Unlike traditional feedback, feedforward shifts the attention from the past to future possibilities – making it the superior option for behavior change.

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Giving and receiving feedback has long been recognized as a crucial component of effective leadership. As leaders strive to visualize the organization’s objectives, it is imperative for their people to receive guidance on their performance. Simultaneously, leaders rely on insights from subordinates to identify areas within their operational and managerial strategies that need improvement.

Traditionally, corporate communication primarily took the form of “downward feedback,” originating from top-level management and flowing downward through the organization. In tandem with the emergence of the 360-degree assessment model, the practice of “bottom-up” (or upward feedback) has gained increasing prominence.

Nevertheless, whether top-down or bottom-up, the conventional feedback approach suffers from a fundamental limitation: its excessive focus on past occurrences and historical assessments – occasionally overlooking forthcoming opportunities. This has given rise to the development of a new feedback paradigm called “feedforward.”

What is Feedforward?

The concept of “feedforward” was originally introduced by Dr. Marshall Goldsmith – renowned expert in executive coaching and leadership development. Within the traditional feedback process, employees typically receive evaluation from their superiors – who will assess their current capabilities, highlight both past accomplishments and areas that require improvement.

In contrast, the feedforward approach replaces the conventional positive and negative assessment with proposed solutions. In other words, it places a primary emphasis on future personal development – rather than dwelling on the past.

For instance, instead of reiterating customer service issues (feedback), management may provide guidance to their people on how to handle customer complaints more professionally in the future (feedforward).

  • Feedback: “You mishandled that customer’s complaint earlier. You sounded impatient and dismissive.”
  • Feedforward: “Let’s work on improving how we handle customer complaints. In the future, when a customer expresses frustration, try to listen to their concerns, empathize with their situation, and provide solutions while maintaining a calm and polite demeanor. This will help us enhance our customer service and build stronger relationships with our clients.”

Feedforward vs Feedback

The Problems of Feedback Compared to Feedforward

Feedback in the form of grades is the ultimate restraint: The grade can’t be changed, the lesson can’t be relearned, and numbers and letters don’t spell out a way forward.

Joe Hirsch

In contrast to feedforward, traditional feedback tends to place a stronger emphasis on past events. As a result, it suffers from 3 major drawbacks:

  1. Inducing tension & defensiveness

When people receive negative input concerning aspects beyond their control/ ability to change, it triggers the release of cortisol – the stress hormone – in the brain. This physiological response activates a perception of threat, resulting in heightened anxiety and a defensive stance.

During such instances, key cognitive functions responsible for decision-making and logical reasoning may enter a state of paralysis, impeding thoughtful and prudent action, as noted by Hirsch.

  1. Leaning toward criticism rather than development

Traditional feedback predominantly revolves around scrutinizing past performance – often at the expense of future development strategies. When adhering strictly to a set of agreed standards – without taking into consideration personal differences, we veer ourselves away from the primary purpose of feedback: to foster positive, long-term growth.

  1. Reinforcing negative behaviors

Being confronted with mistakes beyond one’s capacity to rectify often results in a sense of powerlessness. Rather than being motivated to improve themselves, people may be prone to believe that similar issues will recur in the future. Being entrenched in such negative self-perceptions are among the reasons why we fail to keep up with our aspirations for personal growth.

Indeed, numerous studies have demonstrated that feedback, despite its perceived effectiveness, frequently falls short of expectations. For instance, a poll by Gallup found that only 26% of employees perceive feedback from their superiors as conducive to enhancing their productivity.

Affirms what people already knowPromotes talent growth
Pointing out problemsThinking about solutions
To judgeTo help
Focus on measurementFocus on plan for change
Top downDynamic

Feedforward vs Feedback

Feedforward vs Feedback

Source: Cult of Pedagogy

Marshall Goldsmith’s 5-Step Feedforward Model

Over the years, Dr. Marshall Goldsmith has observed more than 30,000 leaders engaging in a captivating experiential exercise – in which participants are required to assume two different roles:

  • First, their job is to engage in “feedforward” – providing constructive suggestions and as much assistance as possible to others.
  • Later, they were tasked with switching roles – to actively listen to input concerning their future development, and try to acquire as much knowledge as possible.

This exercise typically spanned a duration of 10-15 minutes, during which the average participant engaged in approximately 6-7 dialogue sessions. Upon completing all five steps listed below, they would interchange roles and repeat the process.

  1. Identify a behavior they sought to modify, one that would notably enhance their life in a positive manner.
  2. Articulate this behavior to randomly selected participants, engaging in one-on-one discussions. For instance, one may express the desire to become a better listener.
  3. Solicit “feedforward” by requesting two suggestions for improvement concerning that specific behavior. Notably, participants are prohibited from offering any input regarding past actions – they must solely focus on discussing ideas for the future.
  4. Listen attentively to the suggestions and diligently take notes of them. DO NOT make any comments – whether critical or commendatory – regarding the suggestions put forth by others.
  5. Extend gratitude to fellow participants for their valuable input.

When everyone is finished, it’s time to exchange roles and proceed as follows:

  1. Inquire about others’ desired areas of improvement.
  2. Provide two constructive suggestions to assist the other person in their pursuit of change.
  3. Acknowledge and respond to the other person’s expressions of gratitude. The entire process of offering and receiving feedforward typically lasts approximately two minutes.
  4. Identify another partner and repeat the aforementioned process – until the allocated time elapsed.

Upon concluding the exercise, participants were invited to select a single word encapsulating their sentiments regarding the overall experience. As expected, the majority of responses were positive – including “excellent,” “inspiring,” and “beneficial.”

Read more: 20 Bad Habits in the Workplace that Prevents Long-term Success

10 Reasons to Try Feedforward Over Feedback

Based on the above exercises’ results, Dr. Goldsmith proposed that feedforward is ultimately the superior option compared to conventional feedback – due to the following reasons:

  1. Future oriented

The past is the past – nothing about it can be changed. While we can learn a lot from it, there’s no point in dwelling too much on what has already happened. That’s where feedforward comes in – it shifts our attention toward the future, where numerous possibilities await, thereby enabling us to better envision and adopt a more positive outlook.

The practice of providing feedforward is highly relevant in fields such as athletic training. For instance, high-speed racers are consistently instructed to:

Focus on the road, not the wall.

Similarly, basketball players are coached to mentally trace the trajectory of the ball and visualize the perfect shot. Encouraging people to contemplate opportunities – rather than challenges – fosters greater self-assurance, positivity, and preparedness for achieving success.

  1. Growth focused

Feedforward prioritizes facilitating people’s personal growth over assessing mistakes – making it a more impactful approach to guide others toward the “right” path.

As previously mentioned, feedback that excessively pinpoints others’ errors triggers defensiveness – hence resulting in negative emotional reactions from both parties and diminishes its effectiveness. No matter how constructive an input is, the result is the same if it exclusively revolves around dissecting errors, shortcomings, or encountered problems. Rather, one should always strive to discuss solutions that can be implemented later.

What’s great about feedforward is that the whole focus is on helping each other – NOT judging each other.

Marshall Goldsmith

  1. Working great for high achievers

Successful people are often known for their strong sense of self – as a result, they are generally more receptive to ideas that align with their goals, rather than those that drive them away from such aspirations. Feedforward, as a constructive approach, resonates really well with these individuals.

We all have the tendency to embrace feedback that aligns with our self-perception – while dismissing anything that contradicts it. Consequently, the feedforward approach stands out as a particularly fitting method of communication when it comes to giving and exchanging input.

Read more: Wanting to Get One’s Own Way – The Excessive Need to Be “Me”

  1. Applicable for everyone

Unlike traditional feedback, feedforward does not require us to have previous experiences with the individual being assessed. Therefore, it enables us to glean valuable insights from diverse sources, regardless of prior acquaintance.

Now, let’s say you would like to improve your listening skills. In that case, virtually any leader is capable of providing guidance based on their own experiences – without the need for them to get to know you first. Just like coaching, feedforward does not require deep knowledge of somebody – or that we need to be better/ superior to them – to work.

Read more: Coaching vs Mentoring – Define the Differences

  1. More objective

Theoretically, feedback should only center on accomplishments rather than the individuals themselves. That said, real-world feedback is often highly personalized, irrespective of the delivery approach.

Our sense of personal branding is closely correlated with our own achievements – this is particularly true among those who have achieved a certain level of success. Thus, providing such people with entirely objective input becomes a surprisingly challenging task.

Feedforward presents a distinct advantage – as it exclusively delves into future-oriented discussions, steering clear of subjective commentaries. Positive guidance inherently carries the mantle of objectivity, whereas criticism often gets interpreted by others as personal attacks.

potential for change

  1. Emphasizing potential for change

One compelling advantage of feedforward lies in its emphasis on the potential for positive change – rather than revisiting past failures. This forward-looking perspective is key to empowering people to unlock their capabilities and strive for improvement.

Negative feedback often precipitates a descent into a quagmire of pessimistic thinking – such as: “That’s all I can do.” In contrast, feedforward stems from the assumption that everyone possesses the capacity for positive transformation.

  1. Encouraging positivity

Compared to negative feedback, feedforward is more readily absorbed, as it circumvents the discomfort associated with critique. For instance, let’s say you’ve recently delivered a presentation that didn’t quite meet expectations in front of your board of directors. Rather than rehashing things that fell short, your manager opts to provide guidance on how to enhance the structural coherence of your future presentations.

Can you see the differences in terms of impact between these two approaches?

While the content of your input may be the same, the latter conveys the message in a positive light, making it more palatable and motivating for improvement.

  1. More efficient

Imagine you are presenting in a meeting like this:

“Here are four ideas for the future. I encourage everyone to approach them with utmost positivity. If you find two of them aligning with your vision, please focus on those and disregard the rest.”

By doing so, we essentially eliminate the need for time-consuming idea evaluation. Without the need to judge others, the meeting atmosphere suddenly becomes much more positive for everyone involved.

That is what happens when we practice feedforward. Not only encouraging a forward-thinking approach, it also helps minimize the time-consuming process of evaluating ideas – thereby fostering a positive environment for idea exchange.

  1. Supporting team building

Feedforward does not position us as an “expert” who is here to judge – rather, we are a “companion” that is trying to help others. As a result, people are much more inclined to engage in open conversations – which are essential to facilitating the development of more harmonious and efficient teams.

  1. Enhancing listening skills

Practicing feedforward makes us become better listeners – by shifting our focus from reacting to receiving. Instead of trying to formulate a well-reasoned response in mind while others are speaking, we focus on absorbing and learning from their words.

Read more: Not Listening – The Silent Killer in the Workplace

from past to future

How to Give & Receive Feedforward in Communication

  • No discussion about the past. Feedforward is about envisioning and working towards future successes  – as such, it’s important to emphasize potential improvements and encourage forward momentum.
  • Listen non defensively. Both parties should adopt a non-defensive stance – i.e, being open to suggestions without immediately becoming protective or resistant.
  • Don’t judge or critique ideas. One of the key principles of feedforward is to abstain from passing judgment or critiquing ideas. Instead, treat each suggestion as a valuable contribution, regardless of its ultimate applicability.
  • Give people recognition for what they say. Just as you would express gratitude for a thoughtful gift, remember that the feedforward is a valuable contribution to personal growth and development. Treat them like a gift – and say “thank you”. You don’t have to use it; just listen, and thank people for that gift.

Final Thoughts

By shifting the focus from past shortcomings to future possibilities, feedforward fosters a constructive and collaborative atmosphere. It is a transformative approach that holds tremendous power in enhancing communication and personal growth As we embrace the principles of feedforward, we open doors to endless opportunities for improvement, innovation, and success.

Other resources you might be interested in:

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