By: Marigrace McKay on August 17th, 2017

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Reinventing Performance Reviews with Feedforward

Total Rewards | Employee Relations

How excited are you when someone says they want to "give you some feedback?" Or what about when you hear that it’s time for a Performance Review or Appraisal?

What usually follows this ‘helpful information’ exchange? Typically it includes a critique of some sort, or perhaps a blindsided analysis of something gone wrong - all wrapped up in an introductory, ‘positive’ comment.

This may feel like a 1-2 sucker punch that many adults find unappealing.

Latest neuroscience findings show that this time-tired exchange of feedback is received by the brain as threatening.  The fear induced is painful, similar to placing one’s hands on a burner. Physical pain is registered in the brain. Without any effort or control, the behavioral response then is flight/defensiveness. Defensiveness and resistance are mutually exclusive to development, which of course is the ultimate objective of employee ‘performance’.

Feedforward: An Alternative to the Conventional Feedback

After years of highly-practiced managerial conditioning around feedback techniques, mechanisms, trainings and the like, this approach may feel unfamiliar and awkward.  Feedforward actually began in the 1960's in coaching and development circles.  Adopting the feedforward communication method requires re-inventing your feedback mental model with these concepts:

  • positive conversation
  • nondirective thoughts, opinions,  guidance, insights
  • reflection
  • Socratic dialogue
  • enhancing self-esteem

Feedforward is characterized as future-focused and actionable

Why?  Because the past cannot be undone – and life can only be lived forward. To quote someone, “You can’t recycle wasted time.” It’s spent. Keep going. In short, adjusting to feedforward is affirming, and just feels good to give and receive.

Within the Human Resource (HR) management function of Performance Management, feedforward can be applied as a continuous, open-book journaling of constructive conversation between a supervisor and an employee focused on future performance. Just imagine the employee’s innate energy tapped by envisioning and focusing on a positive future outcome instead of a detailed critique of the past. Managers and supervisors will get more ‘performance’ out of an employee when they recognize what went well and ask for more of that!

The ultimate purpose of performance management as a function is for an organization to get what it needs to meet its objectives and, to build a workforce that can be relied on for growth. So it stands to reason that stoking individual motivation (intrinsic) and retaining engaged, committed employees is a winning equation for companies.

How does adopting feedforward communication accomplish sought after business goals?

Human motivation is the mother lode of performance. When an employee is well-suited in skill, knowledge, and abilities, and is in a self-esteem enhancing environment to exercise their motivation, the employee and the employer mutually benefit.  Every employer has an opportunity to build a powerful workforce if they commit to an environment rich in human motivation.

My friend, Sharon Armstrong, author of The Essential Performance Review Handbook, believes "the most important job skill in the era of constant change is the ability to learn and relearn." Feedforward communication encourages that self-reflective and insightful process.

A typical feedforward conversation might resemble this:

How are you applying new learnings to your work?  Are the goals well-understood, what is needed to keep them on track? What’s going well? What do you need or want to improve? Are any setbacks anticipated? Are any setbacks anticipated? What can others do to provide support? What are you learning or teaching others through this work?

In addition to adopting a new, affirming communication pattern, eliminating de-motivating workplace elements (such as nonsensical policies or bad interaction practices like back-stabbing or executive elitism) are equally important to creating a positive work environment. Feedforward is not a gimmick, nor a quick fix. The infusion of self-learning, openness, and reflection as elements for motivation and future performance work best when they are genuine.

Feedforward fundamentally encompasses the primary drivers of employee engagement:   1) a sense of growth and development and 2) a caring manager.  

By replacing the ingrained norm of feedback communications with feedforward, employers will in time culturally transform employee engagement, gain higher levels of discretionary effort, and overall performance. It could possibly stem the damaging effects of turnover when employees feel more driven.

Committing the intention to utilize feedforward communications is a progressive journey that employees and employers will greatly benefit from.  Cindy Allen-Stuckey, lifelong feedforward guru and author of Performance Reviews are Never Enough: Now Develop Your People says, "It's critical that we become leaders of people, not just managers of tasks. Feedforward has the power to turn everyday workers into engaged workplace super heroes."

For more information about feedforward and Performance Management systems, reach out, my team and I would be glad to design your workforce solution. Helios commits to best practices in HR, recruiting and workforce management, and customizes our solutions to each unique client cultures and needs.