Feedforward or Feedback? Communication for Moving People to Action

Recently, during a coaching session with an executive (whom we’ll call Jodie), I listened as she
described conversations with her staff. The feedback that her staff gave her went something like this:

  • “You’re hard to communicate with.”
  • “I don’t feel empowered when you speak to me.”
  • “You sound impatient when you speak to me.”
  • “You make me feel stupid.”

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? Do you often feel helpless when it comes to
communicating with your staff? What are you to do with this type of feedback?
Jodie, of course, was determined to “fix” herself so that she could be the best boss in the world. Her
only problem was that she didn’t know what to fix. She gathered information and “coaching” from
people close to her. She read self‐help books. She was even thinking about taking a course to help her
conduct the “right” kind of meeting with her staff. She reasoned that her flurry of activity would
produce results that would change the way her staff perceived her.
During our coaching session, I asked her one simple question: “Where are your actions coming from?
Are they coming from the results you’re committed to accomplishing, or are they coming from
‘What’s wrong with me?’”
The cloud began to lift as we discussed the feedback that she was given and turning it into
Feedforward is the coaching term we use instead of feedback. Feedforward describes giving
information to forward someone to the next level. It describes what coaches are doing: a coach
enables someone to move forward. Feedback could merely be opinion, judgment, or evaluation
without any intention of enabling the person to move ahead. Feedforward is intended to help design
a way forward.
When Jodie looked into the future and saw the desired outcomes of having an outrageous year in the
business and having the staff aligned on the results of the company, she began to see things
differently. She put aside the “What’s wrong with me” conversation and focused on designing a way
forward. With a little planning, Jodie decided to have a meeting with her staff where everyone was
free to communicate in a way that moved the action forward.
The following Monday, I received another call from Jodie. There was one difference with the
conversation—Jodie was enthusiastically describing the feedforward from her team! Her staff’s
conversation switched to how they could do things differently to achieve the business outcomes that
they would design.
Feedback: giving opinion, judgment, assessment or evaluation (and not necessarily delivering
these with the intention of enabling the person receiving the feedback to move ahead or
improve performance)
Feedforward: providing observations and assessments coupled with a conversation for
possible actions for improving future performance and/or to move ahead in achieving the
person’s objectives.