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Advice, Feedback, and Feedforward: Knowing the Difference

We all want to help our employees improve. How much they improve is up to you.

Most developmental coaching methods boil down to similar components, but different paths to improvement can yield disparate outcomes.

We must consider not only what we say, but how our employees interpret and apply our input. To strengthen your relationships with your employees, feedforward is most conducive to long-term change.

Deconstructing advice, feedback, and feedforward

When you give an employee advice, you’re saying: “I observed something you could do better” and “here’s what you should do instead.” Advice focuses completely on what the employee needs to change; it often doesn’t clarify what they were doing before or why the change is necessary.

When you give an employee feedback, you’re saying: “I observed something you might not be aware of. Here’s why it matters, but it’s up to you what you do with that information.” Feedback is data-driven and focused on past actions. It can be positive or negative, but the line between feedback and criticism can sometimes blur.

When you give an employee feedforward, you draw from their past actions to provide future-oriented suggestions or recommendations. Reaffirm positive behaviors and focus on “next time” instead of “last time.” Consider the difference between these two statements:

Feedback and advice: “You had too many words on each slide during your presentation. You need to cut them down.”

Feedforward: “Next time you present, I’d recommend you limit the number of words on each slide. My rule of thumb is less than 40 words per slide.”

Feedforward applies the future-facing outlook of advice and the reflective nature of feedback to guide employees without being too prescriptive or attached to the past.

Why does this distinction matter?

No matter how well-intentioned, advice can feel condescending and restrictive. Instead of offering an employee various routes to improvement, advice forces them toward one path. They might not even know how they went wrong in the first place, preventing them from long-term development. With no stakes or control over the changes they’re being asked to make, it isn’t surprising that employees may not feel motivated.

Whether we intend so or not, feedback is often negative and discouraging; a Gallup poll found that only 26% of employees believe that feedback helps them do better work. This is because employees are often given information with no accompanying tools or direction: “here’s what’s wrong, now fix it.”

Feedforward pulls from the strengths of these alternatives. It doesn’t ignore past data, but it doesn’t focus excessively on it either. Rather, it uses the past as a springboard for exploring future possibilities. The employee has options, with a general idea of what you’re looking for in their back pocket. When it comes to the next steps, feedforward balances the autonomy of feedback with the guidance of well-meaning advice.

Next time you notice an opportunity for growth, consider adding feedforward to your collection of employee development tools.

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