We’ve all done it. I know I have, and I can’t be alone in this. So, I’m willing to bet you’ve done it too.
You’ve given at least one of your direct reports the feedback sandwich.
You’ve started off with something positive to get your employee on board. Then you’ve slipped in something that they’ve screwed up or that you want them to improve on. Then you’ve given them some good news, finishing on a high note, so that everyone walks away with a positive feeling.
But is that kind of feel-good camaraderie the impression you want to leave your employee with? If you’ve decided their behaviour is so sub-par that it warrants a private feedback session, don’t you need to be more direct?
If this has been your approach in the past, you’re not doing anyone any favours.
If you’re thinking like this … Don’t.
I often begin my business communications workshops by asking everyone how comfortable they are giving negative feedback. Most people report it’s not easy. I hear the same answers every time. They are afraid of angry reactions on the part of the employee. Or, they know what they want to say, but once the employee is in front of them, they get tongue-tied. Or they didn’t see the actual behaviour in question, so they are relying on hearsay. Or they know they need to continue working with the person. Or they want the employee to like them.
The result is we aren’t direct. We beat around the bush and try to soften the blow to avoid an adverse reaction.
It rarely works.
Even though it’s clear nothing’s likely to change, we validate ourselves with the thought hey, at least we brought it up. Next time, we’ll lay down the law. But there is no next time. The issue festers for weeks or months and finally reaches the point where we can’t stand it anymore. Our internal dialogue becomes a stream of frustrated thoughts. Do they think they can get away with acting like this and making my life miserable? If they think I’m not serious about the consequences, then that fxxxing fxxx has another fxxxing thing coming. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because I was perfectly fxxxing clear with them!
But were we really?
Not if we gave them the feedback sandwich we weren’t.
In my experience, there are three basic reasons why leaders default to the feedback sandwich. But each of the reasons is a myth. Here’s the truth behind the fantasy.
Myth #1: Mixing positive and negative feedback reduces discomfort and anxiety.
It does the exact opposite.
The listener knows what’s coming. You’ve called them into your office, or invited them to join you in the boardroom, or taken them to one side on the factory floor. You’ve done this because you’ve got something to say. They can see it in your eyes. Everyone else can see it too. By not getting to the point you’re delaying the inevitable. You’re increasing, not decreasing, the discomfort.
My colleague Russell Stratton, with whom I co-authored a book on effective feedback, coined the expression for me. Russell used to be a proponent of the sandwich. One day, while delivering a course in the UK on effective feedback to a group of former Royal Marines, one of the participants in his course called BS. “I know what that is,” said one of the ex-marines, “that’s the s**t sandwich.”
Taken aback Russell asked him to elaborate. “Look, was in the Royal Marines for over a decade, and I was a bloody good marine. But there were occasions (luckily rarely) where I screwed up. And when I did, I knew it. I recall a training exercise that went south. The CO called me into his office. The last thing I need in a situation like that is the CO going all the way around the houses, telling me what a good job I did last week, and the week before that. I knew why I was there. He knew why I was there. Let’s get on with solving it so it doesn’t happen next time.”
What can you do instead? If you’ve got people working for you either are, or have the potential to be, high performers, then give them the courtesy of getting to the point. The sooner you do, the sooner you can solve the problem together.
Myth #2: Negative feedback is easier to hear and accept if it’s accompanied by positive reinforcement.
No, it’s not. In fact, the positive feedback obscures the relevant information.
I spent years teaching leaders how to make better speeches and more effective boardroom presentations. One of the key lessons I shared was the Rule of Primacy and Recency. This rule states that we remember the first thing and the last thing we hear. This is why leaders are often told to tell the audience what you want to tell them, tell them, and then at the end, tell them what you told them.
What’s the first thing we hear in the feedback sandwich? What’s the last thing? And where is the important information, the entire reason for the meeting? In the middle, where it is easily forgotten.
What can you do instead? Tell them what the problem is in no uncertain terms. Give clear and concise examples, leaving no room for confusion. And then conclude by telling them how you want them to change.
Myth #3: The sandwich preserves the relationship between leader and employee.
A few years ago some of my comedian friends included a sketch on their live radio show that skewered this expectation. The fictional boss opened the meeting with generic positive feedback. It terrified the employee. When his boss praised his punctuality and sense of humour his fear turned to full-blown panic. As the “crap sandwich” concluded, the employee was overwhelmed with a sickening sense of impending doom that he was unable to hear that his department was being prioritized.
Consider why you are giving feedback in the first place. Usually, it’s because you want your team member to improve. You need them to recognize their poor performance or bad behaviour. You want them to be self-aware, so when the next occasion arises they chose a different response.
But in the feedback sandwich model, who does all the talking?
Usually, you, the boss. This one-way flow of information robs your employee of the opportunity to grow.
What can you do instead? If you believe the positive feedback you’re tempted to give, then you’ve got a talented team member. So use them. Engage them in the process. Get them talking, looking at what went wrong and searching for future solutions.
Not only will your feedback be heard it will stick with them.
What you’re really saying with the sandwich doesn’t position you as a leader
Imagine that, before you began your feedback session, you were to review the agenda. If you were being frank and honest, you might end up telling them something like this:
“I have some negative feedback to give you, but instead I’m going to start with something positive to relax you. Then I’m going to give you the negative which is the real purpose of our meeting after all. I’m going to close with some random positive platitude so that you won’t be disappointed or angry with me when you leave my office. Does that work OK?”
How you would respond if you heard that?
The last line of that mock dialogue particularly telling: “I’m doing it so you won’t be so angry with me”. This tells us who the sandwich is serving. Not your employee. Not the team. Not the company. It’s maintaining your comfort at the expense of their performance.
Giving positive reinforcement has its place. There’s a time for telling them they’ve done a good job. (Its usually while they’re doing it or as soon as possible afterwards.) But it’s a separate activity from providing feedback.
If you believe in the positive feedback you’re about to give your employees, then save it. Don’t diminish it by mixing the two up.
Otherwise, you’re giving them a sandwich no one should have to eat.
Ken Cameron is a facilitator, coach and co-author of I Need To F***ing Talk To You: The Art of Navigating Difficult Workplace Conversations”.
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