Please Stop Using The Feedback Sandwich

Among my pet peeves from the conventional wisdom playbook about management, the “feedback sandwich” is at the top of the list.

You know what the feedback sandwich is. It is a way of giving feedback that goes like this: say something nice; then say the critical feedback – what you actually want to say; then say something nice again.

This model is well intended. It’s meant to do a few things: soften the blow of what you’re about to say; make it easier to hear the difficult stuff; protect someone’s feelings; help them see that you still approve of them.

The problem is that this model is deeply flawed. The formula is so obvious that after you use it with your employees once or twice they can see it coming. Therefore you end up training your people to hear any compliment as “Uh oh, what did I do this time?” This breeds lack of trust and cynicism, which I’m assuming is not what you had in mind. It’s manipulative – you pull it out when you want to influence someone in a roundabout way, not a direct way. It’s superficial. And it is a cop-out designed to make the feedback-giver feel more comfortable rather than to enlighten the feedback receiver.

So what should you do instead? Giving feedback is an important part of leading people. Investing your energy to master the craft is a great use of your time.

Two dos and one don’t:

1) Do have a strategy for the discussion. Giving feedback – just like every management tool – is not one-size-fits-all. You need to tailor the discussion to the individual employee or group. You should take into consideration your relationship with them – is it good and easy or a little fraught? How do they tend to want feedback, with a bit of a windup or straight down the middle? How will you find out if they see what you’re referring to and make it a two-way dialogue and help them think about next actions to improve?

This takes some time and energy. Ultimately thinking through your strategy in detail helps both promote trust and also drive the behavior change you want, which is the ultimate goal of feedback.

2) Do signal good intent. The original intention of the feedback sandwich is solid. People are not going to hear your feedback or act on it if they don’t have the sense that you’re an ally, that you’re on their side. So you do have to communicate that. Repeatedly. Regular positive feedback shows your employees that you want them to be successful.

There are multiple ways to do this. The best is to give positive feedback regularly. Your employees are always doing plenty of things right, but most of us simply take that for granted and don’t point it out. When you remind yourself to look for and proactively give positive feedback about what your employee is doing right you build good feeling, ally-ship, and overall a reservoir of goodwill and trust. Then, when you do need to say something that is more corrective, they will already know that you have their backs.

Another tool to signal good intent is to give a transparent preamble to the feedback. For example: “Simon, I think it’s important for me as your manager to point out areas that you should improve in to help you build your skills and make you better professionally. Therefore I want to share some feedback with you that may be hard for you to hear but is important to talk through so that you can see some areas to improve and address them. I also want to hear your point of view and I want to work with you on an action plan to help you.”

3) Don’t save feedback up for a once a year performance conversation

When you save feedback up for and end of year review you turn it into a thing. You also don’t give your employees the opportunity to regularly measure throughout the year how they’re doing and improve the things they need to work on. When you give feedback regularly, both positive and corrective, feedback just becomes part of your day to day in interactions. No big deal, expected, normal. That’s the best way to engage with your people.

So ditch the dreaded feedback sandwich and work on your skills to master the art of giving feedback in a way to promotes trust and improvement. I would love to hear what works for you when you give feedback!

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