Path to productivity

April 1, 2019

Providing feedback to employees and team members has for long been deemed to be a leader’s indispensable skill. As they endeavor to achieve the objectives of the organization, employees need to be aware of their performance. They are curious to know if it is in sync with the expectations of leaders; they want to flaunt their accomplishments and learn about areas that demand improvement, as their performance is the base of salary hikes, increments, and other benefits they may be rewarded with. That is why annual performance review is an integral part of any organization.

But for some time now, organizations have been wondering if their performance review method itself needs a review. Are performance reviews really fruitful? Is there scope for perfection? Are those receiving feedback left motivated and happy or demotivated and apprehensive?

Information has for long been communicated from leaders to employees in the form of ‘downward feedback’—managers of the respective departments gauge the performance of employees annually or half yearly. However, in the past few years, ‘upward feedback’ has become increasingly common with the adoption of 360-degree (multi-rater) feedback by many corporates (Tata Motors is an example), wherein employees are expected to provide feedback on the effectiveness of the organization’s procedures/policies as well as give inputs on
leadership effectiveness.

The most important concern with any feedback is: it focuses on the past, and not on the countless opportunities that can arise in the future. As such, feedback can be restricted, as opposed to being extensive and dynamic. Human resources management researchers have found that the traditional way of conducting performance reviews is likely to have flaws such as negativity, defensiveness, subjective bias, and lack of sufficient training to provide feedback, which ultimately leads to low employee morale. They have suggested a new method of reviewing performance—the feedforward interview—which focuses on an employee’s best moments. Quite a few organizations find this promising while trying to boost employee morale during appraisals.

the feedforward interview

The feedforward interview (FFI) was developed by Avraham N Kluger and Dina Nir of the School of Business Administration, Hebrew University, on the basis of ‘appreciative inquiry’ (AI)—a term coined by Professor David Cooperrider and Professor Suresh Srivastava of Case Western Reserve University in 1987. AI believes that in every human being, some things work well, and that reality can be changed by changing the way we perceive it. Thus, AI aims at revealing the positive aspects of the system, and use that positive principle to kindle change.

This interview protocol was developed as an alternative to ‘traditional’ appraisal, which is increasingly being criticized for not actually contributing to improved performance. FFI focuses on revealing new knowledge about the organization, both for managers and subordinates, by highlighting the positive aspects of employees’ experiences at work, and how these can be replicated in the future. It leads to better alignment between employees’ needs and organizational policies, which in turn helps in enhancing relationships; it helps both parties to feel more positive not only about themselves but also about each other. FFI has been developed as a standalone intervention that can be applied at all levels— individual, group, and organizational.

The feedforward interview is proposed for use mainly as a substitute for performance appraisals, but some use it before performance appraisals and 360-degree feedback reviews, selection interviews, team development, and strategy development. It elicits success stories from employees, listening carefully to discover how those situations became a success, and focusing on how the conditions that led to that success can be built into forthcoming objectives and plans. These insights are intrinsic to the interviewee and the system, as it helps in promoting a work culture that encourages people to perform at their best by utilizing their skills.

It can potentially overcome known inadequacies of present employee feedback and development interventions.

steps of feedforward interview

positive topic: Focus on the constructive approach. For example, while conversing with an employee, an interaction can be initiated by the manager stating, “I am sure that while doing your work here, you must have gathered both good and bad experiences. For now, just focus only on recalling your positive experiences at work”.

story: The manager can invite the employee to share an incident. For instance, “Could you please share a story that you experienced during your work, which made you feel happy and zestful while doing the task without even knowing the outcome of your actions? Would you feel joyful to experience a similar story (process) again? If yes, please reveal the story.”

peak: What was the peak of this story? What did you think and feel while experiencing a peak moment (including your physiological reaction)? Would you like to experience those emotions again? (If absolutely yes, please reflect the emotions.)

conditions: Inquire what were the conditions, in yourself (traits, skills), others, and the environment of the organization (physical, temporal) that allowed this story to happen? (Managers should reflect on the conditions, ask ‘and what else?’ and make sure the interviewee deliberates on both self and others.)

The effectiveness of the feedforward interview approach is grounded in the fact that a safe environment is created for the employees, in which they share information with the interviewers—who do not act as judges and instead provide empowerment, helping them relive positive emotions, which are triggered in the process of the interview. The most important fact is the feedforward approach leads to a win-win situation for both the employees and the organization.

benefits of feedforward

01 Focuses on envisioning and building a better future rather than focusing on the unsuccessful past. It does not focus on negative memories of the past, but rather helps employees relive good memories and create them in their future too.

02 Focuses on building future solutions rather than past problems. It is always more fruitful to help people learn to be right than prove they were wrong. Negative feedback often becomes instrumental in proving others wrong, which produces defensiveness on part of the receiver and awkwardness on part of the sender.

03 Feedforward is grounded in the notion that the person receiving suggestions can construct positive changes in the future. From experience, we all know that feedback can reinforce personal stereotyping and biases. It can also reinforce the feeling of failure. Feedforward reinforces the possibility of transformation.

04 Covers same material of feedback more effectively. During feedforward, effective suggestions can be given to the employees about cultivating efficiency. For example, if an employee makes a blunder during a presentation, then the manager could guide him or her by giving specific suggestions for future presentations in a positive manner. So rather than reprimanding the employee for a bad presentation, the manager is giving suggestions to the employees to improvise, which is more constructive.

05 It can be much faster and more effective for managers, peers, and team members. Feedback, when influenced by personal biases and judgment, can be very negative, or even career restraining. Feedforward is more focused on being helpful. The truth of the matter is that we prefer to listen to feedback and suggestions from our peers more than seniors. All team members can indulge in a brilliant team-building exercise, where each one asks, “How can I contribute to team performance in future?”, and listen to feedforward from fellow teammates, in one-on-one discussions.

FFI has certain limitations on the part of employees as well as those conducting the interviews. Some employees might find telling stories difficult, and some might feel sad after realizing that they have very few happy moments to look back upon—whereas often managers might falter to mandate participation or may even offer to listen to stories at a later time.

This is not to suggest that performance appraisal feedback has to be totally done away with. But feedforward in day-to-day interactions can be more preferable than feedback. By using it, leaders can radically improve the quality of communication—which is its strongest building block—and make their organizations more dynamic and open; by ensuring that positive messages are conveyed and that the receivers are receptive to its content. Success with the feedforward technique requires resolution, humility, and discipline on part of the leader. It results in building a culture where employees focus on amplifying productivity to build a brighter future.