It Is Past Time to Retire the Feedback Sandwich

Article Contributed by Bill Swift from our Sibling Employers Association

There is an old (traditional?) management technique, fondly referred to as the feedback sandwich, that has outlived its usefulness.

It may have been a flawed approach to begin with.

You have probably heard about this model, practiced it, perhaps even taught it. It goes something like this:

Step 1 | Start an employee coaching meeting with some positive or complimentary comment;

Step 2 | Sandwich in (sandwich somehow became a verb) the corrective feedback you need to give;

Step 3 | Wrap up the conversation with another positive comment about the employee.

Safe, simple, and often ineffective.

“What’s wrong with weaving in a little positive vibe?” you say. Nothing, unless it takes away from employee ownership and performance improvement that is our job, as leaders, to achieve.

In [our leadership classes] this dynamic never fails to get some attention and spirited debate. How do I give my employees feedback without making them defensive?

You don’t.

How do I make these corrective conversations more comfortable?

You can’t.

I don’t like giving negative feedback, can I not soften the blow?

Hmmm, welcome to management.

What you can do is manage the normal and predictable defensiveness so that the employee understands your commitment to their success and gains personal ownership of improvement. And, as an introspective leader, you consider how you have been establishing your positive working relationship so that corrective conversations are expected.

Not a bad idea to let your employee know their importance to the team. Not a bad idea to acknowledge some positive history of collaboration. Can’t go wrong looking your employee in the eye and letting them know that you care deeply about their success. However, if you find yourself sugar coating the truth in any way, it might be a good time to stop and breathe. This is not about anyone’s hurt feelings (yours included). This is really about improving the work and inviting ownership for progress. This responsibility is described somewhere in the supervisor’s job description.

Perhaps we need a dietary consult here. Some “sandwiches” are more nutritious than others. We are fairly certain that this positive/negative/positive approach is low on essential vitamins and minerals, might just be empty calories, and, upon inspection, is not very effective.

Here’s why:

Corrective feedback, even in an I-don’t-want-to-ruffle-any-feathers work culture, should be given directly and honestly or the employee leaves the conversation without clarity, uncertain what was just discussed or what we are expecting them to do next. Your team is counting on you to deliver.

If it is time for a corrective conversation, and you have failed to connect with the employee so that they already know you have always been absolutely interested in their success, it is impossible to build some sort of success-oriented, retro-fitted bank account with a two-minute accolade. The positives need to be built in and established on a daily basis so that, when a correction-oriented conversation comes along, our employees understand our deeply-held interest in their success.

Most employees already know where they are not performing. And the team certainly does. Tell the truth, write down what you have discussed, breathe, embrace the discomfort, and allow your team member to own the solutions to performance problems. All about them, not about you.

To some, this may sound harsh. It is our experience that direct, candor-based conversations, more often than not, lead to improved long-term commitment and workplace relationship enhancement even if things are awkward for a day or so.