Workplace Wellness

feedback, feedforward
Moving From Feedback To Feedforward
Moving From Feedback To Feedforward 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

I can still remember when I first heard about “feedforward.” It was in a presentation by Marshall Goldsmith at one of the first HCI Summits many years ago.

The concept sounded weird and a little gimmicky. But, it stuck with me.

At its essence, the idea was that while feedback was oriented towards criticism of past performance, feedforward instead provided suggestions for future improvement. People dislike criticism while they tend to more openly embrace suggestions that can be incorporated in the future. Simple enough.

While it seemed like a nice concept, I didn’t really do much with it after this first exposure. I still gave feedback the same way I always had.

Fast forward seven or eight years where I find myself at another conference listening to Marcus Buckingham. He again introduced the idea of feedforward. His approach was slightly different, but the idea was the same.  Suggestions instead of criticism.

The idea again appealed to me and this time I started experimenting with it with my team. And it seemed to work. While I was happy about the positive outcomes, I didn’t really understand why this was supposed to work so much better. I had been told my entire professional career that feedback was vital.

Yes, giving feedback was going to suck and often hurt. But, it IS “the breakfast of champions.” So they said.

To get ahead, you needed to learn to embrace the pain of feedback and try to figure out how to absorb it and learn from it.

I was skeptical that this “softer” feedforward approach might just be a way of softening the experience to feel better while losing the bigger impact. This was in spite of personally seeing the positive short-term results when I used it.

But then I found the neuroscience research that helped me understand why we have such a hard time with feedback.  Here’s a quick excerpt from my book describing one of the most interesting findings:

Recent neuroscience research suggests that our brain reacts to “social” threats similarly to physical threats. Perception of negative social comparison or being treated unfairly have been shown to trigger a brain response similar to physical pain. (Lieberman, Matthew D., Eisenberger, Naomi I. et. all, 2009) This would help explain why we tend to react defensively to critical feedback–particularly when we think it may be unjust or threatening to our social status at work. It’s a natural, biological response to avoid pain.

Our brain appears not to differentiate between social and physical pain. In other words, feedback can feel both psychologically and physically painful. No wonder we want to avoid it.

And to make matters worse, there’s research showing how we tend to overestimate our strengths while overlooking our weaknesses. Thus amplifying how socially threatening any critical feedback can seem. More threat, more pain.

This is why feedback is such an awful experience most of the time.

Work is frequently designed like a big social game of comparison to our peers. It’s a zero sum game if you want to advance. You need to be perceived as better than the people around you. Feedback will rarely feel non-threatening when you are playing such a high-stakes game.

Once I understood these factors, the true magic and power of feedforward finally revealed itself.

Criticism of past performance (which cannot be changed) creates a social threat response. This leads to an immediate defensive reaction as your brain and body try to find their way back to safety. When we are defensive, we can’t hear and process information constructively.

The approach of providing suggestions for improving future performance prescribed by feedforward disarms the social threat response. The exchange is oriented towards providing ideas for how the individual can improve or make a greater impact in the future. Not only does this reduce defensiveness, but it also creates autonomy for the receiver. They are in control and can decide what to do next.

Here are the steps I would recommend if you’d like to start experimenting with it yourself:

  1. Identify an opportunity for improvement. Think specifically about what happened and what kind of actions the individual could take to be better in the future.
  2. Request permission to provide some suggestions. This isn’t a requirement, but I’ve found that this step further enhances the effectiveness of feedforward. When we are asked first if we’d like suggestions, it further disarms any possible defensive response. “Hey Jason, I was thinking about our meeting this morning. I jotted down a few ideas for how I think you could get more traction with your next presentation. Would you be interested in hearing my thoughts?”
  3. Share one to three things that you feel would be helpful to them in the future. Providing some context for how these suggestions can help is good, but avoid any discussion of what they “did wrong” or “messed up.” If they open up and ask specific questions related to their past performance, provide observations but refrain from sharing judgment. Feedforward usually starts something like this, “When you are presenting an idea to a group, one of the approaches I’ve found to be successful is …”
  4. Watch for and reinforce evidence of progress. When you see the individual experimenting with or implementing suggestions in the future, heap on the praise and recognition. Before long, they’ll start coming and asking for more suggestions. Sidenote: when someone asks you for feedback, what they are really asking you for is suggestions for how to be better in the future.

There’s been a lot of focus recently on teaching managers to be coaches. If you have ever had the opportunity to observe a good sports coach working during practice or games, you have probably noticed that most of what they do is provide instruction and suggestions for how to perform better on the next play. They know that spending too much time criticizing past performance will just demoralize the athlete and doesn’t help them improve. Coaching is fundamentally about switching from feedback to feedforward.

Bottomline: Stop criticizing people for past performance that they can’t change and start focusing on giving them the insights they need to be better on the next play.

Wellness 2.0
Wellness 2.0 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

About eight years ago, I joined an organization that was pretty serious about workplace wellness.

Since the wellness team rolled up to me as the HR leader, I got pretty serious about learning what it was all about quickly. Most of the focus, I learned, was on improving the physical health of our employee population.

This particular organization had been investing in wellness programs for years, long before most organizations started to take it seriously. They did some really cool stuff in the name of wellness. They viewed it as a benefit to employees.

At the time I joined this organization, healthcare costs in the U.S. were really beginning to skyrocket and the cost of providing employer-sponsored health insurance had become a concern.

This triggered the wellness industry to jump into action. Suddenly, workplace wellness programs were no longer a benefit, they were a vehicle to control and reduce health insurance costs. It made sense. The healthier you are, the less healthcare you consume–at least in theory.

We sold this clear new “business case” for wellness, HARD. Our execs got on board and we got to work.

But, the promised cost containment and cost savings never really materialized. And we weren’t alone. It wasn’t that wellness wasn’t making a positive difference, it just wasn’t reducing health insurance spend.

This promise of wellness has failed. The costs savings never materialized. Wellness had bet big and lost on a business case with far too many uncontrollable variables.

Sadly, this is putting some wellness programs and wellness professionals at risk of losing funding and influence.

Now is not the time to abandon wellness. Now is the time to double down.

Work is a relationship for employees. And, at the core of a healthy relationship is feeling a sense of belonging and being care for. No other function within the organization is better positioned to help employees feel this way than wellness.

The practice of corporate wellness has evolved over the past decade. Today, instead of only being about improving physical health, it’s about improving overall feelings of well-being. Wellness is wholly focused on caring for you as an individual person.

When wellness works, it can really strengthen the relationship by making you feel like the organization cares about you beyond simply what you can do for it. If your organization provides you with the tools to get out of debt or with the skills to be a better parent, it makes a real and positive impact.

But when it fails, the relationship gets damaged. My wife still talks about a day at work well over a decade ago that is a good example. A snowstorm was getting started in the city and many of her colleagues were leaving work early to make it home before the snow got bad.

As a single mom with a young son in daycare, she had to make it across town before the daycare closes. For those who may not contend with snow regularly, when a snowstorm of any magnitude rolls into the city, a 30-minute commute can become a 90-minute commute pretty quickly.  So, she asked her boss if she could leave early.

As an hourly employee, her boss not only didn’t want to let her leave early but proceeded to give her a lecture about how she needed to have a backup plan for situations like these. These words, to someone who didn’t have an easy answer for a “back up plan” were at best insensitive and at worst insulting and hurtful. Like I said, my wife still feels the hurt all these years later.

Learning to really care for an employees wellness is at the heart of creating a great work experience and a strong work relationship.  But, this requires that we evolve our understanding of wellness as a practice.

Recently, the Wellness Council of America debuted a new definition of Wellness that I find really inspiring. Here is the core of their definition:

What is Wellness?

Wellness is the active pursuit to understand and fulfill your individual human needs—which allows you to reach a state where you are flourishing and able to realize your full potential in all aspects of life. Every person has wellness aspirations.

Successful workplace wellness initiatives require supporting employees in fulfilling their needs in these seven areas:

Health   Beyond the absence of mental and physical illness, health is a feeling of strength and energy from your body and mind.

Meaning   Feeling part of something bigger than yourself. Knowing that your work matters. Having purpose in your life.

Safety   Knowing that you are safe from physical and psychological harm at work. Feeling secure enough to take calculated risks and show vulnerability. Free of concern about meeting basic life needs.

Connection   Experiencing positive, trusting relationships with others. Feeling a sense of belonging, acceptance and support.

Achievement   Feeling you have the support, resources and autonomy to achieve your goals. Succeeding at meeting your individual goals and work aspirations.

Growth   Feeling like you are progressing in your career. Learning and being challenged to use and expand on your strengths.

Resiliency   Viewing life with optimism. Feeling grateful and expressing appreciation. Feeling validated and encouraged.

You can find the full definition here.

As we wrestle with how to make our organizations and the work we do better for humans, I think it would be smart to put wellness at the center of those efforts. If we feel unwell, whether it’s from our physical health, stress from financial strain, or a lack of meaning in our life, we won’t and can’t perform at our best. The most engaging workplace in the world can’t compensate from a lack of well-being.

The heritage of management we inherited suggests that life exists outside of work and that, as employers, we need only concern ourselves with what happens “on the clock.” That may have worked in the early days of mindless factory work, but it’s no longer valid today. The wellness of our people is where it all starts.  The more “well” they are, the more performance potential they have to give.

Wellness isn’t going to fix your health insurance issues, but it may go a long way towards boosting performance. Give it another look.

This week, I have the privilege of presenting a keynote at the WELCOA Summit in San Diego. If you are going to be there, drop me a note. Let’s meet up.