Chief core groups, offsite leadership programs, and team cohesion projects. Antonia holds a B.A. in Political Science, M.Phil. in Development Economics, and an M.B.A. She is an ICF certified coach with an Executive Coaching Certificate from NYU. For more information, please visit: www.ab-strategies.com.

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