When it comes to delivering negative feedback, most people just want us to give it to them straight. So using the “sandwich” approach may elicit the opposite result that you’re seeking.
You’ve done a wonderful job finishing this report within your deadline. It would be great if there weren’t so many spelling mistakes, but I think you’ve chosen a great font for the cover page.
This is an example of ‘sandwiching’ negative (or constructive) feedback between two positive comments – a tactic often used by managers when wading through the complex waters of performance management.
On the surface, this method of feedback delivery seems smart, but you’ve only got to scratch that surface to uncover plenty of reasons why you should ditch it.
The shifting landscape of feedback
“Historically, feedback has been viewed as a one-way transmission of information from expert to novice”, reads a recent study on feedback from Griffith University.
“Contemporary views of feedback as a process, infers interaction between individuals. It is dynamic and dialogic, focusing on [the] construction of knowledge rather than merely the delivery of information.”
No longer are workplaces conducting annual performance reviews. Instead managers are opting for ongoing, bite-sized feedback sessions throughout the year in an effort to encourage an environment of continuous growth and development (read HRM’s previous article on this topic here).
As our expectations around the value of feedback in the workplace shift, so too must the ways in which deliver it.
Ditch the bread, keep the filling
There’s a pleasing logic behind a feedback sandwich. You’re priming an individual with a compliment in the hopes it will make your negative feedback easy to swallow. With one final ego boost to help the medicine go down, you can both get on with the rest of your working day feeling chuffed (in theory).
Managers cite different reasons for implementing this approach. Often the need to protect someone’s feelings is a priority.
Just as we all have our own edible sandwich preferences, each manager will take a different approach to the feedback sandwich. In a LinkedIn post titled Reinventing the Feedback Sandwich, commenters demonstrate this.
“It takes 6 positive statement to counteract one negative. That could look like bread, lettuce, tomato, and one thin slice of meat. Three positives prior to and after the negative,” writes one commenter.
Another says: “Perhaps the timing of your sandwich is the most important aspect? A fresh sandwich or wrap is definitely more palatable (and effective) than a serving of stale week old sandwich.”
But, as the growing complexity and ridiculousness of the sandwich metaphor seems to show, the whole approach over-simplifies human interaction. Some behavioural experts suggest it not only undermines the constructive feedback you’re trying to get across, but also any positive feedback that you choose to genuinely offer in the future.
“If you give a feedback sandwich, you risk alienating your direct reports. In addition, they are likely to discount your positive feedback, believing it is not genuine,” says organisational psychologist Roger Schwarz in an article for the Harvard Business Review.
Schwarz believes the main issue with sandwiching feedback is a lack of transparency. The best delivery strategies, he says, are made clear to those on the receiving end . To illustrate his point, he creates two scenarios.
In the first, the manager is using the sandwich approach (option B) and in the other, they are not (option A). When he compares the two, the absurdity of the former is made clear.
A summary of his example follows:
- Alex, I have some concerns about your presentation. I’d like to start by sharing the issues I had and then, if you agree with what I’ve raised, we can plan how to best move forward.
- Alex, I have some negative feedback to give you. I’ll start with some positive feedback to relax you, and then give you the negative feedback, which is the real purpose of our meeting. I’ll end with more positive feedback so you won’t be so disappointed or angry at me when you leave my office.
While a manager might intend for their ‘sandwich’ to be cloaked in the smoke and mirrors of ‘clever’ psychology, it’s likely the recipient will see through it. Not only is this likely to damage the ongoing relationship between the two, there’s also a chance the intended message will be completely lost, rendering the whole process useless.
It could also be argued this method is used as a crutch for the nervous manager who isn’t comfortable with – or hasn’t been trained to properly manage – the negative feedback session.
“In fact, though, ‘easing in’ creates the very anxiety they are trying to avoid. The longer you talk without giving the negative feedback, the more uncomfortable you’re likely to become as you anticipate giving the negative news; your direct reports will sense your discomfort and become more anxious,” says Schwarz.
When leaders tell Schwarz they employ this method in an attempt to offer ‘balanced feedback’, he challenges them by asking if they then deem it necessary to balance all positive feedback with negative feedback?
“It is important to give positive feedback, but saving it to offset negative feedback delays the value of the positive feedback.”
Recency and primacy count for a lot
Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant identifies two more potential issues of the sandwich in an article for Inc. He cites research which suggests humans are more likely to take in things that are said to them first and last, forgetting what comes in between.
“When you start and end with positive feedback, it’s all too easy for the criticism to get buried or discounted,” he writes.
Another issue, he says, is that the positive messaging often falls on deaf ears. Because this technique is nothing new, many are clued in to what their managers are doing. So when they hear something positive in a feedback session “they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop”, meaning managers may as well have just cut straight to the chase in the first instance.
How to deliver negative feedback
Feedback is extremely valuable to both the individual receiving it and the business/team they work within, so doing it strategically is paramount.
According to the Griffith University report, which took a detailed look into 61 research publications from 1975-2017 on the topic of effective feedback, there are 11 “core attributes” that make up best practice feedback.
The authors listed them as: “being a process; criteria-based; requiring multiple forms and sources of data/evidence; needs to be desired by the recipient; timely; responsive to the learner (i.e. tailored to developmental needs/learning preferences of the learner); frequent; future-focussed; reciprocal; involves skilful interaction; and is multidimensional (i.e. engages the learner in more than one way).”
Here are some more tips to consider:
- Those magic 19 words: Grant refers to a study that claimed to make feedback 40 per cent more effective by showing a caring nature and extinguishing defensiveness. The study suggests managers say: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
- Don’t do it behind closed doors: research suggests that offering feedback to an individual in front of their team is an effective way to encourage self-regulation. Of course, the way in which this feedback is delivered is of utmost importance; it can’t come across as public shaming or bullying/intimidation.
- Look at the larger picture first: Start by talking about the overall performance of the team before analysing the individual’s role within it. This can also help managers to consider their own role in a team’s success/failure.
- Invite them to speak first: Ask them to rate their performance first as a way to give them a sense of control of the tone of the conversation. That way you can say, “Yes, I agree that you can improve on XYZ. How can we make that happen?
There are many complexities that will go into each feedback session. The personality of the individual receiving the feedback, the management style of the leader offering the feedback and the environment in which the feedback is given, will all have an effect.
There’s no cookie cutter mould for giving negative feedback. While these tips might steer you in the right direction, ultimately it comes down to what works best for you and your team. Keep this in mind, just because a sandwich looks appealing, that doesn’t mean it will taste any good.
Delivering negative feedback is no easy task. AHRI’s short course ‘Having difficult conversations’ offers communication advice and resolution techniques.