If feedback is not making things better, maybe it’s time to try feedforward?

If feedback is not making things better, maybe it’s time to try feedforward?

– By Ann Flaherty

Happier workers are more productive.  We know that intuitively.  A recent study from the University of Warwick provides evidence that they are up to 12% more productive.  Other research has shown that happier workers have lower levels of absenteeism.  We would expect that too.  Significantly, they are more committed, staying longer in companies and are more successful in achieving their work goals.

Impact of poor feedbackThe conundrum here stems from feedback, which is the tool most commonly used to measure and improve productivity.  The efficacy for feedback, as it is most commonly delivered is variable; indeed in 38% of cases performance actually declines following receiving feedback.  Another interesting and not surprising finding is that even the anticipation of feedback in performance appraisals raises anxiety levels, leads to more negative emotions, contributes to miscommunication and ultimately to reduced productivity.  Yet we persist in using feedback.

Is there a better way?  Professor Avi Kluger of the University of Jerusalem and a business consultant thinks there is.  He and a colleague used principles from Appreciative Inquiry and positive psychology to develop the feedforward interview.  Instead of focusing on past performance and external standards, this approach turns traditional performance appraisal on its head by encouraging the interviewee to determine what excellent and ideal performance looks like.  It does this by asking the interviewee to recall a time of personal peak performance and to identify all the conditions that facilitated that – including personal skills, experience, as well as organizational and leadership supports. This goes against the experience of most people with performance reviews, and some interviewees initially report having difficulty recalling these moments of peak performance as they get used to the process.  The interviewee then identifies how much of those conditions are currently in place as they plan future goals.  The manager or interviewer helps to identify other supports that can be provided.   Having uncovered this “personal code” for success, the interviewee has greater control and is intrinsically motivated when setting future goals and standards.

There is no doubt that feedforward requires more time and effort than traditional feedback but the benefits are more sustainable. A small number of early adopter organisations have tried it and found a number of unexpected benefits, in addition to improved performance and productivity.  These include significantly enhanced work relations, greater trust, more effective conflict resolution and a noticeable increase in positive emotions.  It is contended that as the interviewee determines what success looks like and what is needed to deliver on success, it is more motivating.  Managers and interviewers who have already road tested this approach report developing a greater and deeper understanding of those working with and for them.  They also highlight the added advantage of forging stronger relationships, which has longer term benefits and contributes to a shared responsibility in determining effective performance.

In our preliminary investigation into the potential of feedforward, we recognize this potential for using feedforward to support or even replace traditional approaches to reviewing performance, and accept that this will require a sea change in attitude to appraisal.  We recently presented these findings at the Psychological Society of Ireland’s 2014 annual conference and a number of our clients are keen to further investigate its potential.

As with any major transformation, all those involved would benefit from being educated and helped to understand the how and why of this approach.  Where feedforward has been used to date, interviewers have received training, but all interviewees have come to the process naïve to its workings.  We suggest that when interviewees are thoroughly aware of the theoretical background, and receive training and coaching, there will be a greater appreciation of the longer term benefits of modifying traditional feedback.

If you want to know more about this innovative approach to managing performance, please contact

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