A couple of years ago, Craig and I were at an industry event and heard Dr. Jamie Gruman talk about Feedforward Interviewing, a technique developed by Avraham Kluger and Dina Nir. Craig read up on the research and encouraged me to look into it as a tool we could teach to our clients. Although the feedforward interview protocol is simple, I really like the philosophy behind it. For me, it’s an example of where an understanding of basic psychology can help us improve on one of our most foundational management techniques.

In conventional constructive feedback, you describe someone’s behavior, evaluate the negative impact of that behavior and work with them to find fixes. When you give feedback, you focus on what’s not working, which can cause defensiveness and decrease the likelihood that the person will internalize and act on the developmental message.

Feedfoward is an alternative that encourages individuals to generate their own insights about how to become more effective. Feedforward stimulates reflection and curiosity and encourages the person to take ownership of their own development. It’s especially worth adding the feedforward approach to your repertoire if you have to broach difficult topics or work with people who struggle to remain open to change.

Origins of Feedforward

Feedfoward is an Appreciative Inquiry approach (part of Positive Psychology), which focuses on generating what could be rather than fixing what is. (For more on Appreciative Inquiry, check out Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987)

The idea that you should avoid focusing on problems is based on two well-known psychological phenomena: confirmation bias and the Pygmalion effect.

  • Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to pay more attention to things that support their preconceived notions and to ignore disconfirming information.
  • Pygmalion effect is the tendency of people to become what others believe they are in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Taken together, these phenomena suggest that viewing change as solving a problem might inadvertently reinforce the problem. That’s because focusing on the problem makes the manager biased toward seeing flaws (confirmation bias) and makes the individual prone to living down to unflattering perceptions (the Pygmalion effect).

Appreciative inquiry flips the change model on its head and looks for positive instances to build from. Thus, it uses confirmation bias to the advantage of both the manager (who is more likely to notice positive behaviors) and the individual (who is motivated to live up to the positive potential).

Pause here for a moment and ask yourself whether your feedback and coaching approach focuses on problems or on possibilities. To what extent do your evaluations of people become self-fulfilling prophecies?

The Feedforward Technique

I encourage you to read the full Feedforward Interview article here, but I’ll give you a synopsis of the basic steps:

  1. Elicit a success story. Select the skill or area you’d like to help the person develop. Ask them to share a story about a time when they felt at their best in this area. For example, if you were talking about increasing the person’s influence skills, you could ask, “Tell me about a time when you felt great about your ability to influence someone, even before you knew if it worked.” Make sure they describe a very positive experience. In a series of questions, ask the person what they thought and how they felt when they were at the peak of that experience. Reflect back the story.
  2. Understand the conditions for success. Ask about the conditions, both within the person and in the situation, that lead to their success in that scenario. For example, “What were all the things that set that up to be such a positive situation?” Try to get a diverse set of success factors ranging from the person’s mindset and behavior to the actions of others that contributed to success. If they focus on internal characteristics, ask about other factors. If they focus mostly on things outside their control, probe for the things that they did to make it work.
  3. Ask the feedforward question. If the second question has revealed the conditions for success, shift the conversation to the future. Ask, “How well do your current plans for the situations in which you’re trying to be more influential incorporate those success factors?” You can either leave the person to think this through on their own or talk it through with them.

Why Add Feedforward

There are several reasons to open up a traditional feedback discussion with the feedforward technique:

  • Gain new insight into the mindset of high performers. (For example, you might have someone who is performing exceptionally well but who doesn’t feel set up for success. Giving them the opportunity to talk about the conditions for success could expose gaps that are affecting their morale)
  • Identify an employee’s code for success and shed light on organizational and/or leadership practices that might not be working.
  • Increase buy-in to the formal feedback and ratings by making people feel acknowledged and heard.

You might be like me and feel like an old dog who doesn’t learn new tricks easily. I encourage you to, at the very least, think about how your approach to feedback might be exacerbating problems. If you’re willing to give it a try, use one feedforward question in your next one-on-one management meeting. Then you can see for yourself if it leads to a different result.

Further Reading

Unconventional Wisdom on Constructive Feedback

How to Help a Teammate Who is Being Defensive

How to Deliver Feedback

Video: But Are You REALLY Listening?