Would You Like a Sandwich with that Feedback?

I need feedback. You need feedback. We all need feedback. So why do we find it so hard to give it and receive it? Why is it so hard to tell our employees that they are doing something that is not working, and needs to change?

The answer is that often we are worried about the other person’s reaction: What if she or he gets angry, cries, tells me I am an idiot or gets defensive and starts blaming me. Sometimes we might find it hard to know what to say and sometimes we might think:  "I can’t actually tell them I think they have a bad attitude because they will just say that they have a great attitude, and that it is me that does not understand/like or respect them." We visualise things going from bad to worse therefore it is best to leave it alone and to say nothing! Well to borrow a well-known phrase and book title, you just need to 'feel the fear and do it anyway'. Providing effective feedback is quite simple. You just need to make sure your feedback is honest, authentic, constructive. You should remain objective, assertive and true to yourself whilst respecting their feelings and avoiding being judgemental. It is as easy as that! (he says, tongue in cheek).

The Feedback Sandwich

The technique I absolutely recommend avoiding is one that many people refer to by a name I prefer not to use here - the sh*t sandwich - as I prefer to call it the ‘compliment sandwich’ or 'feedback sandwich'. It is the technique for giving feedback that involves sandwiching critical feedback (the sh*t ) in between two slices of praise. Yes, I accept that many people dislike the idea of giving someone bad/uncomfortable or negative feedback, but ‘bookending’ it with saying something nice before and something nice afterwards is just skirting around the key point.

In my experience, the ‘feedback sandwich’ rarely works, it is over used by Managers; its usually badly delivered; in my opinion it's actually an ineffective and naive approach to giving feedback. More often than not, the results are the exact opposite of what was intended.

Let me share with you an experience when I last used the ‘feedback sandwich’ to provide feedback. It was a many years ago, when a cousin I used to spend lots of time with when I was growing up came to stay with me for a mini holiday. Delightful as it was catching up on old stories and shared experiences from our boyhood, he just did not stop talking and talking and talking plus we did not have much else in common. He was driving my wife and I mad. I knew I had to let him know. I thought long and hard (too long and too hard) about how and when to give him my feedback.

Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I duly used the ‘compliment sandwich’ to deliver my feedback. I told him how lovely it was to be able to spend time together. I gently raised the issue of his constant talking and talked about how we now live very different lives. I concluded by saying he was a great person, very funny and good company. Job done or at least I thought. The next day, my aunt (his mother) called me saying he had told her what a great time he was having. She added he was looking forward to sharing more stories with me that evening and was excited about inviting me to stay with him for a long weekend! Had he heard none of my feedback?

Since then, I never ‘sugar coat’ feedback. I tell it like it is, no ‘worse and no better’. This might sound harsh, but I do it with respect for the person; I do it with 'authenticity’ and I do it to achieve one of three outcomes:

    • To encourage the use of a new behaviour
    • To discourage the use of a particular behaviour
    • To encourage more use of an existing behaviour

I also aim to do it ‘in the moment’ rather than storing it up for another time. Too often, we ‘store up’ their thoughts, grievances and feedback and then spend time fretting and worrying how and when we can deliver their feedback. The problem with this approach is that when we store up feedback, it can sound and feel like a ‘judgement’ has been made.

I believe the motivation underlying it is not ‘clean’; the recipient can all too easily hear what they choose (either just all the bad stuff or all the good stuff) and the feedback is usually out of context. My other main objection to the ‘feedback sandwich’ is that it is often disrespectful to the person.

Most of us have heard about this technique and we know when it is about to be used. When a former boss of mine gave me a compliment, I rarely heard it because I was waiting for the next part of the sandwich – I certainly did not hear the second compliment!

I think people deserve compliments when they deserve compliments and praise. I think people need feedback when they need feedback.

My final thought is - leave the sandwiches for lunch, they have no place when giving feedback as they often leave a nasty taste!

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About the Author

John Moore has over 20 years experience of training and developing Managers, Coaches, Consultants and businesses. As Managing Director of Exponential Training, John researches, speaks, blogs and writes about how to improve performance. He also designs and delivers engaging, fun and interactive learning programmes. John is a Fellow Chartered Manager and has worked with managers and organisations in over 20 different countries.

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