A New Way to Grow: Feedforward | New From the Ombuds

AUG. 11, 2022

I recently participated in a three-day virtual International Ombuds Association core course on effective communication. While I have many, many takeaways from it, there is one that I want to share right away: Marshall Goldsmith’s concept of feedforward. When workshop leader Vikram Kapoor introduced it to the group, I saw immediately the potential of feedforward to make evaluative conversations less contentious and more helpful.

We all know what feedback is: hearing from others what we did wrong. Does just reading that make you feel anxious, angry, or defensive? If so, count yourself with the majority, because (news flash) no one likes others harping on their shortcomings. It’s very difficult to imagine any scenario where anyone but a masochist would embrace a critique of their past performance and/or innate personality traits.

Outside of this generic distaste for negative feedback, I think that UNLV can particularly benefit from more constructive evaluations. Communication with one’s supervisor remains the top concern that visitors bring to the Ombuds Office— 47 percent of those who came to discuss something voiced that issue. While there are often deeper disagreements than the way that evaluative feedback is presented, evaluations gone wrong (either written ones or verbal reminders of performance standards) are a major contributor to disharmony in offices and departments around the university.

So we need a better way for leaders and supervisors to give feedback. What’s the answer? Marshall Goldsmith, who has been described as “America’s #1 executive coach,” believes that feedforward is an essential alternative to traditional feedback. As Dr. Goldsmith pioneered the use of 360-degree feedback for leaders, this is a claim not to be taken lightly.

As Goldsmith sees it, the problem with feedback is that it focuses on the past, which cannot be changed, rather than the future, which is bursting with opportunities. As he writes, “feedback can be limited and static, as opposed to expansive and dynamic.” When we want to grow, expansive beats limited every time.

What’s more, there is an innate attraction to talking about things that have not happened yet. Even though I have spent much of my life studying history, I am still more interested in talking about the future than the past. That’s particularly true when we’re talking about a past that is at best awkward and at worst unpleasant to discuss, and a future that can be better for everyone. Using the feedforward technique, you don’t need to be a psychic to see the future—you can do it with a partner in this exercise.

As Goldsmith has developed it, feedforward takes place in sessions of 10-15 minutes, with participants alternating between two roles: providing and accepting feedforward. At the start of the exercise, each participant chooses one thing about themselves that they would like to change. After pairing up, each participant will:

  1. Briefly describe the behavior to their partner—for example, “I want to better communicate my vision for my unit”
  2. Ask for two future-oriented suggestions that can help them make that change
  3. Listen actively, taking notes on the suggestions, without commenting or offering feedback on them
  4. Thank their partner, and ask what they would like to change, repeating the process as the giver of feedforward

The entire process should take about two minutes. Goldsmith stresses the importance of not critiquing the suggestions in any way, to the extent of not even offering positive feedback, like “I hadn’t thought of that before. What a great idea!” I think I understand why. The goal of the feedforward exercise is to get unvarnished, spontaneous input on what you would like to change, not to formulate a reply or think of a rejoinder, either positive or negative. By just thanking the giver for the ideas, the recipient can focus on listening deeply to them, rather than mentally working on their response.

While we might think that the most valuable ideas would come from those who know us well, Goldsmith believes that this is not always the case. Indeed, he cautions that if the participants are familiar with each other, they are not permitted to give any feedback at all about the past—only ideas about the future. That is because feedforward is about suggesting future possibilities and sparking creative thought, rather than critiquing the past. Because it is about the future and not the past, there is nothing that the recipient needs to feel defensive about.

Having participated in a feedforward session myself, I can vouch for how beneficial it can be. While it is difficult to get “advice” on how to solve a specific problem from those who don’t know you well, I found that the distance between me and the other participants actually worked to our advantage: there were no preconceptions or baggage to work around, and everyone in our group got a few ideas that they could then apply to their own circumstances.

Once again, the key is to keep the discussion focused on what you can do in the future to be more effective, not to dwell on what might have gone wrong in the past.

I was so impressed with my experience giving and receiving feedforward that I resolved shortly afterwards to spread the word about it at UNLV, which explains this post. Maybe others will try this, I thought. Then I thought about it more: Why shouldn’t the Ombuds Office add this to our list of interactive workshops? Not finding any good reasons against it, I put together an outline of a 20-minute “flash workshop” that can be incorporated into another meeting. It is now on our Services page.

I suggest adding a flashforward segment to your group’s next strategic planning session, or to any group meeting that has elements of planning for future success. I will lead the exercise by briefly introducing the concept, and then guiding participants through the process. At the end, each participant will have a collection of ideas for future improvements that they can then develop.

If you would like to schedule a workshop (for feedforward or anything else), or talk privately and confidentially about any work-related concern, please make an appointment with the Ombuds. Our door is open.

Spread the love