Forget feedback - the secret to good managment is 'feedforward'

The Life: Rather than blaming an employee for past mistakes, feedforward focuses specifically on how that employee can improve, writes Tommy Weir.

In the best-known line from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the wicked queen asks her magic mirror: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?" When, to her horror, the mirror gives unwanted feedback and reveals that Snow White surpasses her in beauty, the evil queen flies into a rage.

We are now in the midst of the annual performance review season - and feedback is at the heart of it, inclusive of all the emotional reactions. Like the mirror, leaders are not trained to handle the difficult situations that often arise when feedback is negative and reveals a painful reality. Understandably, they are uncomfortable giving feedback as their organisational role in the performance appraisal process places them in the position of being both judge and jury.

The secret to excelling in performance management is a subtle but fundamental shift in leaders' mentality from feedback to feedforward, which is about improvement and growth. Rather than blaming an employee for past mistakes, feedforward focuses specifically on how that employee can improve. It refocuses the conversation from "when you did X" to what we can learn from it and improve in the future.

Feedforward gives the employee a goal to work towards, not a legacy to overcome. The ultimate goal is to energise and excite people about the role they need to play and the development they need to go through.

When employees understand that they are expected to strive for continuous improvement, they are far more likely to take positive action as a result of feedforward rather than resist it.

Feedforward focuses on the leader's role in driving performance. And even more so, what actions you as a leader need to take to help your team to perform at its peak. It is about using performance insights to improve performance, not focusing on the biannual performance management sessions. Feedforward may take longer, but it delivers desired results.

Feedback has been erringly linked to performance management, which usually means the "system" and annual performance process. Leading performance is something that leaders need to do every single day; it is not reserved for one or two formal conversations per year. Those are simply review points in which the results are officially captured.

I often teach leaders to use the "Diary of the Second" as a tool for feedforward. A 10-hour workday comprises 36,000 seconds. It is during those seconds that leaders notice the performance insights (feedforward opportunities), whether it be positive behaviour needing reinforcement or areas of improvement. But as the seconds of the day compound it is common for those insights to blur away, only to resurface when the issues approach a "boiling" point.

As an illustration, in the TV show House of Lies, Marty Kaan, the leader of a consulting pod, notices but overlooks the brief seconds of his team until it comes to the "boiling" point when he calls them out. Doug Guggenheim is the recipient of these as he is cognitively brilliant but immature socially. Routinely Marty, avoids taking action to help him mature even with Doug begging Marty to be his mentor.

If Marty were to use the "Diary of the Second", he would capitalise on the small moments to make a big effect on performance.

Feedforward is shifting from the "Mirror, Mirror on the wall" feedback mentality to the "Dear Diary" focus on improving performance. This is the key to finding comfort in the performance review process throughout the year, bringing life to what we used to call feedback, but now practise as feedforward.

Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, an adviser and the author of The CEO Shift. He is the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center