Marshall Goldsmith Blog - Feedforward

Why Words Alone Won’t Change Behavior and What Will

07 Feb 2020

An unshakable hope persists in organizations that people will exhibit desirable behavior when they hear just the right words in the form of company values or leadership models. Executive coaches, however, observe on a daily basis that actions, not words, make the real difference between success and failure. In this article, we explore why words aren’t effective at influencing behavior and how coaches can create a bias towards action. 


Why words don’t matter as much

Corporations have invested millions of dollars and countless hours into developing the perfect statements. But in reality, there is almost no correlation between the words and the behaviors that are displayed. Since every organization strives for “customer satisfaction,” “innovation,” or “integrity,” these messages have often completely lost their meaning to employees. 

A study with 11,000 managers in eight major corporations conducted by Howard Morgan and Marshall Goldsmith provided proof. Each company used different words to describe their ideal leadership behavior. However, the various word choices they made didn’t make a difference in determining the way leaders behaved. 

The companies that are most successful in living their values on a daily basis have recognized the real cause for their success: The behavior of their people. Instead of reinventing statements about desired leadership behavior, corporations should ensure that leaders regularly receive and act upon feedback from employees who actually observe their actions.


How to change leaders’ behavior

There’s one problem, though, that many executive coaches face when trying to incorporate employee feedback into the coaching process. Many high-achieving leaders tend to resist even the most constructive feedback. The reason is that feedback typically focuses on the past, the mistakes that have been made. As such, it can be limiting and static. 

Fortunately, there is an alternative: Feedforward. This simple concept was invented by Marshall Goldsmith and is utilized in his signature Stakeholder Centered Coaching program. Feedforward focuses on concrete solutions, not problems, helping leaders envision a positive future. 

Here’s how it works: Employees are asked to provide ideas on how the leader can be even more successful in the future. The leader can then accept the suggestions that make the most sense for them, preserving his or her need for self-determination. 

Feedforward has the potential to turn painful, uncomfortable conversations into positive, helpful experiences. Therefore, this concept is often more useful than feedback as a

developmental tool and in day-to-day interactions. To learn more about Feedforward and how you can incorporate it into your coaching, click here

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