When it comes to workplace communication tactics, feedback and feedforward are crucial tools for employee improvement that serve different purposes.
While feedback looks at the past, feedforward is all about the future — and they work together to push employees toward positive change.
In this article, you’ll learn about the differences between feedback and feedforward within a workplace dynamic. You’ll also explore the benefits of each concept, along with the best time to apply them at your organization to improve workplace communication and professional growth.
What is feedback?
Feedback is a way to provide commentary on an employee’s behavior by reconciling with the past.
As a manager, you likely provide feedback regularly in one-to-one meetings, team exercises, and performance review cycles.
Although it's a common workplace communication, feedback has gotten a bad rep lately. According to a recent Gallup poll, just 26% of respondents agree that feedback helps them to do better work.
If feedback is one of the most used tactics to discuss employee performance, why has it fallen out of favor? Managing director at Seneca Partners, Joe Hirsch, has a strong theory: “Feedback has become an instrument of fear and not joy.”
The words, “Can I give you some feedback?” aren’t going to resonate with an employee who feels psychologically unsafe.
The key is to gain back a sense of feedback control by avoiding negative feedback. The more practical and actionable way is to make it a two-way conversation. It’s not just about pointing out what an employee did wrong — instead, what the employee might need from a manager to do better next time, and vice versa.
This more constructive approach lets the person receiving feedback feel supported rather than attacked, producing more positive outcomes for both parties.
3 benefits of feedback
As we’ve discussed, feedback isn’t inherently wrong — it’s been used for decades to discuss employee behavior. It’s also a highly effective tactic to fuel growth for organizations and individual employees.
Here are just a few of the major benefits of feedback, including improved engagement and workplace.
1) Feedback improves employee engagement
A recent Gallup and WorkHuman study found that recognition leads to higher productivity and a 22% decrease in “absenteeism.” In the long run, this has a ripple effect in the organization, with high levels of job satisfaction and improved employee retention.
2) Feedback can prevent workplace conflict
Constructive feedback encourages open dialogue across an organization.
Even small feedback moments, like tone of voice or a minor technical error, can add up to a more significant issue if there is a lack of feedback culture within the organization.
It’s worth fostering an open environment for feedback so that these small moments don’t become bigger conflicts over time. With regular feedback loops, coworkers come to expect – and even seek – thoughts and ideas from peers and higher-ups within the organization. As a result, when feedback is baked into organizational culture, chances are that it leads to better quality work rather than workplace conflict.
3) Feedback creates professional development opportunities
Professional development works well when it’s a personalized experience. Feedback is valuable for employees to learn what training they need to grow and develop in their careers. In turn, when employees apply those newly learned skills to their work, it benefits the organization too.
As a manager or HR employee, you can build feedback specifically geared for training opportunities into a one-on-one or performance review cycle.
When to use feedback
Realistically, there will be times when employees need to hear constructive feedback to discuss past events. The goal is always to give feedback in a helpful, open, and supportive way.
Here are a few scenarios where it makes sense to give feedback.
- In a quarterly review
- When a project continues to be derailed
- If an employee consistently misses important meetings
- When an employee asks for feedback from a manager
What is feedforward?
Feedforward is a concept that focuses on communicating in the moment or talking about future performance.
Marshall Goldsmith popularized the term feedforward, defining it as a “suggestion for the future” to not repeat past mistakes.
In some ways, feedforward is the opposite of feedback. It recognizes that the past cannot be changed, so instead, it allows managers or HR employees to talk about future outcomes with an employee.
Feedforward gives employees a pathway toward success by focusing on the future in a non-judgmental way.
For example, say an employee misses an important deadline. Talk with them about how to best move forward rather than giving feedback about what they did wrong. This could include discussing time management best practices or learning how to prioritize a to-do list.
Chances are, they know they missed the mark but feel stuck about how to keep going. By discussing actionable solutions, you can point them in a better direction as a manager or HR employee.
3 Benefits of feedforward
Feedforward is a way to focus less on someone’s mistakes and more on working together for a better future. Let’s look at the major benefits of feedforward in the workplace, including positive relationship building and improved communication.
1) Feedforward fuels non-judgemental communication
With feedforward, managers can discuss future-oriented solutions that push an employee to reach their goals.
Non-judgemental communication is a two-way street — managers need to focus on solutions, not failures, and employees need to focus on honesty and staying open to new ideas.
2) Feedforward builds positive relationships between co-workers
Since feedforward is a growth-oriented tactic, it fosters mutual respect and understanding between colleagues, which creates positive relationships. It also helps create transparency in the workplace since people know what goals their co-workers are working towards.
3) Feedforward lets you look to the future
Since a goal of feedforward is self-improvement, it only makes sense that this tactic would lead to improved outcomes on the employee level — which leads to better results on the organizational level.
When to use feedforward
Sometimes, focusing on the past isn’t a constructive use of time. In these cases, feedforward may be the better solution. It doesn’t mean that you completely forget the past. Instead, you use the past to inform a solutions-oriented approach to achieve a better result.
Here are a few scenarios where it makes sense to use a feedforward approach.
- When a project’s major milestone is coming up
- When building an employee training plan to upskill a colleague
- Asking a team member what resources they need to meet their goal
Feedback vs. Feedforward: What’s the difference?
Both feedback and feedforward are effective workplace communication tactics to discuss employee performance.
With feedback, the goal is to talk with an individual about past performance. In the workplace, effective feedback might look like:
- How a person managed a big project.
- The way a person supervised the summer internship program.
- A discussion about past collaboration with a different department.
Feedback is a highly effective way to look at past behavior and talk about what went well and what could be handled differently in the future.
A focus on the past is also a limitation of traditional feedback — choices made in the past can’t be changed to produce a different outcome.
That’s why many workplaces also adopt a feedforward tactic. This way, when appropriate, employers can openly communicate with a person during an action or before an action takes place.
Often, a combination of both feedback and feedforward works well. As a manager or HR employee, you can ask for feedback about past actions to shape future outcomes.
For example, if you know a recent project failed because of a communication breakdown, work with those employees to find a better solution before the next project kicks off.
From these feedback-based conversations, you find the solution is to adopt a different channel to communicate significant milestones as they come up, like Slack versus email.
In this example, maybe email wasn’t the best way for all stakeholders to stay in touch. Using feedforward, you can talk to all stakeholders from a place of understanding rather than judgment to find a better solution.
Use feedback and feedforward to improve your organizational culture
Feedback and feedforward are equally useful tactics to help any organization continuously improve employee performance and satisfaction.
Mentoring is a positive way to provide both feedback and feedforward in a productive space. Mentees gain a space for self-reflection and experimentation with new skills, and mentors are able to share knowledge and guide mentees in their career development.