Stop using the feedback sandwich

Communication  Leadership
12 February, 2018

For best results, deliver constructive criticism in a direct and timely way

You are probably familiar with the feedback sandwich. The concept is simple: put the criticism between two slices of praise in order to make it more acceptable to the receiver. This may even be your favoured method of giving feedback!

To be sure, the feedback sandwich is well intentioned: it is meant to ease a difficult conversation, soften the impact of criticism, and protect the listener’s self-esteem and feelings. Unfortunately, though, the feedback sandwich is not quite as wonderful as you might believe. Not only is it ineffective, it can actually be counterproductive.

So, this week, my message focuses on throwing out the inefficient feedback sandwich and, instead, delivering constructive criticism in more direct, authentic and effective ways.

What’s the problem with the feedback sandwich?

1. It erodes trust 

The “classic” status of the feedback sandwich makes it easily recognisable. If you use it frequently, chances are your team has already caught on to it. This means that when you begin a conversation with a compliment, they immediately become anxious and start anticipating the criticism that will follow. The praise is seen as insincere, simply a way of softening the coming blow. Not only is the “protective” purpose of the method lost, it also breeds distrust and cynicism.

2. It creates confusion 

Even if people don’t recognise the model, the feedback sandwich is still a very confusing way to deliver constructive criticism. Listeners come away from the conversation feeling unsure about the key takeaways; many remember only the beginning and end of the conversation, thus missing out on the key message that lay in the middle.

3. It is manipulative

The feedback sandwich flies in the face of direct, transparent leadership. Organisational behaviour experts recommend this simple test: if you plan to use this feedback technique, can you be honest about your reasoning with the other person? In other words, could you say to them: “I will begin with a compliment to put you at ease, then move on to the criticism which is actually the main point of the meeting. Finally, I will give you another compliment so that you don’t feel bad.” Yes, it sounds ridiculous—and that is because this strategy is about controlling the other person without their buy-in.

4. It is easier for the speaker, not the listener

Managers like to believe that this method makes things easier for the person receiving feedback—but in all honesty, it just makes the manager feel more comfortable. Roger Schwarz, an organisational psychologist and leadership consultant, has worked with numerous leaders on this topic. In his article, The “Sandwich Approach” Undermines Your Feedback, he explains that their assumptions around the feedback sandwich are unfounded:

They think it’s easier for people to hear and accept negative feedback when it comes with positive feedback. When I ask these leaders how they know this, almost all of them acknowledge that they simply assume it. When I ask – or have them ask – their direct reports how they would prefer to receive negative feedback, almost all of the direct reports say they want just the meat – no sandwich….

5. It lessens the value of praise

 By adding compliments simply to “balance out” a negative, we diminish their worth. Positive feedback isn’t a prop—it is crucial to every employee’s success and wellbeing, and it definitely deserves its own meeting.

If not the sandwich, then what? Here are some suggestions that I have personally found quite helpful to drive more productive feedback conversations.

1. Prepare for the conversation

 You can sometimes forget the extremely influential role you play in the lives of your direct reports. It is important to remind yourself that what you say in a one-on-one meeting can have a significant impact on the receiver. Own that responsibility, and make sure to prepare for feedback sessions.

Tailor the plan depending on the individual and your relationship with them. If you have worked together for many years and share a comfortable rapport, then you could get straight to the point. If the person understands issues best through examples, jot down a few relevant instances. If your relationship is still new and uncertain, think of ways to initiate a two-way dialogue and get on the same page. Just a little bit of pre-planning can help you have a much more meaningful conversation.

2. Explain your objective

 Corrective feedback should not be perceived as an attack, else the other person will become defensive and closed. This means your behaviour needs to be calm and non-threatening, not angry and belligerent. Emphasise your role as an ally and a support system. Explain that your ultimate goal is their success, not pointing out flaws for the sake of it.

You could begin the conversation by explaining that you are offering this feedback because you have high expectations from the other person and are well aware of their potential. It can also be helpful to describe the ideal future outcome – how a positive change in behaviour will benefit the person’s career, their team, and the entire organisation.

3. Be timely and regular

Many managers “save up” feedback for the next scheduled performance review, but this is a mistake. The best time to give feedback-be it positive or negative-is as soon as possible after it is observed. This is when the details are still fresh in everyone’s minds, before memory fades and interpretations change.

Timely feedback enables your team to regularly measure their progress and course-correct on an ongoing basis. It also makes praise and criticism a normal part of life at work. On the other hand, when you give feedback only once in a blue moon, it becomes a thing to be dreaded and feared.

4. Be generous with praise

Recently, one of my team members lamented that I wasn’t fully appreciating the work that his team had accomplished. I realised that I had not been forthcoming and frequent enough with recognizing the good work.  While it’s not a good idea to combine praise and corrective criticism into a feedback sandwich, it’s definitely important to be proactive and regular with positive feedback. Doing so let’s your team know that you are paying attention to their work as whole—not just their areas of improvement. This awareness increases trust and good will. Therefore, when you offer constructive criticism, people don’t feel unfairly attacked or cornered. They know that you appreciate their strengths and contributions, so they are open to your input on what they can do better.

5. Have a dialogue, not a monologue

For a truly productive conversation, invite input and ask questions. If you’re speaking only in statements, you are talking at the person—not having a two-way dialogue. You can set the tone right from the beginning by asking if the other person would be interested in getting some feedback, instead of leaving them no choice in the matter. Similarly, instead of handing out suggestions, turn them into questions that involve the other person. For instance, “You need to use more compelling data to get customers on board” could be phrased as “Could you find more compelling data to get customers on board?”.

6. Level the playing field

 If the listener finds you intimidating or patronising, that makes it more difficult for them to learn from the feedback. As a leader, you can definitely help to smooth away these wrinkles. Admit that you may not have the entire picture, and demonstrate a willingness to listen to the other person’s point of view. You could also share examples of how you have benefited (and continue to benefit) from constructive criticism in your own career. If your actions may have contributed to the problem, make it clear that you will take personal responsibility and strive to do better.

7. Make a plan

 Feedback sessions are notorious for being ineffective, and I believe this is largely due to one reason: they conclude without any tangible next steps. Simply offering feedback isn’t enough to kick start real change-at least, not for nine out of ten people. Such meetings open up an opportunity for leaders to be a useful resource. And this means developing a course of action, preferably with clear objectives, timelines and resources-including your support.

As you create the plan of action, remember to focus on one major area of improvement at a time-more than that could lead to lack of clarity and getting overwhelmed. A narrow focus allows the person to fully understand the scope of the problem and work on it. Wrap up the discussion by expressing your confidence that they will be able to meet the goals you have jointly set.

In the article mentioned above, Schwarz explains that throwing out the feedback sandwich shouldn’t just be a superficial gesture—the change has to go deeper than that:

This transparent, mutual learning approach doesn’t work better than the unilaterally controlling sandwich approach simply because you are saying different words. It works because you’ve shifted your mind set. That shift means thinking of negative feedback as a way to help your direct reports improve as you learn what you may be missing. It means thinking of feedback as a way for you and others to make informed choices together. Giving negative feedback transparently means respecting your direct reports, not controlling or alienating them….

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.

P.S. And while you are at it – figuring how to give feedback better – why not also give feedforward ( a try?


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