This thing about the feedback sandwich

For a while now I’ve been meaning to write something about the feedback sandwich. What is it you ask? It’s that cowardly act of not having a difficult conversation.

Err… what?

Sorry. That didn’t explain it at all. It’s that “technique” often delivered as being an effective way to give someone bad feedback.
1) Tell someone the good thing they’re doing.
2) Tell them the bad thing they’re doing.
3) Tell them another good thing they do.

There. All better.

Sometimes. I. Could. Shout.

Let’s unpick this thing.

First of all what message is the person supposed to listen to? You’re giving them three clear pieces of feedback, but in reality only want them to focus on the negative feedback. But that message is hidden in the positive stuff. So, how is it clear which message they’re meant to listen to?

People have selective hearing. They’ll hear what they want to. If you’re trying to give some negative feedback, they’ll (mentally) protect themselves by not paying attention to the negative thing. Because you’ve given them two bits of good, they don’t need to pay attention to the negative.

If you try to focus only on the negative, even though you’ve given two positive messages, you completely negate the impact of those positive messages. Instead, what the person thinks is you were lying about the positive messages. So, there was no point in giving the two positive messages.

In truth, this is not about giving the person feedback in a compassionate way. It’s about protecting the person delivering the feedback. The person delivering doesn’t want to feel bad because they’re not skilled enough to give bad feedback on its own. That has nothing to do with the person receiving the feedback at all.

What it comes down to is this. We’re adults. Yet the old ways of working mean we treat each other in ways of hierarchy and power and control which are long gone now. They’re old. But, there are plenty of us holding fast to tried and tested methods, “because they work”. The problem is, they only work because there’s nothing better been tried or practised. The brilliant thing is, there are skilled people who can deliver bad messages well, and we need to learn from those people better.

I’m a firm believer in dealing with reality. If someone’s doing a bad job, be clear and unequivocal about it. That’s not to say you have to be horrible, rude or nasty. It means help someone know exactly why something didn’t go the way it should have, support them to do better, and be respectful enough to treat them as adults.

I’m also an advocate of building people’s strengths. If someone is awesome, tell them, in clear, unequivocal terms. Shout about it, let others know, reward that behaviour and make a song and a dance about it. We don’t do that nearly enough (particularly us Brits and our stiff upper lip nonsense), and it’s rubbish that we don’t.

Don’t muddy the two though.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

7 thoughts on “This thing about the feedback sandwich”

  1. This is so so true. I talk about this subject a lot when working with new and existing managers. It surprises me every time, when I start a session on ‘Feedback’, how many people say “I use the feedback sandwich it’s really positive”. I get the group to break it down, I challenge their thinking and we discuss the impact that model has (or lack of it!) and they always change their thinking.
    Great article, thanks!

  2. Sukh,

    Not dropped a comment for a while πŸ™‚

    Totally…so true! I used to use the “sandwich” technique – even taught hundreds of others to use it (in education…when teachers are working with other teachers on classroom observations, for example).

    What I came to realise is that the whole technique is really quite “fake” – and people do NOT want fake…they want REAL!

    Building on strengths, as you note, is really important – REALLY important. But, this has to be done in the context of a real, an honest and a meaningful “partnership”. When we keep these things at the core of our feedback – it’s tough to be rude or thoughtless (not that we should ever be or do these types of things).

    People know when we are faking it…and they do not appreciate it. Being REAL is the only way…and “being” so we can quickly get to a level of openness that really starts to open doors πŸ™‚


  3. Yes! Be clear, straightforward, with genuine praise when it is merited, and clear feedback when required. Well put!

  4. Sukh, as always you make a great point, and as a seasoned trainer I agree…so why do I include the feedback sandwich in some of my workshops? Well, because people have to start somewhere, and this is an easy place to start, especially for those taking up their first management/team leader role. I’m always clear that its only useful for ‘summary’ feedback e.g. at the end of a sales promotion in a retail branch or to sum up a performance review. It doesn’t help when you need to give specific feedback. Here EEC (or IRS), UHT or STIRS etc work much better. However, when people are scared to give feedback at all, I think starting with an easy approach is better than avoiding it altogether. But just to be clear, I DO agree with you.

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