Negative feedback isn’t always bad and positive feedback isn’t always good. Too often, they say, we forget the purpose of feedback. It’s not to make people feel better, it’s to help them do better” A. Tugent, New York Times
How many times have you been sitting at your desk, knowing you must chat to a direct report about certain behaviours, trying to come up with two good things to say to them so you can soften the REAL reason for the chat? Too many, I am guessing!
If you have been around people management for a while you have probably heard about the “feedback sandwich”, where you layer constructive feedback between two instances of positive performance feedback. In her 1984 book, Mary Kay on People Management, Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, said “Sandwich every bit of criticism between two heavy layers of praise. A manager should be able to tell someone when something is wrong without bruising an ego in the process. Never giving criticism without praise is a strict rule for me. No matter what you are criticizing, you must find something good to say—both before and after. This is called the sandwich technique. Try to praise in the beginning and then again after discussing the problem. You don’t subject people to harsh criticism or provoke anger.”
The feedback sandwich is an outdated recommendation that catered to the skills, fears, and trepidation of managers who were expected to help employees improve their performance by providing clear and honest feedback. There are a number of reasons why the feedback sandwich is ineffective and can actually damage the interpersonal relationship between managers and their people. If the praise is too substantial it may obscure the constructive feedback and the person leaves the meeting only remembering the good things you said about them. Some managers believe that starting with some praise may reduce discomfort and anxiety however if the praise is trivial, people may also believe the constructive feedback is too. Finally, your staff may begin to expect the praise – criticism – praise cycle so they think that each time you begin to praise them, you will follow with a criticism. Positive feedback is a powerful tool that managers can use to communicate the value of the employee’s work and contribution to the organisation. It reinforces behaviours that you’d like to see more of on the job. The feedback sandwich diminishes the value and the power of the positive, reinforcing feedback that is delivered during the same message.
You should be building a culture where your people appreciate accurate feedback about their work and achievements because they want to learn and improve. If the employee can expect honest, straightforward feedback from you, the employee will trust you. Beating around the bush is perceived as evasiveness. Some people may believe that they would prefer a feedback sandwich however it is your role to shift their thinking and make them believe that constructive feedback is a way to help them improve as they learn what they may be missing.