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Feedback vs Feedforward

Feedback: what's in the box?


Giving and receiving feedback isn’t easy.  The internet already has plenty of perspectives and tips on how to do it successfully (eg here’s an article on Mind Tools).

As Give us the Gist is about organisation (rather than individual) development I wanted to take a different approach to writing about feedback and cover the behavioural science behind why it’s hard and how you might go about creating a culture where feedback is normalised. 

The neuroscience perspective

In an earlier post, I already talked about the SCARF model and what triggers threats and reward responses in the brain. You need to read this first to Get the Gist and then you’ll see how the SCARF elements come in to a feedback transaction:

  • Feedback can challenge status. People need to feel respected and valued and the transaction of feedback is one where the equality between giver and receiver is automatically unbalanced – the giver knows more or is wiser (this perception can be held by the giver, receiver or both).
  • Asking the question “Can I give you some feedback?” or a calendar invite titled “Catch up to debrief on your presentation” (or even worse, just “catch up”) can lead to a lack of certainty
  • Feedback is often unsolicited and therefore individuals don’t have autonomy over how it’s delivered, when it’s delivered or the content.
  • We’re social creatures and our brains are wired to classify relationships and interactions as being from friend or foe. And it’s much more wired to automatically thinking foe. So when someone asks if they can give feedback, receivers are more inclined to think the giver has sinister intentions.
  • Fairness is deeply rooted within us. So we need feedback to be fair and we’re wired to be evaluating how fair the giver is being.

The mindset and neuroplasticity perspective

Neuroplasticity is about the now scientifically proven fact the brain can grown. Intelligence and ability is not fixed. However, we used to think it was. I used to think it was. The Headteacher at my primary school called me a stupid boy on multiple occasions. I spent a lot of my life believing that. When I got something wrong or got a bad mark at school, my heart would sink because I believed I was stupid and so there would be nothing I could do to improve the mark I was given. I’d been educated to have a fixed mindset, much like many others who went through the education system with mediocre teachers before we applied science to pedagogy (the education of children). 

With some growing up and encouraging managers once I’d entered the workplace, I got to a mindset where I thought I couldn’t be that stupid and as long as I worked hard, I could achieve quite a bit. And then in 2014 I discovered the Growth Mindset. That’s a self-belief and a belief about others that we can grow and become excellent at whatever we want. Sure, it might take some of us longer than others, but it is entirely possible. I will write soon about growth mindsets in more detail. But in the realm of feedback, you need to know that those with a growth mindset will be much more open to it and may be even actively seek it out – it’s not a threat to them. Conversely, those with a fixed mindset, find feedback very hard. The people who find getting feedback hardest are often those who excelled at school and have a fixed mindset. For these individuals, they’re only used to getting praise and have not had to build up much resilience around how to cope when they are told they could do better.

If you have time, I’d strongly advise you read Mindset by Carol Dweck[1]Dweck, C., 2017. Mindset by Carol Dweck. London, United Kingdom: Robinson. If you don’t have time, I’d suggest you read it or at the very least watch Dr Dweck’s talk on YouTube (below).


How can we make feedback a more rewarding experience for everyone?

 Ask for it

One of the most simple and effective ways of making the feedback experience less threatening and more rewarding is if it’s asked for. Here, the receiver has certainty around when they are going to get the feedback and has a feeling of autonomy (control) in having asked for it. The transaction is one where status is a more neutral factor and the relatedness dynamic is also more balanced (you’re being a friend, not a foe if you’re meeting the request to give feedback and help someone to learn and grow).


Feedback is badly received when there is nothing anyone can do about it. Feeding back to someone that they had mustard on their shirt or blouse the whole time they were presenting is not just unnecessary it’s unkind because there is nothing the individual can do about it (unless they have a time machine that also doubles as a dry cleaners).

There’s plenty of suggested speech frameworks for giving feedback, one of the most common ones is BOFF, which makes sure there’s a forward look.

  • Behaviour – facts and observations
  • Outcome – effect and impact
  • Feeling – how it made you feel
  • Future – what they can do

Ask for it and feedforward[3]

This great graphic offers a powerful exercise on feeding forward.

Creating a culture that normalises feedback

People fear being incompetent and fear being punished for incompetence. No one wants to feel shame. Leaders play a huge role in creating psychological safety in the workplace and nurturing a growth mindset. Take a look at my post where I explore Amy Edmondson’s Fearless Organisation thinking.

The key to getting to a culture of feedback is to start small[4] Culture is a dynamic and complex system in any organisation – it’s not something that can be designed from scratch but it is something that can be nudged and influenced through behaviours, norms and artifacts. Edgar Shein calls these ‘mechanisms’ in his book Leadership and Culture.

Some short tips from me (please do search the web for a broader collection):

  • Leaders role-model asking for feedback to make asking a norm.
  • Leaders make feedback a two-way process to balance out the status imbalance.
  • People pick a framework, like BOFF, they want to use for praise and helping someone improve and collectively follow it together – there’s certainty in how you’re going to get feedback.
  • Embed feedforward.
  • Don’t bottle it up and then let it explode.
  • Watch the growth mindset video together.
  • Be clear on your intentions – make sure you’re being a friend giving future focused information and make sure that if you’re giving tough love, it’s because you want someone to succeed.
  • Meeting chairs can end meetings by asking everyone what collectively what was successful and what could have gone better.


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