What is it about?

Feedback about job performance is nearly universal in the modern workplace. A primary aim of workplace feedback is to motivate improvement. Unfortunately, feedback often backfires. This paper explains how and why that is. It also recommends a different kind of feedback that we call "future-focused feedback." In three studies, involving hundreds of businesspeople, we show how performance feedback discussions have counterproductive effects. When work is successful, everyone gives credit to the person who did the job. But when there’s a problem, the giver of feedback thinks the fault is in the employee’s behavior. Meanwhile, the person who did the job is likely to blame causes outside their control (such as too few staff or too little time). The feedback giver and receiver are unlikely to reach agreement about this, no matter how long they talk. In our research, we find that feedback conversations that focus on why things went wrong increase defensiveness. The person receiving feedback ends up taking less responsibility for past problems, not more. They reject the feedback, doubt the credibility of the person giving the feedback, and report less intention to change. So how can a manager or co-worker inspire someone to improve? Our studies suggest that future-focused feedback is the most effective way. Be honest about what’s wrong (that’s the feedback) without debating the causes. Instead, focus on ways to achieve better outcomes in the future (that’s the future focus). A key discovery in our research is that focusing on future work performance leads people to accept even highly unfavorable feedback as legitimate and to want to change their behavior. We find that feedback conversations are most motivating when the giver and receiver of feedback work together to develop new ideas and solutions for the future. People accept feedback and feel inspired to change if the discussion centers less on diagnosing past performance and more on designing future performance.

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Why is it important?

Poor quality feedback hurts morale, engagement, and productivity. Diagnosing the causes of problems at work and holding people accountable for mistakes are practices that contribute to poor quality feedback discussions. In contrast, future-focused feedback boosts morale, increases trust, and inspires improvement. Feedback impacts all aspects of life, not just work. Mentors, coaches, teachers, parents, friends, and romantic partners all give feedback in the hope of better outcomes. You know from experience that these conversations can be hard, unpleasant, or disappointing. We recommend future-focused feedback as a better way to help people improve.


Future-focused feedback is a skill that can be learned. Many people find it challenging at first because they want the other person to acknowledge what they did wrong. We have found that just telling people how to give future-focused feedback is not enough. It really does require a bit of practice and some supportive coaching in the beginning.

Jackie Gnepp
Humanly Possible, Inc.

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This page is a summary of: The future of feedback: Motivating performance improvement through future-focused feedback, PLoS ONE, June 2020, PLOS, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0234444.
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