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The Feedback Sandwich You’re Serving is Stale

By July 2, 2024 No Comments

Long ago, someone came up with the idea of giving feedback in the form of a sandwich: insert a slice of negative feedback between two compliments and serve at room temperature. It caught on, likely because it’s easier to start and end a conversation on a happy note. It’s also used by people hoping that the recipient will still like them since the good news outweighs the bad. Whatever the reason, the feedback sandwich is stale and should be composted for the reasons noted below.

First, you risk misunderstanding. Was the memo good, or wasn’t it? It’s hard to gauge the value of your work when you’ve been given competing comments. Then there’s something called the Dunning Kruger Effect. It explains why some people minimize negative feedback: they are so lacking in a given skill that they don’t appreciate the depth of their incompetence. If you’re sandwiching your negative feedback between two compliments, you may be enabling the recipient’s vision of themselves as, on balance, competent. They don’t improve, and you’ve wasted your breath.  

Second, many people recognize a feedback sandwich when they see it. As a result, they dismiss the positive things that you’ve shared as your disingenuous (cowardly?) way of delivering a negative message. This doesn’t reflect well upon you personally and may be seen as condescending to the recipient who, as a mature adult, feels equipped to receive the straight goods, minus the coddling.

Here are a few alternatives to the sandwich approach.

Negative Feedback

  • Have a one issue conversation with the individual describing the performance gap. Provide an undiluted, clear message so the recipient can’t miss it buried between compliments.
  • As well as pointing out the problem, discuss possible solutions.
  • It’s a conversation, not a speech, so ask for their input.
  • Empathy is important. Recognize the challenges the person might face in improving their performance and, if true, tell them that you have confidence in their ability to meet those challenges.

Example:

Ali, I had to re-read your memo several times to understand it. I was struggling to see the connection between the topics. Subheadings might have helped me recognize that you’d moved on to another topic and how it related to the previous issue. Drafting complex ideas with clarity is hard and we all struggle with it at the beginning of our careers. You’ll get better at it with time if you focus on it now. What do you think?

Positive Feedback   

  • Notice when people are doing good things and make their day by letting them know that you noticed; it’s highly motivating and they’re more likely to repeat the behaviour.
  • In their book, Nine Lies About Work, authors Buckingham and Goodall make the persuasive point that people actually don’t want feedback, they want attention. Acknowledge positive performance whenever you can.
  • If you give positive feedback more often than negative feedback, the recipient will find the negative feedback more credible. 

Example:

Ali, I have to commend you on that memo. You took some very complex issues and presented them with clarity. It was a good, quick read. Well done.

Notice in this example that the feedback giver was specific about what they liked: clarity and precision. Ali now knows to replicate the same style in future memos. “Well done” on its own, while nice, isn’t instructive.

One last thought. In this hybrid world that most of us occupy, people report that they aren’t getting as much feedback as in the Before Time. If you haven’t provided someone with feedback recently, try to do so today.