Instead of Feeding-Backward, Feed-Forward!

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Are you killing the progress of your meetings or constantly putting yourself in bad relationships that lead to failure of yourself and others? One surefire way to make these problems a reality is by focusing on what people did wrong rather than what they can do better next time. It’s called Feeding-Backward. Let me give you an example…

One of my coaching clients (we’ll call him “Rob”) was on the phone with one of his Board members. The board member was so upset he could barely hold his temper throughout the conversation. For fifteen minutes, the Board member laid out everything that Rob had done wrong… for the past five months. Instead of focusing on the very specific issue at hand, the Board member allowed a whole gamut of unresolved issues to crop up. It wasn’t a positive experience for the Board member and it certainly wasn’t a positive experience for Rob. So the question remains: Why make yourself miserable when you can make yourself productive?

While most ideas of constructive criticism revolve around feedback—negative leaning discussions of past circumstances that lean toward performance and/or behavioral shortcomings—there’s a positive alternative that can relay the same information in a balanced approach.

FEED-FORWARD

Popularized by my mentor and longtime friend Marshall Goldsmith, first introduced as a formal best practice in my book, Best Practices in Leadership Development, the feed-forward approach allows you to focus positively on things to come rather than dwelling on what’s come before. By taking a forward-thinking approach you’ll open new avenues on the road to getting what you need and revolutionizing your coaching, leadership and daily interactions. Let’s lay out some helpful guideposts for the ride…

1)    FOCUS ON THE FUTURE.

Tailor your questions and discussions around the possibility of improvement that are based on future goals rather than past experiences.

2)    BE STRATEGIC

Choose areas for improvement strategically, and focus on a few only. Give people time to process information and act on it with a fresh sense of purpose.

3)    PROMPT FOR SOLUTIONS

When problem areas are identified, don’t let people shy away without coming up with their solutions on how to address it. Self-empowerment and personal responsibility are key to the feed-forward approach.

4)    IDENTIFY CHANGES

What are the most important changes, improvements, or actions he or she wants to start implementing? Focus on what the individual wants to do, so it is geared toward something to make their lives better and help them see it through. You can’t drag someone to water and make him or her drink, but you can certainly ask them if they’re thirsty.

5)    FORWARD-LOOKING SUGGESTIONS

Focus on what the individual can do from this point on. Don’t fixate on what hasn’t been successful in the past, and instead focus on what they would like to be successful in the future. Provide a space for progress rather than perfection.

6)    CREATE A STEP-BY-STEP PLAN

Set reasonable goals and keep your plan focused and on-track to avoid feeding-backward into problem areas you’re seeking to avoid.

7)    MANAGE EXPECTATIONS

Give the process time to work and give individuals time to think things through and respond. Remember, feeding-forward is about progress, not perfection. People slip back into old habits easily and must forgive themselves and others for doing so. With practice, tomorrow can always be a better day.

8)    BREAK NEW GROUND

Feedback will only highlight what we already know about our contributions and stall growth. Allow others to share ideas and envision the ways that they can grow for themselves.

DURING CONVERSATIONS…

1)    INTRODUCE “WHAT IF”

Use the ‘what if’ approach when working through specific problem areas. This gives a possibility for what they may accomplish in the future. It’s up to the other person who is taking advice to decide the cost/benefit of taking the action.  This will encourage an open dialogue where individuals will start engaging and taking responsibility over their input in conversations.

2)    LISTEN

Listen and take notes. Don’t force your own ideas and comments into the conversation. This is their time to shine.

3)    ASK

Don’t assume what they need suggestions about. Instead, ask what they would like to do better or what they would like to see changed and how.

4)    BE INCLUSIVE

Instead of laying out a game plan in a “Here’s what we’re doing” set of demands, take a “Let’s figure this out together” approach. This process is known as “co-creation” where we develop the future together.

5)    LET THEM TALK

Defenses go down when people feel their able to communicate uninterrupted. Curiosity for another’s point-of-view is contagious and will extend well beyond current dynamics.

6)    DESCRIBE, DON’T LABEL

When talking about past behaviors that may indicate problem areas, remember to describe the behavior without putting labels on it.

7)    MAKE IT ABOUT “WE”

Take yourself out of your hierarchical position and pose the question, “What can WE do?” Make your intentions inclusive. Labels hurt, people take it to heart, and they’re hard to let go. Don’t bind them to the past, free them for the future.

THE NEXT BEST STEPS…

1)    FOLLOW UP

a.     Make an effort to approach individuals on an ongoing basis and field ideas to keep a dialogue open to improvements along the way. Frequent positive interactions are a reliable method of improving effectiveness. Following up only once has limited impact. Following up on a frequent and periodic basis creates substantial increases in change.

2)    THINK LIKE AN ATHLETE

a.     Professional athletes need to train and stay sharp and flexible on a daily basis. Andy Murray doesn’t take a year off and expect to win Wimbledon and neither should you. Keep practicing and working on the most important parts of the changes you need to achieve. Ongoing personal development is fundamental to freeing ourselves from the past and increasing flexibility.

3)    BE OPEN TO LEARNING

a.     Learn from those around you. Be open to thoughts and ideas in order to modify your own behavior based on new suggestions.

4)    ASK FOR INPUT

a.     Coaches and leaders who continually ask for and listen to fresh input statistically increase their effectiveness.

5)    INSPIRE GROUP DYNAMICS

Open up more avenues for forward-feeding discussions to grow between peer groups that might not interact on a daily basis. You’ll never know what ideas come up from an outsider’s perspective. Make sure you exercise a balance of mirroring, challenging, supporting, and moving to action. If you or others do too much of any one role, then the group will fall apart and engagement will be very low. Instead work on balancing air time, making people feel psychologically safe to talk and come to a functional conclusion and next steps.

Conclusion

Trust the research. Don’t go backward. Aim for the future, and take your eyes off the past.  You’ll be surprised how quickly someone can open up to the possibilities ahead and everyone can achieve progress along the way.


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Louis Carter
Louis Carter is CEO and founder of Best Practice Institute, social/organizational psychologist and author of more than 11 books on leadership and management including his newest book just released by McGraw Hill: In Great Company: How to Spark Peak Performance by Creating an Emotionally Connected Workplace. He has lectured globally in the U.S., Middle East, and Asia on his work and research in organization and leadership development and is an executive coach and advisor to CEOs and C-levels of mid-sized to Fortune 500 organizations. He was named one of Global Gurus Top Organizational Culture Gurus in the world and was chosen to be one of 100 coaches to be in the MG100 (Marshall Goldsmith) out of 14,000 people as one of the top 100 coaches in the world .

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