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Volunteer-Matters

When correcting mistakes, look forward and back

Feedback vs 'feed forward'

Last week, I posted an excerpt from my book “The ABCs of Leading Volunteers” about providing volunteers with feedback.

Charlene Dishaw posted a comment on it about “feed forward,” a phrase developed by Marshall Goldsmith, which he defines as helping people envision and focus on a positive future, not a failed past.

I agree and disagree. Yes, we do need to look to the future and support people in becoming the best they can be going forward. I don’t, however, believe that is fully possible without looking at the past.

Here’s an example. You have a volunteer working for you who hasn’t been following procedures. You’re concerned that someone – the volunteer, a staff member, a client – is going to get hurt. You take the volunteer aside and show them what a wonderful future they could have if they followed procedures.

How effective do you think that would be, without pointing out the consequences of not following procedures?

I also take exception to Goldsmith’s word “failed”.

I don’t like the word “failed” when referring to a person’s actions or inaction. In many cases, when a volunteer needs feedback, it’s rarely because they failed. Usually, they simply forgot, something or didn’t understand the consequences of their action or inaction. Pointing those consequences out in a positive and supportive way can open the volunteer’s eyes and encourage them to do better in future.

If, because of your comments, the volunteer feels like they failed, you may need to rethink your phrasing. In my mind—and I realize I may be an exception here—failure is the repetition of a mistake after the consequences have been pointed out and a more effective action has been suggested.

Even then, the person hasn’t failed, nor do they have a “failed past”. If repeating mistakes means someone has a failed past, well, join the club.

That said, there are a lot of benefits to having a focus on the future. Because the future is unformed, it can be anything we want it to be. The past is set and unchangeable (we won’t get into existential theories here), but we can shape our future and improve on our past.

Most people want to be the best they can be, so ideas and suggestions to help them get there are more often appreciated than criticisms of the past.

Thinking forward is more inspirational than dwelling on the past. We can’t do anything about the past, but thinking about the future can get everyone excited and motivated, causing better outcomes for everyone.

Should you go with feedback or “feed forward”?

That’s easy—both. This is one of those situations where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Focusing only on the errors of the past is uncomfortable and depressing for both the volunteer and the supervisor. It may point to where things went wrong but it doesn’t give a vision for a better future.

Focusing only on the future doesn’t give the volunteer a clear picture of why the change is necessary. It ignores the possible consequences of the behaviour and leaves the volunteer unsure of whether they are doing well or not.

Including both, though, will cover all aspects. The volunteer will know why they are being asked to change their behaviour, how they can change it and he or she will have an inspiring vision to work toward.

I strongly believe there is never one right way to do things. A combination of different methods tends to work better than a rigid adherence to one. This is a good example.

Charlene, thank you for introducing me to “feed forward.”

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.



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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.



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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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