Feedback Sandwich is Hard to Swallow

By Nancy K. Eberhardt on Monday, January 28, 2013 3:22PM EDT

It is time to stop the use of the “feedback sandwich” to cause improved work performance. The feedback sandwich has been recommended for years in business management training, organizational development courses, and by many human resource professionals. It is suggested to supervisors as a means to deliver difficult, constructive feedback to their employees and it sounds something like this:

“James,

  • - The final report you prepared for the Board meeting was comprehensive and touched on all of the meaningful messages we wanted to convey.
  • - I did get word from your team that you left them out of the process and they felt excluded on this project. I would like to see that improved next time.
  • - I’m sure you will do better in the future. Keep up the good work on these reports.”

This example demonstrates the elements of the feedback sandwich –  first, a positive statement about what was done correctly or well, then a statement about what needs to be improved and then an additional positive statement in closing. The critical communication about what needs to be improved is sandwiched between two positive messages.

Feedback sandwich makes it (temporarily) easier for the manager but harder for the employee

Why has this been touted as a good way to deliver feedback for improved work performance?  Because it helps the deliverer of the news feel more comfortable about having a need-for-improved-performance conversation by packing this difficult message between two pieces of good news.

How is it for the employee? Confusing. Unclear. Wishy-washy. Distracting.

Many listeners may only hear the two positive parts of the sandwich. We all know about the primacy and recency effects of messages. That is, as humans, we remember best what we heard first and what we heard last and pay less attention to the talk in the middle.

Some employees report being perplexed. “Was I a good performer or a bad performer? If there were two good messages and one bad, doesn’t that mean the bad message is not important? If the feedback requesting improvement in my behavior was buried in the communication, how important can it be?”

Candor and straightforward delivery cut through the confusion

Being direct with the need for improvement, without being buried or muddled with additional messages, will lead to greater understanding and heightened clarity about what is expected from the employee in the future. Having a detailed interactive conversation about the one area for improvement is more productive and cuts out all the distracting noise of multiple messages. It will also build trusting relationships and increase the velocity of results in your organization.

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