Say Goodbye to the Feedback Sandwich

5 min read

Great feedback results in improved performance without straining the relationship between feedback provider and recipient. Indeed, masterful feedback can strengthen the interpersonal relationship. In the quest for great feedback, many of us have relied on the feedback sandwich, comprised of two slices of bread (something positive relayed to the feedback recipient) with the meat (critical or “negative” feedback) wedged in between. Unfortunately, this common format leaves much to be desired.

First, the feedback sandwich has become so ubiquitous that people tend to recognize it, and perhaps even expect it. Because of the prescribed format, it may be experienced as formulaic and the positive slices insincere. Second, some people may tune out the positive opening slice, anticipating or bracing for the critical comments that follow. Others may defensively focus on the two positive slices and tend to ignore the negative comments, which undermines the possibility of correction or improvement. And, what is the feedback provider to do if dedicated to the format but having a difficult time coming up with two sincere positive comments to comprise the slices of bread?

Instead of the feedback sandwich, focus on mastering these four steps:

1) Manage the Setting. Ensure that there is privacy and adequate time to have a focused conversation, rather than being distracted or dropping a “truth bomb” and moving on. Are both participants in a calm and rational frame of mind? Ideally, feedback occurs as soon as possible after the events pertaining to the feedback, but it is more important that there is adequate privacy and time, the right mindset, and cooled emotions.

Setting also includes the emotional tone of the interaction. Be mindful of your facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. The message to convey is that your feedback is intended to be helpful and aimed at improved performance, not an evaluation of the person’s competence or value.

2) Ask About the Other Person’s Perspective. Before sharing your perspective on the other person’s performance, how do they think they did (or are doing)? The point of this step is not to catch them in a state of self-delusion (“gotcha!”), but instead to collaborate in the feedback-for-improvement process. To make sure this is how the other person perceives your question, you might be explicit and explain: “Before I provide my take on how you did (are doing), I’d appreciate hearing what you think? I want my feedback to be helpful and I think a good place to start is with your perspective.”

This step not only helps ensure that this process is collaborative, but also provides valuable information for shaping the nature and delivery of your feedback. If their self-assessment matches your feedback, it is an easy process to agree and move on to the next step. If their self-assessment seems too negative, your critical feedback should be experienced as relatively uplifting. If their self-assessment seems overly positive, delivering your critical feedback will require exceptional attention to managing your tone and specific words to help prevent defensiveness (in whatever form that might take).

3) Share Your Perspective. Remember that all feedback has a subjective element in that it is based on your experience, and thus is limited to what you observed or heard about. Your experience does not include other instances, the other person’s intentions, or awareness of outside factors that affected the other person’s behavior. More difficult to recognize is the fact that your perspective is also influenced by your history with this person (or others like them), your beliefs and assumptions, your current mood and non-related issues going on in your life, and so forth. Accordingly, frame your feedback as your perspective; not absolute “truth” or the whole picture.

The overarching message you want to convey is that your feedback is about behavior (performance) and not character or how “good” the other person is (i.e., their value or worthiness). Criticism is typically experienced as an attack on our self-identity, so it’s important to do what you can to minimize the natural self-defensive response that negative feedback typically engenders. Focusing as soon as possible on the next step helps convey the message that the actual goal of your feedback is helping the other person be more successful, not making them feel bad or you looking good.

4) Focus on Next Steps. Because the purpose of feedback is improved performance, focus on what can be done to ensure that outcome. What does the other person think they need (or need to do)? What support would they find most helpful? How will both of you assess whether things are getting better? Does it make sense to set a timeline, or schedule a specific time for follow-up? These and other questions are to be tackled collaboratively.

As implied by the collaborative nature of the feedback steps described here, the process does not end with step 4. Good feedback includes follow-up, and building an ongoing relationship focused on continuous professional development. With such a relationship established, even rather negative feedback is often taken well, because the recipient knows that the goal is their own success, and that you are invested in helping them along the way. Critical feedback is easier to take from an ally than an adversary.

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