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Business News/ Companies / ‘Feedback’ Is Now Too Harsh. The New Word Is Feedforward
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‘Feedback’ Is Now Too Harsh. The New Word Is Feedforward

wsj

More companies are ditching anxiety-inducing corporate lingo for what they see as gentler terms. Reviews become ‘connect’ sessions.

The word feedback gives some the jitters. Time for a rebrand?Premium
The word feedback gives some the jitters. Time for a rebrand?

Employers around the country have good news for workers who dread chats about their performance: Feedback is on the way out.

Many companies, executive coaches and HR professionals are looking to erase the anxiety-inducing word from the corporate lexicon, and some are urging it be replaced by what they see as a gentler, more constructive word: “feedforward."

Feedback too often leaves workers feeling defeated, weighed down by past actions instead of considering the next steps ahead, but “feedforward" encourages improvement and development, its proponents say.

“The old assumptions of feedback, and all that word conjures up, I think puts a chill on performance," says Joe Hirsch, a corporate speaker and author of a book on how to fix feedback. “Feedforward is about this forward-looking view of people, performance and potential."

The canceling of feedback has its share of skeptics. It comes as younger generations—who can prefer a more positive, nurturing environment—are accounting for a larger share of the workforce, and companies increasingly focus on performance and efficiency following a pause on reviews during the pandemic.

“Feedback conversations, as they commonly exist today, activate a social-threat response in the brain interfering with the ability to think clearly, and raising heart rates," says Theresa Adams, senior HR knowledge adviser at human-resources trade association SHRM.

Companies are also banishing another negatively charged term: “review," which they are replacing with “connect" sessions, coaching, self-reflection and opportunity discussions.

Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca changed its review process in 2020 in an effort to help retain talent, according to Marc Howells, VP of talent and development. Instead of yearly reviews, the company is embracing quarterly check-ins, and has replaced feedback and performance management with “feedforward" and “performance development."

“As soon as someone says, I want to give you feedback, people go into a defensive reception," Howells says.

At Microsoft, managers are encouraged to use the word “perspectives" instead of traditional feedback, according to current and former employees. Reviews, meanwhile, have been branded as “connect" conversations. The company also recently stopped including anonymous comments from peers in employee reviews, instead showing the names of the colleagues in question.

A Microsoft representative says the software giant decided to change its feedback approach after seeking feedback about it from staff.

To do better by employees, managers are being told to bury their bad feedback habits—sometimes quite literally.

In April, Hirsch ended a workshop by asking attendees to write a regret they have had when providing feedback—say, talking to subordinates like children—on a Post-it note. Hirsch opened the lid of a miniature black plastic casket, in which the Post-it Notes were laid to rest.

Managers aren’t the only ones in need of training. Booking.com recently started teaching employees how they can best receive feedback, says Paulo Pisano, its chief people officer.

The online travel agency made a series of videos for employees, in which executives share examples of situations where they had a “learning moment" that came from others’ feedback and perspectives, he said.

Despite leading that effort, Pisano says he’s not immune to feedback anxiety. When asked how he’d feel if he was about to get feedback, his mind started racing.

I don’t know you very well, and you’re already pulling me to the side? Pisano says he thought. “I can catch myself being a bit defensive."

Jodi Miller, a 30-year-old former teacher, used to have a visceral response when she’d find out she was about to get professional feedback.

Whenever she got an email after a classroom observation, her stomach would drop, she recalls—prompting her to wait hours before she could muster the courage to open the message alerting her to the feedback.

“There’s this fear of what you’re going to find, wanting to prepare yourself," says Miller, now an entrepreneur. The anticipation was usually far worse than the review’s content, she says.

Plenty of employees feel the sidelining of feedback is a step too far. For some, the effort is, at best, an empty rebranding exercise. At worst, it deprives swaths of workers of the tough love they feel is essential to grow as a professional.

Jennifer Solomon-Baum, a former Microsoft marketing director who left early this year, says she understands why the company chose to rethink its approach to feedback, which she feels may have made employees more open to giving feedback. On the other hand, she says Microsoft’s recent decision to put an end to anonymous peer feedback in reviews completely backfired.

In the wake of the change, “we didn’t get the richness of constructive criticism," says Solomon-Baum, who is now consulting and leading marketing for a new ballet company in Los Angeles. “It became a praise festival."

Feedback, Solomon-Baum says, is a good thing, as long as it isn’t used to criticize an employee in a mean or public manner. “There’s the art of giving feedback," she says. “We need to reclaim and redefine what it is."

Trisha Dearborn, the chief people officer of publisher Bustle Digital Group, says rebranding words such as feedback may lead to positive results, but cautions against relying on too many “buzzy words," which could result in employees not taking the feedback seriously.

“When it’s serious feedback, you want to make sure people take it to heart," she says.

The divide on the issue is partially generational, several HR specialists say.

Baby boomers learned to suck it up and perform, says Megan Gerhardt, a management professor at Miami University and the author of a book on leading intergenerational workforces. As Gen Z speaks more openly about mental health and anxiety, employers are more sensitive to delivery, she says.

Many younger employees entered the workforce while managers had loosened expectations on productivity and performance, and may have had less stringent grading in college amid remote classes, making the postpandemic adjustment more difficult.

“It’s the first time that they have not just gotten professional feedback, but it might be the first time in quite a while that somebody said, ‘You know, this isn’t good enough,’" Gerhardt says.

She recommends that managers remain clear on the purpose of feedback, how often it will come and how employees should respond to it. If workers don’t take feedback well, they might not fully absorb the information—or could leave.

Many new hires at the internet-marketing service BluShark Digital LLC are entry-level workers—and they have a lot of opinions about feedback, says Seth Price, the company’s founder. Some want to be messaged via email, while others would prefer a phone call, text or a video chat. Some want facts and direct guidance. For others, such a cut-and-dried approach will make them shut down, he says.

All new hires are now asked to give their preferred way to get feedback as soon as they start, Price says.

Miller, the former teacher, says her fear of feedback lessened as she got older. Now the founder of an education app, she understands that criticism doesn’t mean she’s inherently bad at something.

Whenever she gets feedback these days, she has a new approach: “Think about the next step—how do I become better?"

Write to Alexandra Bruell at alexandra.bruell@wsj.com and Lindsay Ellis at lindsay.ellis@wsj.com

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