Ask a group of managers for their tips on providing effective feedback, and the ‘sandwich’ method is often put forward as a winning approach. The premise of this technique is that if a person needs to deliver some "negative" feedback to somebody else they should sandwich it between two pieces of positive feedback, to cushion the impact.
I asked several groups of managers why they advocate the use of the feedback sandwich. The most common responses included:
“Some people won’t be able to handle the negative feedback so it is easier for them if you start and end with the positives”.
“If you are delivering negative feedback you want to finish on a positive note so that the person leaves the conversation feeling motivated”.
The intention behind people’s use of the sandwich feedback method is admirable – maintaining the esteem of team members is important. Very few people perform at their best when demoralised or anxious.
However, the feedback sandwich has the potential to undermine the performance culture in any team for the following reasons:
- People see through the feedback sandwich – the use of a token positive either side of the negative feedback is generally easy to spot and the person providing the feedback risks being perceived as insincere or lacking in courage.
- The feedback recipient may fail to recognise the most important aspect of the feedback provided and therefore the original objective of providing the feedback (i.e. identifying inappropriate behaviours or opportunities for improvement) is not achieved.
- The manufactured positives provide the person with an over-stated and inaccurate reflection of how they are performing.
It needs to be asked: Are we using the sandwich method to make it more effective for the feedback receiver or as an avoidance tool for ourselves as sender?
One of the potential repercussions of feedback avoidance is that when a person finally receives some long overdue feedback they rightly ask "Why didn't you just tell me sooner? I could have done something about it".
While feedback may at times feel uncomfortable for the feedback provider and/or receiver in the moment, it is essential to help each of us identify our strengths and improvement opportunities and serves as a catalyst for behaviour change. Perhaps we under-estimate the ability of people to receive and act upon feedback.
The feedback sandwich doesn’t have a place in a high performing team. As a manager, if you set and role model the feedback expectation with your team (including "upwards") then they will expect and seek feedback that can help them perform at their best – no sandwich needed - just direct, honest and sensitively delivered feedback.