Improving performance

Why the feedback sandwich is leaving people hungry.

As a rookie manager one of the first things I was recommended to help my team develop was to use the feedback sandwich.  Putting a “positive” before the “negative” then adding in another “positive” afterwards has for many years been the gold standard piece of advice for giving feedback to help someone learn and develop.

So why is feedback not working? Why, despite nearly all the managers and staff I meet on the courses I run saying they need feedback, do most feel this is an area where their organisations are weak and the messages are unclear. Why do we see headlines like “82% say their leaders don’t provide appropriate feedback” and “36% rarely or never receive performance feedback whilst 67% wish they did” *

Some of the answer comes when we look at language. We talk about “positive” and “negative” feedback – yet the distinction is irrelevant. Feedback is not praise, thanks or criticism; it is information sharing to improve performance –by doing more or less of something. When we label it either internally in our thoughts or externally in what we say, we are starting off on the wrong foot. Even the word “feedback” is loaded….Think how you feel when your manager says “Can I give you some feedback” – I feel my stomach tightening even as I write it!

So suggestion one, for both givers and receivers of feedback, is to watch the language –don’t think of it or label it as “ good” and “bad” feedback , but frame it as ideas to make us even better at what we do (Can you feel your stomach becoming a little less tight?)

Another reason why the sandwich fails is in the connection between the three parts. Many people blur them together, particularly the first two, linking them together with a short word that does inordinate harm…..the word “but”. All the “but” does is to negate the first piece of feedback. Again feel how your stomach starts contracting as you hear the word.

So suggestion two, for givers of feedback, is to take each point separately. Starting with something you thought was effective, tell the other person what you have seen and heard and what impact that had, then allow them time to respond and process that before you cover your next point. Make sure each point is fully finished before moving on.

And finally, let’s look at the balance between the “positive” and “negative” – between the things that are working really well and those that need a little work. Research in neuroscience tells us that human beings are programmed to instantaneously detect friend (approach) or foe (avoid) – not just in terms of the physical but also the social aspects of life. Furthermore, we are more attuned to foes than friends – our limbic brain’s response to these is far greater and more long lasting. This explains why people tend to be self-critical and means we need a completely different balance to what was previously thought – probably about 4 or 5:1 – if we are to have the impact we want in terms of helping someone change. With the traditional feedback sandwich ratio, the person receiving the feedback was condemned to focus only on the areas for improvement – with predicable demotivating results.

So perhaps the traditional feedback sandwich isn’t completely wrong – but it does need a rework to add some more layers. I’m not sure what the new metaphor should be but hope the tips in this short article will help you break down some of the taboos about giving and receiving feedback – which is so needed if we are to achieve the performance targets being asked of us.


*The Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project, June 2013
Ken Blanchard Companies Sponsored Employee Work Passion Survey 2013