Feedforward isn’t for snowflakes. Let’s set the record straight.
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article exploring the rise of “feedforward” in the workplace. (They were kind enough to include me in their reporting.) The big idea: Bosses are nixing harsh and anxiety-producing terms (feedback, reviews) for gentler, less-threatening words (feedforward, connections). The shift to “softer” language is intended to put workers, especially younger employees, more at ease with performance feedback.
The Journal’s comments section blew up. (One friend called it a “Boomer bonfire.”) Reactions ranged from mockery to disbelief to outright disgust. Here’s a small, unredacted sampling:
“Feedforward?” Seriously? Please, HR staffers, tell the traumatized offended to toughen up—or, better yet, go someplace else.
Utter nonsense…pandering to the offspring of helicopter parents. Another report like that, WSJ, and I am cancelling my subscription.
Wow, just wow. We are neck deep with the snowflakes.
This article is so cringe-inducing I think I may have pulled a muscle. Corporate buzzwords have always been tiresome, but these terms are just awful.
I appreciate the honest and unvarnished feedback from readers. But I also think they could benefit from some additional context and clarity. So, here’s my quick attempt to set the record straight on what feedforward is and why it’s needed.
Feedforward isn’t a call for sugar-coating, sandwiching, or sucking up. It’s not a pander, a cop out, or a praise festival. And it’s definitely not a fad or sideshow. Feedforward is a management intervention first introduced nearly three decades ago, later popularized by executive coach Marshall Goldsmith and then expanded by me in The Feedback Fix.
So, what is it? Maybe we should start with what feedforward is NOT:
- Not a woke agenda drummed up by weak-kneed HR directors
- Not an attempt to pacify spineless snowflakes who are too easily “triggered”
- Not another empty corporate buzzword
- Not a preamble or pretext to fire people
Well, then, what is it? Here’s my working definition:
FEEDFORWARD: A strengths-based model of feedback that promotes candor, partnership and dialogue and emphasizes future possibilities, not past failures.
Even more basic: Fearless feedback that improves results and relationships.
As a model, feedforward is actually pretty simple: Have real conversations about real issues that matter, when they matter most. And do it in a way that leaves room for curiosity and collaboration, with the express purpose of identifying and addressing ways people can improve.
Feedforward: What’s in a name?
Critics will rightfully challenge: Why change the name if the goals remain (largely) the same?
For one thing, there’s the stigma of bad feedback experiences that routinely leave us feeling defeated and depleted. Calling it something else lightens some of the emotional baggage and offers the possibility that feedback will be received more favorably. (Obviously, this is a meaningless and empty gesture if we don’t adjust our tone and tactics.)
More importantly, calling it “feedforward” recognizes the changing times and terms of work today. Just like the switch from “stewardess” to “flight attendant” acknowledged the societal shifts that occurred as more men joined the ranks, “feedforward” represents the desire by many workers to experience a sense of forward progress in their professional lives. They don’t want to be held back by judgments of past failures they can’t control. They want to engage in dialogue about future possibilities they still can.
Without a doubt, this requires some attention to past performance. But how long we stay there, and who gets a say in what happens next, remains a sticking point. Traditional feedback typically offers a one-sided view of events and ends with one person “telling and selling.” Feedforward seeks a wider view of events and involves two people listening and learning from one another. One is about power and position. The other is about partnership and possibilities.
Shifting from feedback to feedforward
What does the shift from feedback to feedforward look like in practice?
- My job is to frame issues, not fix people.
- My feedback should provoke insights, not impose rules.
- I can’t change the past. Neither can they.
- I don’t know/can’t solve everything, so partnership is better than power.
- Ask more questions, make fewer judgements
- Actively listen to what others are saying
- Offer support and solutions where needed
- Give others more voice and choice over what should happen next
Feedforward is not about making our message sound less harsh. It’s about making our message feel more helpful. Ultimately, the point of feedback is to help others improve. It’s an act of service. And the best way we can serve others is by serving the issue with more candor, caring and collaboration — to give people a sense of agency in determining how they can develop a forward-focused view of their strengths and skills, designed and aligned with goals they set together with their leaders.
I’m encouraged by the companies and leaders who put partnership before power, agency over accountability, and relationships right beside results. Feedforward isn’t a play on words — it’s a playbook for more candor and connection in the workplace.
There’s a name for that: Progress.