Feedback vs. Feedforward — Here’s Why I Don’t Like Either Word to Describe Radical Candor
There’s been a lot of chatter lately about feedback vs. feedforward. Words matter. I don’t love the word feedback, but because it’s commonly used to show people what to do more of and what to do less of, I use it often.
Does “bad feedback” mean criticism, or does it mean criticism that is badly delivered?
Does “good feedback” mean praise, or praise that is well delivered, or criticism that is well delivered?
Who the hell knows??! Because it’s unknowable. Sloppy language.
I like the term feedforward even less because it pretends that we don’t have to understand past mistakes in order to avoid them in the future. It pretends that we can avoid necessary but uncomfortable conversations.
What is Feedforward?
Feedforward is the flow of information or control in a forward or unidirectional manner. It’s communication from someone that lets you know what to do more of in the future.
While I am not a fan of the term “feedforward,” executive coach Marshall Goldsmith prefers what he calls future-focused feedforward over backward-looking feedback.
And a bunch of articles and TikToks have popped up recently about doing away with the word feedback in favor of what’s basically Radical Candor though different people are calling it different things.
Sr. HR Director Kiko Campos notes on LinkedIn, “Feedforward is the windshield through which we look ahead to what is coming, giving us a chance to choose the best path and ponder future decisions.”
And, one can argue that if you don’t also use the rearview mirror, you won’t have all of the information you need to decide if it’s better to change lanes or stay the course.
Mistakes are how we learn. But if we don’t acknowledge mistakes and seek to understand why they happened, it’s almost impossible not to repeat them.
What’s more, to know what to do more of in the future, you need to know what the thing you did in the past was and why it was so good.
There can be no feedforward without feedback.
What is Feedback?
Feedback is both praise and criticism. I don’t like the word feedback because it sounds screechy and makes most people want to put their hands over their ears as it has been hijacked to refer to receiving mostly negative information.
When I taught Managing at Apple we used “good news” and “bad news” instead of feedback. This was to avoid semantic ratholes like feedback vs. feedforward.
But for the sake of this argument and its relevance as a term commonly used in the workplace, feedback refers to the process of giving and receiving information about performance, behavior, or contributions.
It plays a crucial role in professional development, performance improvement, and organizational growth. Effective feedback helps people understand their strengths and weaknesses, align their efforts with organizational goals, and make necessary adjustments to enhance their performance and contribution to the company.
Here are some key aspects of feedback at work:
Praise: Specific and sincere praise acknowledges and reinforces desirable behaviors, achievements, and contributions. It can boost employee morale, motivation, and job satisfaction. Recognizing and praising employees for their successes is a key aspect of positive reinforcement.
Criticism: Kind and clear criticism offers the recipient actionable suggestions for improvement. It focuses on behaviors, skills, or tasks that can be enhanced and offers guidance on how to make those improvements. Criticism is essential for employee growth and development. Without it, you are unable to avoid repeating mistakes.
Upward Feedback: Effective feedback is not a one-way street. Employees should also have the opportunity to provide feedback to their managers and the organization.
Feedback and Feedforward Don’t Tell the Whole Story
Neither feedback nor feedforward distinguishes between development conversations and performance management, which doesn’t make the whole feedback vs. feedforward debate very useful.
Development conversations hook into a person’s intrinsic desire to do better in the future than they did in the past.
Performance reviews and conversations (when they’re going well) should include no surprises since there have been many daily, and weekly development conversations.
But they seek to make the process of deciding bonuses, promotions, etc. clear to employees. They hook into the extrinsic desire for more money and authority/not to be fired.
We need both development conversations and performance management systems. And we need to learn how to do better at both. Too often we bungle them. But that doesn’t mean we can do away with them.
That would be like saying, “Too many people struggle with math. So math must be bad. Let’s eliminate it.” Instead, we need to learn how to teach it better.
Part of performance management includes:
360-Degree Feedback: In addition to feedback from managers, 360-degree feedback involves gathering input from peers, subordinates, and self-assessment. This comprehensive approach provides a well-rounded view of an employee’s strengths and areas for improvement, fostering a more holistic understanding of performance.
Performance Reviews: Feedback is often used as part of performance reviews. Managers or supervisors provide feedback to employees about their job performance, highlighting areas where they excel and areas that may need improvement. This information is typically used for performance management, salary adjustments, and career development.
Part of performance development includes:
Regular Feedback: Feedback is most effective when it’s provided informally on an ongoing basis rather than being limited to annual reviews. Regular check-ins, one-on-one meetings, and open communication channels help ensure that employees receive timely feedback and have opportunities to address concerns and make improvements.
Development Plans: Based on feedback, employees and their managers can create development plans that outline specific actions, training, or skill-building activities to address areas needing improvement. These plans support professional growth and career advancement.
Feedback vs. Feedforward vs. Guidance
In Radical Candor I used the term guidance to refer to the development conversations, and I defined guidance as soliciting and giving both praise and criticism, then gauging how what was said landed and adjusting.
While the word “feedback” may make you want to put your hands over your ears, guidance is something most of us long for.
Guidance means caring about what’s best for the person long-term, not just what feels easiest right now. It also means leaving no room for interpretation about what you really think — while also being open to the possibility that your opinion is wrong. We call this HIP.
Humble: It is important to offer guidance with a sense of humility, knowing that your point of view is an important piece of a larger puzzle. Speak from your point of view, but leave space for them as well.
Helpful: Consider the goal of the conversation. Are you having it to win, or are you having it to help? Make sure your goal is to help the other person succeed.
Immediate: Give guidance immediately, or as close to immediately as possible.
In-Person or On Video: Having a synchronous conversation leaves much less room for error and it allows you to gauge how your guidance is landing for the other person.
In Private: The part of your brain that interprets physical threats is the same part that activates when you feel a threat to your identity or ego. If you criticize someone in public, chances are they will go into fight, flight, freeze mode and be unable to take in what we are saying.
Not About Personality: Make sure to focus on the behavior, not the person.
Ex: “I asked you to present the latest deck at today’s meeting. I was surprised to see a slide promoting a discontinued product in the deck and I want to understand what happened during the QA process. How can I help set you up for success in the future before a big presentation?”
Good guidance also uses the CORE Model to show people what to do more of and what to do less of and it’s a simple way to ensure you’re focusing on behavior vs. personality.
C — Context (Cite the specific situation.)
O — Observation (Describe what was said or done.)
R — Result (What is the most meaningful consequence to you and to them?)
E — nExt stEps (What are the expected next steps?)
Ex: “I asked you to help us streamline our collaboration tools (context), you went above and beyond by identifying one tool for all of our collaboration needs (observation), the team is spending less time switching back and forth between a dozen platforms and more time getting work done (result). We’d love for you to train other teams how to use this software. (nExt stEps).”
Additionally, When you solicit criticism or get unsolicited criticism, it’s useful to assume good intent and look for the useful nugget, even if the feedback wasn’t well delivered. You don’t have to agree with all of it.
When you give praise or criticism, it’s crucial to gauge how it landed. If the person seems sad or mad, show you care. If the person seems to be ignoring you, say it again even more clearly — challenge even more directly.
And, in all cases, whether you call it feedback vs. feedforward vs. guidance, it should end with a focus on the future — on the next steps the person can take to do more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff.
Even if you don’t know what the next step is, tell them you’re there with them as a thought partner to figure it out.