Time To Fix Our Feedback

This is a book about giving feedback, but not the kind you’ve come to know and loathe.

Whether it’s the feedback we give to employees and co-workers, teachers and students, or family and friends, we have a nagging suspicion that it’s ultimately going to fail. And you know what? We’re right.

According to researchers, people apply just 30% of the feedback they receive. The rest is ignored, rejected, stonewalled, or mangled the moment it arrives. Even if they don’t dread feedback, the vast majority of people just aren’t interested in applying it in their professional or personal lives. If delivering feedback is going to run into that much resistance, sharing it seems like a major waste of time and energy.

Then again, feedback moments happen so frequently, and often when we least expect it, that it’s hard to avoid the issue altogether. Feedback is happening all the time: It’s the wary look you give to the person standing too close to you in line. Or the angry blares of your horn as you rip into the driver who just cut you off in rush hour traffic. We give feedback when we write reviews about a product, leave comments about a blog, award stars to our Uber driver, and decide whether or not to tip the barista at Starbucks. And those aren’t theoretical scenarios—I experienced all of them firsthand in the course of 24 hours while writing this blog!

In reality, giving feedback isn’t just a natural blip in our day. It’s an inescapable part of our lives.

Most of the time, though, the feedback we give is geared towards to the past. Think about each of the feedback encounters I just listed. You can’t retroactively push that person back in line or stop that car from causing a near accident. The review or comments you leave aren’t likely to change the way you feel, and the ratings or tips you either give or withhold can’t alter the service or product you got or wished you received. The past cannot be changed. What happens there, stay there—and there’s not a thing we can do about it.

And so it comes down to this: If we want to make meaningful changes in our feedback, it’s not enough to simply unlearn the mistakes of the past. We have to actually replace the past with something else.

The future.

It’s here, in the shift to future tense, that we give feedback a total message makeover. In the past, we look back. In the future, we gaze ahead. In the past, we must relive mistakes. In the future, we can reimagine success. The past is a time for reflection. The future is a place for action. The past is already transcribed. The future is still unwritten. We can never change the past. We can always transform the future.

In the past, we gave feedback. In the future, we’ll give feedforward.

Feedforward is a new approach to performance. It’s based on the idea that people develop best when they focus their energy and attention on a future they can change, not a past they can’t. And when we help others make the leap from past to prologue, we give them permission to re-write their own stories of performance. We toss aside the usual elements of judgement, criticism, and appraisal.              

With feedforward, we change the narrative to one of acceptance, support, and development. Future-leaning feedback gives others new ways of thinking about the way they work, learn, and live. Whether these exchanges are taking place between managers and workers, teachers and students, or parents and children, feedforward lets us dump the past, embrace the future, and change the way we lead and live. And that’s something that needs to happen right now.

Because unless we fix our feedback, it’s going to stay broken.

Get my book, “The Feedback Fix: Dump the Past, Embrace the Future, and Lead the Way to Change,” now available from Rowman & Littlefield.