Never the Sandwich

Never, ever give feedback using the sandwich technique!

When you order a sandwich, is it about the two slices of bread or what’s on the sandwich? The sandwich technique for feedback is a way to package something unpleasant: First start with something positive, then the criticism and round off with something positive. The negative stuff is sandwiched between the good stuff. Sounds good, so why do I say: Never, ever use this technique.

The sandwich is about you as leader

The reason is simple. It is based on what makes the leader feel good, not on the effect it has on the person receiving the criticism or feedback. When a leader uses the sandwich technique he or she gets to think: “I gave them a good feeling, a bad feeling and then a good feeling about themselves, so overall I didn’t make them feel bad. They therefore won’t dislike me”

How the receiver experiences the sandwich

So let’s look at the effect on the receiver; is it true that the listener is left with a good feeling? Let’s say I am your leader and have to tell you that your reporting isn’t up to scratch: You do all kinds of work activity but don’t let me know what all you’re busy with and what all you’ve done. This gives me the feeling that you’re terribly busy with all kinds of things but not producing tangible results. So I start off with a compliment: “I hear good things about you from the work floor. People tell me that you’re a good advisor” You’re thinking: “Great. This confirms the way I see myself.” “The problem is”, I continue, “you don’t seem to finish anything off. You seem to be very busy with all kinds of things without results. I know you’re a hard worker.”

Wait a minute, it wasn’t a compliment

Now I have you confused. Where you originally thought being a good advisor was something positive, I’ve now managed to make that part of my criticism. My message boils down to: “Stop mucking about with all that advising and show me results.” Even if my opening compliment was about something totally unrelated, the best possible outcome is that you get the feeling the compliment wasn’t well meant, only an excuse to deal you a blow.
The same happens to whatever compliment I use to complete the sandwich – if you even hear it. If it’s related, it is hugely diminished, if it’s unrelated you will think “what the hell does that have to do with it?”

So the receiver ends up also feeling bad about what was done well

The net result is that I haven’t given you any good feeling at all. I’ve even made you feel bad about the things you do well, whether that bad feeling is anger at being tricked or shame for not meeting up to my expectations.

A better way

So what should I have done, then? Simply this. If I want to give you a compliment, great. No ifs or buts after the compliment, just give it to you straight: This is what I appreciate in you. That will have the desired effect, leaving you with a good feeling and letting you know to keep doing this. On a totally different occasion I approach what I see as the issue: “We need to discuss something. I get the feeling you’re very busy but I don’t really see you closing things off. Please tell me where you stand on the various projects you’re busy with.”

What feeling would that leave you as a team member? I’m betting on a lot better.

See also:
Why leaders give feedback
Compliments, criticism and relationship

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