Why Sandwich Approach Undermines Your Feedback

A “sandwich approach” for giving negative feedback to direct reports is a common method in which the negative feedback is sandwiched between two pieces of positive feedback. But this sandwich approach may be undermining both your feedback and your relationship with your direct reports.

First, let’s look at why leaders use this approach and why it doesn’t work. Leaders offer several reasons:

They think it’s easier for people to hear and accept negative feedback when it comes with positive feedback. When I ask these leaders how they know this, almost all of them acknowledge that they simply assume it to be true. When I ask or have them ask their direct reports, how they would prefer to receive negative feedback, almost all of them said they want just the meat – no sandwich. If you give a feedback sandwich, you risk alienating your direct reports. In addition, they are likely to discount your positive feedback, believing it is not genuine.

They assume that the sandwich approach provides a balanced feedback. These leaders want their direct reports to understand that negative feedback is only part of their performance evaluation. But this balance claim disintegrates when I ask, “Do you also feel the need to balance your positive feedback with negative feedback?” It’s important to give positive feedback but saving it to offset negative feedback delays the value of the positive feedback. Research shows that feedback, positive or negative, is best shared as soon as possible.

They believe that giving positive feedback with negative feedback reduces discomfort and anxiety. Though less often, but leaders do admit that they use the sandwich approach because they’re uncomfortable giving negative feedback. It’s easier to ‘ease into’ the conversation with some positive feedback, these leaders say. In fact, “easing in” creates the very anxiety they are trying to avoid. The longer you talk without giving the negative feedback, the more uncomfortable you’re likely to become as you anticipate giving the negative news. Your direct report too may sense your discomfort and become anxious.

Effective leaders are transparent about the strategies they use when working with others. The sandwich approach is designed to influence others without telling them what you’re doing — it is a unilateral controlling strategy. In other words, a strategy that revolves around you influencing others, but not being influenced by them in return.

Avoid the Sandwich: Use an Effective, Transparent Strategy

Here’s an approach to giving negative feedback that is transparent and increases your and your direct reports’ ability to learn from it: “I want to talk with you because I have some concerns. The presentation may have created confusion about our strategy. Let me tell you how I’d like to approach this meeting and see if it works for you. I want to start by describing what raised my concerns and see if you noticed the same things. After we agree on what happened, I want to say more about my concerns and see if you share them. Then we can decide what we need to do going forward. I’m open to the possibility that I may be missing some things or that I may have contributed the concerns that I’m raising. How does that work for you?”

A transparent approach is more effective than the sandwich approach for several reasons. First, by sharing your strategy and asking the team if it works, you and the team jointly design the meeting process. In turn, increasing the chances that you will all learn from it. Secondly, as everyone knows the planned sequence of the meeting, everyone will work jointly to keep it on track. Finally, by expressing that you may not have all the information and that you may even have contributed to the problem, you shift the meeting’s mode from simply telling the team what you think, to a meeting in which all of you are exploring together what happened and then planning how to move from there.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes that giving negative feedback transparently means respecting your direct reports, not controlling or alienating them. A transparent, mutual learning approach works better than the unilaterally controlling sandwich approach simply because you’ve shifted your mindset and are not just saying different words. The shift means, thinking of negative feedback as a way of helping your direct reports improve as you learn what you may be missing. This will make both your negative and positive feedback feel more genuine to your direct reports and will lower your discomfort as well as their anxiety. Feedback hence becomes a way for you and others to make informed choices together.

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