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Marshall Goldsmith is a management guru who regularly helps executives improve their leadership skills. He is a professor at Alliant International University, which named its graduate college of business after[…]

Marshall Goldsmith explains the concept of “feed forward” and how to use it to get the best from your employees.

Question: How do you get the best from your employees?

Goldsmith:  Well, what I suggest is something called feed forward, not feedback. I suggest leaders do not ask for feedback from- about the past. Most employees don’t like to give their leaders feedback about the past. Why?  It’s embarrassing, it’s awkward and it’s not career enhancing. So I would--  Anybody that says they like negative feedback is either a liar or a masochist. Nobody likes negative feedback so I teach leaders don’t ask for it. Ask for ideas. Say things like, “Hey, I want to do a better job of listening. I can’t change the past. I can change the future. Give me ideas for our company. We’re headed toward this direction. What do you think we need to think about in moving toward this direction?  Again don’t promise to always do what they say but promise to listen and to think about it and to get back to people and change what you can change and to the degree humanly possible give them credit. One of the best leaders I ever met said, “Leadership is not about me. Leadership is about them.”  One of the biggest problems with leadership is we get too focused on what the leader did right, not what the people did right. The best leaders don’t make it about themselves. They make it about the people they lead.  One of the things I do and did this today by the way--  I was working in a huge company today with their high-potential leaders. We had a great time. We did an exercise today, a very Buddhist exercise called feed forward. Now how does it work?  I’ll briefly describe it. The way feed forward works is I tell the group- I say, “I want everybody in the room to pick one area for personal improvement. It could be better listener or more open minded or less judgmental, whatever it would happen to be for you. Pick one area for personal improvement. You’re going to talk to as many people as you can possibly talk to in the next ten to 15 minutes and you’re going to be in two roles. Role number one is going to be learn as much as I can. When people talk to you you’re going to try to learn. Role number two:  Help as much as I can. When people ask you for input you’re going to help. Then the other rules are no feedback about the past. We spend too much time in life talking about the past. How many of you have been impressed with your husband, life partner, friends, near photographic memory of your previous sins which have been documented and shared in a repetitive and annoying way?”  So I say, “No. No feedback about the past. Ask for ideas for the future. And the second role, which is even harder:  You can’t judge or critique ideas. No matter what people tell you, you have to shut up, sit there, listen, take notes and say thank you. So you talk to as many people as you can. The conversation--  One person comes to the other and says, ‘I want to get better at X. Please give me ideas.’ They get a couple of ideas, say thank you. No matter what the person says, you just say thank you. Then the other person says, ‘I want to get better at Y. Give me ideas.’ Give them ideas, say thank you. Shake hands and rush off and talk to more people. Talk to as many people as you can in ten to 15 minutes. At the end of the exercise, ask people a question.” I say, “I want you to think of one word in your mind and I’m going to go like this and you shout out the word” and I’ll say, “This little exercise was”  and people go, “Positive, useful, helpful or even fun.”  And I’ll say, “What’s the last word you think to describe any feedback activity?”  Fun. And I say, “Well, I’ve done this for tens of thousands of people around the world. Ninety-five percent, no matter what country I’m in, say it’s positive, useful, helpful or fun. Why?”  Then they break up in to groups and talk about why. Well, I’d say, “Well, it’s about the future you can change, not the past you can’t change. It’s no defensiveness, no arguing, and I don’t feel put down. People recognize my ideas and just say thank you, which is nice. They don’t make me feel insulted. I don’t have to do it. People give you ideas you don’t want to do. You don’t have to do them. So I don’t really have anything to lose here. I can learn from people I’ve never even met before and it’s two ways, not one way.”  So one person is saying, “I want to get better at X. Please help me.”  The other person says, “I can get better too. Pleas help me.”  It feels totally different than one person saying, “You get better. You get better.”  Two ways, not one way, and that is the essence of how I coach people, which by the way is a very Buddhist--  It’s a very Buddhist thing. The other--  Another part of Buddhism I use is just acceptance of what ifs. In America, especially people with technological backgrounds just spend so much time whining about things they are not controlling. What a waste of time. With my clients I have this interesting exercise and I’ll say, “What percent of all interpersonal communication is spent on two discussions, topic A, somebody talking about how smart, special or wonderful they are are listening to this, topic B, somebody talking about how stupid, bad or inept someone else is are listening to that.”  I’ve asked thousands of people this question. Immediate answer is 65%. So what I tell people is, “Here’s a great productivity enhancement tool. Quit wasting time on that. We don’t learn anything talking about how smart we are. We don’t learn anything talking about how stupid other people are. Change what you can change. If you can’t change it, take a deep breath and make peace with it. Move on.”