3 Tips for Giving Constructive Feedback
When I first became a manager, I was taught to use the “sandwich” feedback method. The idea is to sandwich negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback. It sounds something like this:
- “Mary, I really appreciate the way you were so pro-active in today’s meeting.” (Positive)
- “But did you notice that when you spoke for a long time on that one topic, people in the meeting were not participating? I didn’t hear you ask for input and at several points you even cut other folks off when they tried to speak. Next time, maybe you can speak a bit less, and listen a bit more.” (Negative)
- “But, overall it was a great meeting.” (Positive).
The philosophy behind the sandwich feedback technique is that it can help defuse the morale-busting impact that purely negative feedback can have. It is also viewed as an easier way for managers to handle the difficult job of delivering negative feedback. Theoretically, by starting with praise and ending with praise, managers can protect the employee’s self-esteem, resulting in a more productive feedback session.
The problem with sandwich feedback technique, however is: it does not work. Consider the feedback example above. If you were Mary, what would you hear? Maybe that the manager appreciates your proactive approach? Or that overall it was a great meeting? Or perhaps that although you spoke a bit more than necessary, it was not really a big problem because overall the meeting was great. Clearly, the biggest problem with sandwich feedback is that it is conflicting and confusing; and it leaves employees to choose which parts of the feedback matter.
So how do you give negative feedback without harming an employee’s self-esteem?
- Be transparent. Being transparent does not require you to be “brutally” honest, insulting, or unkind. It just means you should give clear, straightforward, improvement-focused feedback. Another problem with sandwich feedback is that over time, you risk the possibility of your employees losing trust in you. If they think you are giving them more positive feedback than negative, they may develop an inflated view of their own performance with expectations of better job assignments or better performance evaluations than you are able to give. Sandwich feedback sends mixed messages that can be interpreted as disingenuous.
- Establish a coaching relationship. If you want your employees to stop viewing feedback as negative, stop viewing it that way yourself. Instead, refer to feedback as a coaching tool. Clearly describe the performance that you observed, then spend most of your time discussing how the employee can improve. Jointly agree to a plan for improvement and follow up. You owe it to your employees to provide them with straightforward feedback and your support as a coach and trainer. When you are invested in their success and provide clear performance feedback and expectations, most employees will respond with effort and commitment to improve.
- Recognize that tone and words matter. In giving improvement-focused feedback your tone, words, body language and sincerity matter. Avoid demonstrating frustration, anger, aggression, or disappointment. Instead, adopt a tone of calm sincerity, concern and support. Your goal is to increase awareness and offer specific, actionable information that the employee can hear and apply. Without proper tone and language that is respectful and caring, you are defeating your purpose.
Some management training and philosophies still suggest the use of sandwich feedback, so beware. But most leadership experts today advise against it and advocate for straightforward feedback approaches. Let’s admit it – giving improvement-focused feedback is not an easy conversation for a manager. But your employees expect honest, transparent feedback. Avoid taking the easy way out with a sandwich approach – give your employees the respect they deserve and the opportunity to improve. Here are several good articles on the pitfalls of sandwich feedback:
What are your thoughts or experiences with the sandwich feedback approach? Let’s chat in our Facebook Community, She Leads – Women’s Leadership Development. We can’t wait to meet you there!