Feedback vs. Feedforward – how to improve the efficiency of team development?
Providing feedback is one core skills developed and practiced during workshops for managers. However, there is one aspect which is frequently overlooked during these workshops, that is NAMELY receiving feedback from subordinates and utilizing feedforward i.e. „information received before” for implementing changes and improving work efficiency of both the individual and the entire team.
In this article I would like to take a closer look into these two aspects of communication and demonstrate how to use both of them for building an effective platform for exchanging information between superiors and subordinates.
Let’s start with the theoretical model, which will build a context for our topic under discussion. Although the model was developed in the fifties of the twentieth century, it is still very applicable. Originally developed as a therapeutic tool, it found a wide application in coaching and training of social skills. Its name is derived from the names of its inventors: Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham.
“Johari Window” is a model for improving understanding of how can an individual person consciously shape the platform for communicating with others by opening himself to them and by being open to receiving feedback. The following matrix shows the relationship between “I” vs. “others” and the four areas which arise from dividing the communication arena into parts which are known and unknown to both communicating parties.
The arena – the area that the person and his associates are aware of and familiar with
The blind spot – the area that is known to associates, but the person is not aware of it
The facade – the are the person is aware of, but his associates are not
The black hole – the area of which neither the associates nor the person are aware of
Why is it worth to build the arena?
Calibrating expectations to the reality of the organization plays an important role in the change management process. It is not uncommon that information reaching executives does not fully match the realities of the organization. And even if it does, some seemingly unimportant details, which can be symptoms of potential problems, may not be allowed to surface in a formal, structured communication. This frequently happens in organizations where managers are closed to negative information from the so-called “below”. Such circumstances further narrow the „arena”, which leads to increasing the „blind spot.”
Sometimes the management broadcasts a messages like: we do not want to hear about problems, we would prefer to see the results. The good intentions accompanying such communication can unfortunately give rise to negative consequences. Subordinates will quickly learn to inform their bosses only about the ups and when there are downs they will try to cover them up, or worse, shift the blame for failure on other departments or so-called independent factors.
In the long term such communication will result in subordinates’ unwillingness to take responsibility for results, in their focusing only on the task and not the outcome, and finally in so-called “learned helplessness”. This leads to a duality of the organization – formation of two separate realities – the desired (described in presentations to management) and the real one, which affects everyday operations.
The second mechanism which affects the area of the „arena” is manager’s openness to sharing information which is not known to subordinates or which they are not aware of. This is the case of providing skillful feedback (feedback and feedforward).
How do we know that we have achieved mastery in giving feedback? Firstly, the most important criterion is subordinate’s acceptance of the information provided, and secondly his willingness to change of indicated behaviors.
It is worth noting that the true purpose of feedback is to broaden awareness and change specific behaviors. There have been several occasions when I observed managers who were hiding behind the good intentions but in fact started pursuing their emotional needs with subordinates as soon as they has been challenged by them. Such behaviors lead to “narrowing the arena from the bottom”.
As a result, the manager will lose his the ability to accept and implement even the most valuable feedback for improving functioning of the team. He will also lose respect, which, as we all know, is earned from the bottom and not ”granted” with the promotion for manager.”
So how do we ensure broadening of the communication arena with the team?
There are several rules worth keeping in mind when we plan to engage in providing feedback. I would divide them into two groups: related to the context (conditions accompanying the feedback), and related to the content (concerning the very structure of feedback). Since there is a wealth of literature about the structure of feedback, I would like to share a few comments related to the context of feedback sessions which can to be used with every feedback methodology.
When we talk about feedback we frequently tend to forget its „bright side”, that is showing appreciation to employees for what they have done well. Unfortunately, some companies are convinced that employees do not need to be commended for a job well done, because it’s part of their duties. It turns out that there is nothing more wrong. Many studies conducted among employees indicate that praise is perceived by them as part of remuneration. It is worth remembering the next time we notice our subordinate doing something well and our budget does not allow for too many discretionary bonuses.
In addition, reasonable appreciation of employees expands the area of the „arena” downwards and builds the right context for providing corrective feedback. I’m not a fan of the so-called. „American approach” according to which one negative information should be preceded by five-positive one’s, because it may lead to many distortions and grotesque situations. However, it is worth to remember about proportions. If we want our employees to be open to corrective information, supportive feedback should be the dominant one, especially when there is nothing to correct.
When to give feedback?
I came across an approach that is based on the assumption that feedback should be provided as soon as possible after the fault event. I would dispute such simplification of the subject. Indeed, it is worthwhile to give it immediately if it is supporting, because it builds motivation of subordinates and is one of the factors strengthening authority of the supervisor. If, however, this is corrective information, one should choose a the proper time to provide such feedback – for example to postpone one day after the incident. This time will allow to gather the thoughts, write down arguments, and above all gain emotional distance to the entire situation.
The employee is frequently aware of his mistakes, knows where and when he did not stand up to the task and what went wrong. Therefore there is no need for the manager to provide information that the subordinate is already aware of. Since the ultimate goal of corrective feedback is to change the behavior, this is where the main emphasis of conversation that should be placed. From the timeframe perspective, a greater part of the meeting should be dedicated to developing and possibly practicing new behaviors to be implemented at the earliest opportunity, rather than brooding over the causes and reasons for such turn of events. I’m not trying to say here that the reasons are not important, but they are often difficult to change post-factum. One should draw a conclusion from them and move on.
Another important factor is the use of precise arguments, both during the positive and the corrective feedback. The rule is: the more precise the information, the better its perception.
Let’s look at two messages boosting morale:
– I am impressed by the way you conducted the meetings. I admired your eloquence and your choice of words …
– Your arguments were very well prepared, especially the part concerning justification of our decision.
The difference is clearly visible. The first sounds like flattery, and the second one expresses real appreciation of a particular behavior.
The difference can be seen even better with corrective information.
– I’d like you to be better prepared for such meetings.
– I have noticed that your arguments lacked actual data that would support your statement. As a result, we would be able to move the discussion from the level of opinion to the level of conclusions drawn from hard data.
The priority principle
Priority (Latin: prior) means “precedence” and there is no plural. This means that there is only one priority. Therefore a change of behaviors is accompanied by the rule of priority, which says that in order to introduce a permanent change we should focus on only one behavior at a time. If there are several behaviors to be changed we should put them in order and plan a timeline. We should start from the simplest behavior to be changed and not from the most important one.
The rationale behind this is the efficiency and durability of changes being made. The employee will find it much easier to focus on just one behavior than on several at a time. Moreover, when he reaches success in one area with relatively little effort, his motivation to make further adjustments to his behavior will increase, which in the long run may be the factor strengthening his commitment to permanent improvements, boost the results and make further and more difficult changes.
The final component strengthening the process of making changes in the subordinate’s behavior is the feedforward or the „information before”. During my workshop I frequently come across managers’ assumption that their words have magical driving power – that a word once spoken will be followed and executed. However, life shows subtle deviations from this rule.
When a person is faced with a difficult task – like changing their behavior – a number of mechanisms set off, which, like a spring, drive us back to the starting point. Therefore, the “feedforward” information provided before the new situation, which recalls the findings from feedback and recaptures a specific sequence of actions, will equip our subordinate with additional motivation to introduce a new behavior, will build his self-confidence and increase our chances of success.
Feedback vs Feedforward
There are several reasons why the use of both types of information may be more effective than using the feedback alone.
The subordinate feels supervisor’s support – one of the risks of using feedback is that it may increase subordinate’s feeling of being evaluated by the supervisor. By using both forms of giving information the relationship between the supervisor and the subordinate becomes more partnership-like, because they jointly participate in the process of change – the superior becomes more of a coach than a critic.
Change of behavior happens quicker – because of the involvement of the supervisor in the whole process – before and after – the supervisor’s impact on the implemented change increases, and the subordinate’s courage to test new behaviors and his commitment to continuous improvement increase as well.
The organizational climate within the team improves – the team sees that working individually with the supervisor brings the desired results in a relatively short period of time. Simultaneously they share their experiences in their peer-to-peer communication, which in turn affects building supervisor’s authority among other members of the team, the Johari window arena expands, and the leader has a real impact on his team results.