Slay the Sandwich
(This is the “S” installment of the series “Alphabet for Leaders.”)
It’s nearly instinctive to buffer bad news with good. Additionally, it’s standard practice to balance negative feedback with positive. It’s called the feedback sandwich. It sounds effective on paper. It seems right but it isn’t. I suggest it’s time to slay the feedback sandwich.
An ineffective approach
When you begin a feedback session with a compliment, what do recipients think? They think, “Oh boy, what have I done now?” Am I right? When it happens to you, aren’t you sitting there waiting for the other shoe to drop?
You sit there anticipating the bad news before it arrives. Inevitably, the shoe drops and the negative feedback hits. You’re thinking, “I knew it.” After the negative feedback, you see the positive comment coming from a mile away. However, by that time, your mind is focused on the corrective comments you just heard.
What’s the problem?
The net effect of the feedback sandwich is it discounts positive feedback.
What’s the alternative to the feedback sandwich?
Stop destroying the power of encouraging statements by using them to buffer or balance bitter pills. Kill the sandwich. If you have negative feedback, simply give it.
An essential condition.
In order to kill the sandwich, create a work environment soaked in encouragement. Ken Blanchard’s experience indicates it takes four positive statements to balance one negative. “Over doing” positive feedback establishes a natural platform for negative feedback.
Who should apply the 4 to 1 rule?
Positive environments don’t magically appear. They are intentionally nurtured by skillful leaders who use their influence to create places where people love to work. With this in mind, everyone needs to intentionally “over do” positive feedback; parents, spouses, leaders, managers, and employees. When was the last time you said a good word?
If you liked this post, I think you’ll enjoy “Positive Talk.”
I’ve taken an hard line on a soft topic. Please feel free to offer an alternative approach.
What positive feedback strategies or examples can you suggest?
What other “S” leadership words can you offer the LF community?
The strategy to isolate or minimize the impact of sandwich is to appreciate first and then criticize. This is practiced by good B school around the globe. when someone appreciates your effort, it creates a layers of encouragement and motivation around you, and when you hear criticism, it either reflect or penetrate less. So, appreciation creates more and probably positive impact and this really works.
The S of leaderships are- My favorite- serve, sensitize, sympathize, strike, strategy, shine, sky, sun, space, speed, smile blob-blob–. Simplicity should be the nature of a leader. Servant leadership is the greatest form of leadership style because it has sensitivity, service, simplicity, sympathy,smile in its style and attitude. Leaders should create space for people. Sky is the limit for them, they should shine like sun.
Thanks for your comment. We’ll agree to disagree on this one Ajay. 🙂
Thanks for all the great Leadership “S’s.” The Servant leadership sentence shines! Superb use of S.
Ajay is a featured contributor on LF. You can read his bio at:
There are some things practiced by a lot of people – that doesn’t necessarily make them good practices. I think, though, that the sandwich CAN work (in a limited fashion). If my senior is needing to give bad news and practices the sandwich, I know that she’s trying to help me through it. The knowledge that she is doing her best to give bad news well helps me be understanding.
That said, it’s the effort that makes it effectual, not the method. I think that Dan makes a good point regardless of one’s opinion on the sandwich – the point being that a praise-heavy positive environment helps create a more healthy environment for criticism (when necessary). This is why Dan’s suggestion works. It creates a healthy feedback framework and promotes respect.
You both make good points. In my opinion it’s not as simple as “do” or “don’t” give positive feedback before negative (I like the term “developmental”) feedback.
A few examples:
If you always precede any developmental feedback with one or two cursory compliments, then yes, you will dliute the effect of both. People will see your positive comments as a “management technique” that is only meant to set the stage to provide a correction.
On the other hand, if you dump a load of purely negative feedback on someone, he/she will probably not receive it well, and the feedback will likely not have the intended effect.
I think we have to accept that human nature drives us to see opportunities for correction more easily than we see chances to provide positive feedback.
Personally I’m a HUGE fan of authenticity, which I think applies here – FIND reasons to provide positive feedback (real substantive feedback, not superficial compliments), and give it right away, and create that positive environment. When you notice the need for developmental feedback, give that right away (and don’t worry about sandwiching it with superficial compliments).
And remember, the method by which you deliver the developmental feedback can include appreciation.
Thanks for leaving a useful comment. You’re adding value to the discussion.
Love the expression “Developmental Feedback” because it removes the label of positive/negative. Nicely said.
Thanks for another great post in your Alphabet series. I agree that the time has come to slay the sandwich. Leaders and those they lead are better served by consistent feedback both positive and developmental. Those that provide sporadic feedback typically focus on the negative aspect of performance and feel the need to throw in a few compliments. The compliments are quickly forgotten and the focus shifts to the negative.
Slaying the sandwich further supports the need for leaders to get out of their offices, put down the reports and begin to interact with others on consistent and frequent basis. Positive feedback should be given alone and ought to be specific focusing on behaviors, the impact and potentially the expectations. Developmental feedback is best received when employees feel the leader sees, understands and values the other aspects of their work because they are giving that consistent and frequent feedback. Employees want to feel and think their work and efforts are valued. When they believe the leader is coming from a place of support and concern the developmental feedback is much easier to swallow. The only way to do that is to interact and to be honest on a consistent basis. When they do there will automatically be a balance between positive and developmental feedback.
Thanks for the thought provoking post!
Thanks for stopping in and thanks for the good word.
“Leaders and those they lead are better served by consistent feedback …”
Thats my real passion with this post. You nailed it.
Very insightful – I agree, the sandwich is not effective.
Interestingly, I just blogged on my personal experience with praise and encouragement.
From my personal experience, straight praise and encouragement is the single most effective way to immediately increase team performance.
Unfortunately, in all my years in many corporate environments, I never saw a single example of effective praise. Quite simply, effective praise doesn’t exist – it’s a corporate myth.
But there is a way to get it. Consider for a second, sports fans.
They yell and shout more encouragement and enthusiastic praise to a television screen where their sports heroes play, than they ever do for their employees. The very people they depend upon for their success as a manager. Why is that?
How can we get our managers to encourage their teams like a sporting event? Here’s what I found:
I’ll be quoting your comments in other places. You are adding value to the conversation and I appreciate it.
“I never saw a single example of effective praise.” Sad but true.
Thanks for leaving a useful link and I hope you keep coming back.
I appreciate your comment here. I coached before I hit corporate America, and took the habit of effective praise with me into the corporate world. Coaching which elicits the best in both individual and team is the premise of effective, authentic, valuable praise. Corporate speak, not so much so. Thanks for posting.
I’m with Dan. Build the emotional bank account by offering frequent, unadulterated praise. Then when it’s time to offer criticism, be clear, unapologetic, give examples, and comment on behavior, not the person. I do like to end criticism on an upnote, providing positive context. But don’t dilute the point of the criticism with a sandwich. That ends up sounding like passive-aggression and is an immensely confusing message – some will hear mainly the positive, some will hear mainly the negative, and thus you’ve lost control of your message.
My favorite S’s: Superior Solution, Strategy, Systems, Shared Vision and Values, and the all-important Surveillance (don’t fall asleep at the wheel; keep an eye on what’s happening out there!)
Well stated… thanks for brining the “emotional bank” to the conversation. After all, that is a big part of building a positive work environment. Keep making deposits.
SURVEILLANCE … wow, I never would have thought of that one. I feel like a stalker 😉
Best to you,
A thought-provoking post promoting the positive thinking power. Killing the sandwich is a right good way to move forward with progressive outlook.
* Respecting people and their views can encourage positive feedback and can result in a cohesive work culture.
* Creating a strong team and allowing them to think new and better by promoting innovation in practice can produce appreciable results.
* Grooming people to take independent responsibilities with a desired accountability is also a regular habit of successful leaders.
Secrecy, silence, supremacy [scoring high/stand out in a crowd] and socializing could be the essential traits an any business leader.
Always a pleasure seeing you.
I see your mind jumped to the positive benefits of effective feedback. I’m struck but the importance of showing respect as a tool that motivates feedback.
Best to you,
Dr. Asher is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. Read his bio at: http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/featured-contributors/
Agreed, let’s send the feedback sandwich back to the kitchen!
As Ken Blanchard stated, “feedback is the breakfast of champions.” It’s a nourishing dish that merits being served with authenticity and compassion. And, if done correctly throughout the year, it ends the horror of the annual performance review that Wally Bock outlined in his post “Babies, Bath Water, and Performance Evaluations” (http://ow.ly/2bPON).
Let’s prepare our leaders to regularly deliver kudos, appreciation, affirmation of good work, recognition for a job well done, etc., etc. Blanchard’s 4:1 model is good place to start. I’ve also seen studies showing a 5:1 ratio.
Let’s equally prepare our leaders to deliver performance improvement feedback. While many people shy away from delivering “negative” feedback, that’s looking at the situation from the wrong perspective. Developing people’s strengths is part of a leader’s job and should be embraced from the positive perspective.
It all comes down to managing from the head and leading from the heart!
Thanks, Dan, for an excellent post!
Great to have the goddess drop in. And thanks for adding value to a great conversation and thanks for leaving a link to Wally’s blog. He’s a great guy.
You are so right, negative feedback shouldn’t be negative and doesn’t have to be if its given within a positive environment with clear understandable benefit.
Along with upping the ration to 5:1, I’m taking your final quote with me. “Managing from the head and leading from the heart.”
Very interesting discussion for it is not as clear cut as the other alphabet letters. I am a big fan of choices. Everyone expects that there will be things they are doing well and areas for improvement.
Why not just follow that theme and give people a choice on which one they would like to hear first? It easily accounts for differences in people as well as different states of mind within one person. I like to hear the positives first most of the time. Yet I can imagine times where I might want to hear the improvements first.
Teams use a technique called “Plus/Delta” at the end of meetings and projects. Plus are the things that went and Deltas are the gaps that need to improve. In those cases people do jump back and forth.
Might be interesting to offer “jumping back and forth” as an option as well.
Negotiating the rules of your relationship with others can be liberating. In other words, at some point, early in the relationship sit down and have a chat about preferred methods, frequency, and structures of interpersonal communication.
Thanks for the illustration of plus/delta.
You always make me think,
Succinctly penned Dan.
My own view is that you must consider the type of person you’re dealing with here too. Feedback and praise are as diverse as describing “Best”. It’s different things to different people. When my wife cooks dinner and I say “that was good” she says “what was wrong with it”, when I say nothing and clear my plate – she gets the best feedback possible.
I totally agree with you that one should not mix praise and feedback. Be direct. When you give mixed messages out – you get mixed messages back – and that’s no good for me.
My only other observation about the post is that it kind of infers that the feedback is one-directional, from the senior to the junior, but what about when it’s the other way around? If feedback isn’t two-way then it’s just plain old cursing.
You can’t, in my opinion at least, have leadership without 2-way feedback, otherwise you really have master-and-servant, and that’s not leadership.
So I guess that brings me to my contrbution of S’s for the pot: See–>Speak–>Steer, and even better when one can:
Speak Succinctly –> Steer Distinctly.
Thank you for your comment.
Here’s my take away. Get feedback on your feedback.
I hope to keep learning from you,
The sandwich as an a la carte item without any side dishes or beverages is not very nutritional and may be hard to swallow, but as a part of a multi-entree experience, can definitely be rich and rewarding with all involved wanting more.
The more systemic approach requires greater forethought and planning of the leader with attention to presentation, portion control and timing as well. The digestive system can only handle so much.
While I may have carried the food analogy a bit far, it does apply to feedback.
As leaders, do we really believe a single feedback session (annual performance review) achieves results? All of the social sciences point to intermittent reinforcement, immediately and accurately delivered for highest level of success and integration.
Feedback, positive or negative, needs its own place (and time) and preparation.
I am with Kate on the choice approach, coupled with planning and presentation. Once a time for part of the feedback process has been identified, ask the individual (or group) what s/he/they would like to discuss first.
Certainly there can be a structure regarding what elements to cover, again with advance preparation for all involved. Definitely balance the negative and positive review, which may involve more than one session. There is always time for another meal, if well presented.
If the ‘opportunities for improvement’ are discussed first, the leader needs to really listen. As we tend to be our own worst critics, are the negatives being accurately presented or are they too harsh? If they are too harsh, present an alternative perspective. Listen for ‘lessons learned’ more importantly. If the participant(s) leave out some negative issues, ask if how they considered the omitted issue(s). Limiting the negative discussion to a time period.
When moving into the positives, recognize, reinforce and identify opportunities to build on those successes. Align the positives with core values of the company, etc.
Other great ‘S’ words…synergy and synchronicity
And, as Darren noted, the whole feedback process needs to flow both ways. Every feedback session for the people we lead also needs to include feedback for the leader on how s/he is doing. Seems that doesn’t happen all that often, but could.
You elevated sandwiches to a new level.
You weren’t as succinct as usual but you spread a succulent table of suggestions.
Or perhaps you just spewed out some ideas 🙂
I value your comments and read them with relish.
Doc is a featured contributor of the Leadership Freak community. Read his bio at: http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/featured-contributors/
I hate the “sandwich”. People know what’s coming. They’re not stupid. You give them some praise and you can almost see it in their eye “ok so where’s the bad news?” Being genuine and SINCERE with praise helps enormously.
I also like the work SHARE. Sharing of ideas, thoughts and emotions is what connects leaders to their followers. Futher being STRONG on mind and heart helps too.
Have a great weekend!
Thank you for your affirmation and added S’s. Love the “see it in their eyes” comment. I imagined eyes rolling when I read it.
Good weekend to you too.
While in high school years and years ago, there was a basketball coach who decided to hand out awards to every member of his team at the end of the year. The first year he did this, it was accepted and praised. Year two was ‘okay’. Soon the awards didn’t mean anything even to those who deserved them. How does this relate to “slaying the sandwich”? I agree with Tim when he talks of authenticity and the practice of giving praise right away. And on the flip side, any developmental (I like the avoidance of the term negative) feedback should also be offered as soon as possible.
To continually sandwich praise around criticism (constructive or otherwise) doesn’t give the recipient room to grow. In his mind, that person can be convinced that he’s doing okay – two praises outweigh one criticism.
Interesting post and thought-provoking responses.
I would suggest that the issue isn’t so much the sandwich. If the only time a leader gives praise is when it’s wrapped around constructive feedback (read: criticism), then praise will always be suspect. And some will focus on the math as Sam points out 2>1.
This is, I think, further compounded because the “praise” that makes up the sandwich wrapper is often insincere, or at least perceived as such.
Leaders who regularly recognize the contributions of their team do not have this problem. They’re not following some “formula” or “recipe” that requires them to find something nice to say to soften the blow.
So serve ’em a sandwich if you want. Or a pizza or an ice cream sundae. Just be genuine and sincere. Both your praise and your criticism should demonstrate that you care about them as an individual, are aware of and appreciate their contributions, and want to help them develop and succeed.
I did that to feedback my father/boss in a company owned by him and his 4 brothers, on an issue I considered critical-can-not-wait-to-get-worse. Cost me 14 years in the fridge, but opened the door to a lot of learning for the organization, that cycle is about to end. I still have a job. OK I would say Yes. Use It, take Your chances, but asses the consequences beforew You do take action
Thanks for leaving your first comment on LF and thx for sharing part of your life story.
I think you are right…we should always consider the consequences of our behaviors. Frequently there are many options. Black and white decisions are rare.
Dan, I have to disagree with you on this one.
Maybe the “sandwich” is practiced poorly by a lot of managers. But I have been the recipient of negative feedback via the sandwich and via the “just say it” approach. The “just say it” approach, in my experience, is like pulling a pin from a grenade. It only gets worse from there.
I don’t need the truth sugar-coated, but since negative feedback tends to be rarely directed at me (whew), when it does happen, it’s an unpleasant blast of cold water. That is, if it’s just stated baldly. Now, when my executive-level manager first delivers a compliment in a certain tone of voice, sure, I know what’s coming. But I have a second to prepare rather than being taken off-guard. He uses the compliment to put the bad news into context, not to buffer it. Then we talk about the negative feedback, I’ll suggest a proactive way to solve the problem du jour, and bam! I get another compliment for handling the situation so professionally.
I have adopted the same approach with my own direct reports. Like me, they seldom garner negative feedback. But when they do, I put it into context by complimenting what I knew their motives to be in the situation that resulted in the negative feedback. I know all of them to be mature, professional, and careful people. So if I hear something negative, I know it’s because there was some kind of miscommunication. (Or someone else in the company is having a bad day and taking it out on my employee.)
By delivering a compliment (“You are always so careful to make sure everyone understands what their responsibilities are”) then the bad news (“But it seems the vice president was disappointed in the way you presented your report”) then another compliment (“and the best way to handle this is to use your strong communication skills to sit down with him and cover what he felt was missing”) I deliver the bad news along with a practical means of handling it *and* my encouragement that I trust them to be able to make the best of it.
I think the “sandwich” approach is an effective means of interpersonal dynamics in a company, particularly one where tensions tend to run high.
Thank you for sharing your insights and perspective on the feedback sandwich.
One point you make that seems useful to me is you are prepared for the negative feedback with a compliment. If the goal is preparing people to hear something it seems it works in your context.
Speaking of your context…it sounds more formal than I was thinking. My approach with this post addresses the importance of an open, honest and as Julie says below, a 4 to 1 positive environment where positive feedback is normal, natural, encouraging, and pervasive.
Thank you again for joining the conversation. You aren’t the first to take issue with this post. And you did it in such a pleasant way. 🙂
I totally agree with you Dan. When I speak with managers about feedback they all hate what they disparagingly know as the “BS sandwich” although many have been taught to use it.
Instead we talk about the 4 : 1 ratio and finding every opportunity for praise and endorsement. We also talk in terms of motivational feedback (when someone is doing something well and you want them to do more of it) and developmental feedback (when you want someone to do something differently)
This is more than semantics. One of the biggest benefits is that it puts the provider of the feedback in a more positive, developmental frame of mind. People faced with giving “negative” or “constructive” feedback are more likely to avoid doing so.
Thank you for adding your insights to this discussion.
Love the expressions “motivational feedback” and “developmental feedback.” Very useful.
Thank you for all your support.
I totally agree – the sandwich is bullsh*t. I never bought it when I was on the receiving end. I’ve felt like a fraud on the giving end. Like you say, good leaders build a positive and encouraging environment. Then its safe to give constructive feedback in a straight-up way. Organizations and the employees in them function better when the expectations are clear. In my experience, the sandwich leaves people confused.
As an employee, there is nothing that bothers me more than my manager pussy-footing around and leaving me wondering what he/she REALLY wants me to do. I want to know where I stand.
I once had a boss call me into his office when I knew he had a problem with my work. But instead of clearly telling me what he wanted he said, “We are all your friends here.” Nice, but what do you want me to do? “We are here to support you.” What do you want me to change/do/not do/improve?
Also, any employee of mine who can’t take straight-forward negative but constructive and respectful feedback isn’t someone I want working for me anyway.
what users of this technique seem to ignore is that by “hiding” the negative behind a positive, unless there is a “lot” in the emotional bank all we will do is train our people that when a positive statement is heard – duck because here comes the sh*t!
Give feedback on the BEHAVIOR, but praise the human being after… much better this way
Thanks for joining the conversation… and leaving a link to your own work.
Hi Dan I believe there are more than one type of Feedback Sandwich. At Cafe Style Speed Training we do the ‘feedback sandwich’ different from this and agree with you in many ways. We do ‘What was great, What I would have liked to see even more of… and What I personally liked was…. Or similar, but you get the picture. It is pointless being positive just to deliver a ‘negative’ straight after and finish on a positive as most people will see what is coming….it should only be ‘development’ in the middle of anything not a ‘What you did ‘bad’….
Thanks for this. I’m writing on feedback this morning… best!