How to Focus Difficult Employees on the Future Using “Feed Forward”

A key breakthrough in writing our new book It’s All Your Fault at Work! Managing Narcissists and Other High-Conflict People, was when my co-author, Georgi DiStefano, and I realized that all “feedback” is something that both of us have found ineffective in motivating change with high-conflict people (HCPs) at work – or anywhere. While many people realize that negative feedback backfires with HCPs, most of us have still believed in the idea of positive feedback or “constructive” feedback. Yet when we thought about many cases that each of us has been involved in, we couldn’t think of any HCPs who embraced our feedback and went on to change their negative, self-defeating behavior into positive, constructive behavior. Instead, they defended their past behavior or said “Why do you hate me?” or walked out of meetings or even quit the organization all together. They just didn’t “get” that we were trying to help them.

As we were talking about this, I told Georgi about the study of “compassionate coaching” versus “coaching for compliance.” This study was done by researchers where I went to college many years ago, at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. In this recent study, they looked at brain scans of college students while they were given coaching that checked up on their studies and assignments (“Coaching for Compliance”) and compared this to coaching that focused on their future goals and how they could be helped to accomplish them (“Compassionate Coaching”). They found that Coaching for Compliance actually activated parts of the brain that triggered stress responses and resisted behavior change. On the other hand, Compassionate Coaching triggered creativity, openness to change and an increased sense of purpose. This study was done with average students, not specifically HCPs, but it showed that feedback – even about assignments – is not really constructive.

Combining our experience with these research results, I said to Georgi that I didn’t think any feedback about past behavior can work with HCPs. Instead, we need to focus on what we want in the future without criticizing the past. With that, Georgi said: “So we need to Feed Forward, not feedback.” And thus was born one of the key concepts in the book. Propose or request the positive behavior you want, without comparing it to less desirable behavior in the past. We have found that this Feed Forward approach works with anyone, anywhere.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. is an attorney, therapist and mediator in San Diego, California. Co-founder of High Conflict Institute, he is author of several books on narcissism, including the upcoming title with co-author Georgi Distefano, It’s All Your Fault at Work! Managing Narcissists and Other High-Conflict People (Unhooked Books, 2015).  For more visit High Conflict Institute.