Male employee expresses dissatisfaction with feedback

Please raise your hand if you’ve been told that the best way to give constructive feedback is to use the feedback sandwich.

Great. Now raise your hand if you’ve actually served the feedback sandwich and were less than thrilled with the results.

If you raised your hand (literally or figuratively) twice, you’re not alone. Managers, supervisors and HR teams across the country experience the same thing: while it sounds good in theory, in real life the feedback sandwich just doesn’t deliver.

Wait. What is the feedback sandwich, anyway?

Glad you asked.

For years, the feedback sandwich has been touted as the best way for managers and supervisors to give what used to be called “constructive criticism” and is now known as constructive feedback. The formula goes like this:

praise/positive feedback ⇒⇒ constructive feedback ⇒⇒ praise/positive feedback

The idea is that the “bread” — offering praise both before and after — cushions the impact of the constructive criticism in the middle, making it easier to listen to and accept. The intentions here are good: to preserve people’s dignity; to show them their employer sees the positive in them; to keep the relationship strong even when constructive criticism is needed.

Unfortunately, that’s not what usually happens. So here are 5 reasons you need to stop using the feedback sandwich — plus some tips for much better ways to communicate your message.

Reason #1: the feedback sandwich is way too obvious

By definition, the feedback sandwich is formulaic. And any formula becomes super-obvious if it’s repeated too often.

In other words, your employees aren’t stupid. Once you use the feedback sandwich once or twice they’re going to catch on. The consequences? They’ll learn very quickly that anytime you start a meeting with praise or positive feedback, what it really means is that you want to say something negative. And that leads to reason number two.

reason #2:  it creates associations

You learned about the feedback sandwich in an HR management seminar. Now you have to give constructive feedback to an employee named Monica, who’s a great worker but has a tendency to take extra-long lunch breaks on company time. So the conversation goes something like this:

“Monica, I wanted to tell you that I’m really impressed by the way you turn in all your projects either on or before deadline. Not many employees can do that. It’s extremely helpful and allows us to keep the work flow going. By the way, I’ve noticed that your lunch breaks have been running overtime rather consistently. You go out and come back at least fifteen minutes late almost every day. For this month I’m going to let it go, but I need you to keep an eye on the clock and return on schedule. The way you’re so prompt with deadlines shows me that you know the value of time and I’m sure the long lunch breaks were just a mistake. You’re a super-reliable employee and I appreciate that. Keep up the good work.”

Do this once and it’ll slide. Do it twice and the next time you call Monica in for a meeting and start praising her she’s going to tune you out. Why? Because you’ve taught her the following:

praise = criticism on the way

So now, your praise becomes immediately associated with “okay, what did I do now?”

We’re assuming that’s not what you meant to achieve.

reason #3: it’s a cop-out

Most people cringe when it comes to delivering constructive feedback, and that includes managers and supervisors. It’s just not a pleasant experience to have to tell people, in so many words, that they’re doing something wrong and they need to correct it. That’s one of the reasons the feedback sandwich is so appealing: It lets you off the hook by allowing you to stuff the negative between the praise.

Is that a lot more comfortable? Sure. It’s also a major cop-out and involves an element of manipulation to boot.

One of the most crucial aspects of managing or leading a team is knowing how to communicate in an honest, direct and very clear way. The feedback sandwich, on the other hand, is an exercise in obfuscation. It takes something positive — praise — and turns it into a manipulative mechanism meant to cover up whatever else you’re saying. The result is that you feel good but your employee is left confused, not quite sure what you wanted and not quite sure they’re very interested in finding out, either.

So yeah, the feedback sandwich makes your life much easier. But it totally complicates things for your employees.

reason #4: the feedback sandwich sells your employees short.

Because the intentions behind the feedback sandwich method are good, it’s easy to miss one of the biggest reasons managers and team leaders like you should stop using it, stat.

It sells your employees short.

Why? Because when you give constructive feedback in a roundabout way, you’re sending a message to your employee that you don’t believe they’re emotionally mature enough to hear it straight.

Not sure you agree? Think about it this way. Have you ever had to deliver bad news to someone? How did you do it? Did you knock on their door and say, listen, so-and-so died?

Of course not. It would be too much of a shock. Instead, you padded your words, getting to the bad news in a slow, roundabout way. Because otherwise, the person wouldn’t have been able to handle it.

When you deliver constructive feedback in a roundabout way, you’re giving your employee the same message: I don’t believe you can handle this. So instead of coming away feeling, “My boss values my contribution and believes in my ability to take ownership,” your employee leaves the meeting feeling “my boss doesn’t think very much of me or of what I can do.”

Again, not the result you wanted. We hope.

reason #5: it’s superficial.

Question for you.

If every time you need to inform an employee of an area that needs improvement you also have to find two areas you can praise, what’s going to happen?

Exactly. The praise is eventually going to be — or perceived to be — superficial. Since you can’t praise the same things again and again, you’re going to have to go “praise-fishing.” And what you find could end up sounding something like this:

Eric, you know, I drive to work every day. I see everyone’s cars. And I’ve noticed that you never, but ever, park in a way that takes up more than one space. I mean, people do that all the time. And you don’t. That really shows consideration of others. Now, about the Lawrence account. I went over it and there seem to be some real discrepancies. This isn’t the first time. I really need you to double-check your work before you submit it. Oh, and your shoes are so shiny. Every single day. Unbelievable. How do you do that?

Okay, so we’re exaggerating a bit. But you get the point, right?

okay, so i won’t use the feedback sandwich. what should i do instead?

Great question.

The truth is, you could write a whole guidebook on how to deliver constructive feedback. Since we’re not going to be doing that right now, here are a few tips:

  • Be a praise-dispenser. 

    The best way to improve employee performance — not to mention maintaining a great workplace culture — is to praise your team for what they’re doing right. Go full throttle with this. Whether you offer praise and recognition in real time or in a weekly meeting or video chat is up to you, but offer it whenever and wherever you can. Your employees will know how much you value them, and that’ll make it easier for them to listen when issues come up.

  • Be clear. 

    When you give constructive feedback, talk straught. Don’t draw verbal circles, don’t beat around the bush. State the problem and your expectations for how it can be rectified. Express your confidence in the employee’s ability. Ask for feedback. And that’s it.

  • Be kind. 

    Choose your words carefully. Avoid exaggerations like “you always” and “you never.” And don’t ever, ever get trapped in making it personal. This is not about Monica or Eric’s personal worth. It’s about their performance.

  • Be consistent. 

    Monica’s coming in on time after lunch? Eric’s reports are thoroughly fact-checked? Let them know that you noticed. Compliment them on their ability to take ownership and responsibility. Make them feel appreciated.

So there you have it: 5 reasons you should absolutely stop delivering the feedback sandwich now.

Unless, of course, you want indigestion.

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