The myth of the feedback sandwich
Have you ever sat down to a one-on-one with your boss, heard a shallow compliment, and started to think, “Oh boy, here it comes”? You’re not alone.
It wasn’t all too long ago that the feedback sandwich—the practice of delivering bad news in between a pair of positive notes—was considered an innovative new best approach for effective communication skills. Start with what you like about someone before dishing out what they need to work on, then add another compliment for good measure. People wrote entire books about it. Companies wrote policies to reinforce it. Yet now, it’s little more than cliché.
The problem with the sandwich approach, however, highlights what’s wrong with so many cut-and-dried corporate strategies for dealing with people: they reek of insincerity. Rather than share an honest moment of vulnerability and talk about what’s wrong, managers find cookie-cutter ways to avoid tough conversations, blaming employees and taking no accountability.
For example, rather than explaining why an employee’s work needs to be better, the feedback sandwich encourages managers to name a problem without explaining why it’s a problem.
Consider the following feedback sandwich:
Dave: First of all Bob, your call numbers have been fantastic. You’re working hard, and it’s not going unnoticed.
Bob: Thanks Dave. I really appreciate that.
Dave: Your conversion numbers could be a little higher, but your pitch is dialed in and I think you’re going to have a lot of success.
Dave never explains to Bob how to get more sales conversions. He simply says there’s a problem—which doesn’t provide him with any real critical feedback—and leaves the work of figuring out how to improve to Bob. Again, not employee feedback. In fact, Bob may have even taken the criticism as a compliment!
Providing constructive feedback is a refined skill that takes practice and precision to develop. It requires planning beyond a simple, easily detectable scheme, so let’s talk about the right way to give effective feedback when it matters.
Compliments are still good
There’s this idea out there that you can’t be a good friend and a good boss. One might suspect this as a reason for the compliment sandwich—it’s easier to play nice and appear friendly while criticizing someone’s performance. However, this idea is outdated. The best bosses know that giving negative feedback pairs best with camaraderie, and studies show they get the best results. Employees trust bosses with charisma — they feel human. Meanwhile, bosses who stick to rote memorization find a lack of loyalty among their underlings.
Is anybody surprised? Can even positive feedback be effective when delivered by a boss who hasn’t bothered to get to know their staff? Seems unlikely. By the time there’s a problem with work, neglected employees may already have included their boss among the faceless in the brick wall of authority, where the only thing that matters is what the company requires them to care about.
Chances are if you’re saving positive comments for a performance review, you’re too late. In this tough job market where people are being laid off 20,000 at a time, the only dependable loyalty and goodwill come from real-time, genuine relationships. Without an anchor at work—someone who cares to see how they’re doing—an employee has no reason to internalize feedback.
Having a friend tell you how to do your job better is like having a friend tour you through a new city. You want the insight of someone whose opinion you trust and who has your best interest at heart.
Make expectations clear
Maybe the feedback sandwich wasn’t so much a bad idea as it was incomplete. There is a good feedback technique that replaces compliments with expectations. While a new employee is often expected to ask detailed questions, managers aren’t always expected to explain themselves as clearly.
Clear expectations protect employees from the harm that the feedback sandwich aims to protect against. When people understand what they’re supposed to do, it’s easier for them to accept and implement feedback. Perhaps a compliment would help here: “As far as ____ goes, you’re doing a fantastic job, but I was hoping you could be more ____.”
Most employees want to know how to do their job the right way. Laying out expectations is how they get there. Come prepared with examples. Use comparisons to show what the right kind of work looks like, rather than expecting employees to dig in and ask about how to do it.
Giving feedback is educational by nature. The good intent of softening the feedback can, at times, dilute the primary point that you’re trying to convey.
Have a conversation
Nobody’s perfect. When we make mistakes, it’s nice to be given the benefit of the doubt and treated like a human being. The truth is most of us know when we’re not performing as expected—there’s even a bit of relief that comes from having our weaknesses addressed candidly, stressful as it may be.
Be gentle. If it’s worth having a conversation about, it’s worth being respectful. This is where being a friend makes honest feedback go down easier. Imagine talking with a friend and having them dish up some hollow compliment before talking about something serious—seems a little odd, no? Why not ask how the other person is doing? See how they’re feeling about work? Who knows? Maybe they’ll bring the topic up themselves.
- Embrace small talk
- Ask lots of questions
- Be nice
- Let the other person do the talking
- Keep it light
This is a far better method for delivering constructive criticism than a pair of empty compliments.
It’s okay to be frustrated
On one end of the emotional spectrum is the unhinged, beet-red-faced psychopath who can’t control their temper. On the opposite end—the just-as-bad end—is the stoic robot who pretends not to feel anything at all. Both types make feedback just as difficult to accept and internalize.
The best feedback is the kind that originates from somewhere in the middle; an earnest kind of frustration that means no harm but expresses the truth, warts and all. When an employee isn’t doing as well as they should, it’s natural for a manager to feel that things could and should be better.
Imagine if Bob and Dave spoke like this?
Dave: Hey, I see the work you’re doing and I appreciate it, but I’m frustrated because I think you can do better.
Bob: Geez, that sucks. What’s wrong?
Dave: Well, for starters, you aren’t converting as many sales as you should. I think this is because you’re too focused on chatting instead of discussing what your customers need. I’ve heard you make a great pitch, too, so I know you can do it.
It’s good for team members to hear criticisms laid out clearly. Without clear instructions or some concrete plan of action, they have no real pathway to improving.
With feedback, start small
Few complaints from managers are worse than, “do I have to hold your hand for every little thing?” It suggests that people ought to be able to read minds, and that managers have some other job that isn’t expressly managing their team—telling them what to work on and showing them how to succeed.
If an employee just isn’t cutting it, offer training from the ground up. Start small, monitor closely, and provide feedback until they start to understand. Follow up to make sure the corrective feedback is implemented.
The feedback sandwich acts as a shortcut for lazy managers, since they can tell their team members that something is vaguely wrong without having to explain how to do better. This isn’t fair to the employee, as it requires them to improvise solutions their managers may or may not approve of. If the manager is unhappy with the employee’s solution, it’s the employee who takes the blame.
In an economy where turnover is high and loyalty is low, chances are high that a given worker will know less about how to perform well at their job than in years past. This is why companies need a no-nonsense, crystal-clear training regimen that takes nothing for granted.
Mistakes are part of doing business
Examples abound of young, undiscovered geniuses being laughed out of the room for voicing brilliant ideas. Not all of them work out, but the ones that do seem just as absurd as the ones that don’t. This is why it’s important to embrace unconventional kinds of thinking and working.
When offering feedback to an employee who isn’t delivering the kind of work that’s expected, let them know that it’s normal to develop skills and get better at their job with time. Ask if there’s anything they want help with, and offer resources to take care of their concerns.
Feedback opportunities are teaching opportunities, so take advantage of them. Mistakes are bound to happen, and there shouldn’t be shame in making them. Talk about mistakes you made in the past and what you learned from them, and take advantage of the chance to build rapport while offering guidance.
Action plans help
No, not a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), but a verbal or casually written plan to improve on some particular skill. Feedback opportunities are where you can discuss both what is expected and how to get there, so be prepared.
Establish a bar of performance, then give direct reports the tools they need to get there. Do they need to make more calls? Make a goal for how many. Should they read a book? Which one? Conversations like these provide a chance to be helpful, friendly, and constructive.
What is good feedback?
Unfortunately, employees are sometimes expected to perform perfectly when their managers don’t give them the tools, instruction, or room to do so. The fact is that managers and executives are the ones who need to create the kind of environment that allows employees to grow and thrive. Businesses tend toward top-down operations, where employees take all the blame without having any of the authority. While this necessarily isn’t a flaw in business operations, it can be unfair.
Feedback requires vulnerability and personal feelings from managers. When conversations like these happen, employees need to hear genuine criticisms about their performance instead of neatly packaged corporate jargon.
Speak from the heart, give the benefit of the doubt, and set the bar for what’s expected at work. If feedback is needed, start small and don’t beat around the bush.