Everyone I know likes a good sandwich. We all have our preferences, but name a sandwich and someone you know will like it. There is one sandwich that you won’t find on any menu, but rather in many books on leadership and coaching. It is called the Feedback Sandwich. It’s time to talk about this mostly unpalatable offering and provide solutions for something better.
The feedback sandwich is a description for a way to give feedback. The idea is to provide positive feedback, followed by negative or corrective feedback, and close out with more positive feedback.
There are a few reasons the feedback sandwich has been widely taught over the years:
- It insures positive feedback. Most people don’t give enough positive feedback, and the sandwich suggests a general ratio of two positives for every negative.
- It reinforces positive behaviors by providing the positive feedback first and last gives people the chance to hear and remember the positive.
- It provides the giver a method to follow, easing their discomfort in giving negative or constructive feedback.
Given that list you can see why the people have taught this method, but perhaps already see a hint of the problems – of which there are many. There are problems in the metaphor itself as well as how it is delivered. Here are just a few of those problems so they can re.
- It is designed more for the giver than the receiver. There is no doubt that the simplicity of the feedback sandwich idea is alluring. Take something people often have trouble doing (giving feedback) and create a simple three step process for doing it, based on a common object, so they can remember it. The idea can help someone structure giving feedback, but it doesn’t always help the person receiving the feedback – which is what is most important.
- The metaphor is misleading. To follow the sandwich analogy, the positive feedback is the bread, and the negative feedback is the meat or other good stuff inside the sandwich. A sandwich is typically composed of two slices of bread, as a carrier for what is inside. While we might like the bread, sandwiches are named for what is inside – a pastrami sandwich, a BLT, or a chicken salad for example. That means that the sandwich is really all about the middle. Unfortunately, most feedback sandwiches are all about the middle – the negative feedback. The metaphor then leads people to the idea that I need to make it easier for people to digest the negative middle, rather than helping people understand the totality of their performance – positive and negative.
- The sandwich is usually poorly constructed. While the idea of a feedback sandwich is well intentioned and can be helpful the sandwich too often ends up being a exercise in finding some vague, general positive things to surround a very specific and pointed negative middle. Successful and valuable feedback – positive or negative needs to be specific and about valuable things. Too often, in the sandwich approach that is only true for the negative middle. And to top it off people often transition from the top slice of positive feedback with a “but…” which further tells the receiver that what comes next is all that matters anyway.
- The sandwich can be confusing to the receiver. While it is designed to give people a balance view of their performance, and, done well, that can happen, with a poorly made feedback sandwich people leave confused. Which is it, did I do well, or was the positive all for show?
- Who wants a sandwich at every meal? Most people love a sandwich, but don’t want a sandwich three meals a day. Is there a place for giving people balanced feedback in the form of a sandwich? Perhaps. But if we are giving people feedback and coaching regularly, there are plenty of times when all we need to hare is something they did well, or one thing they need to work on. To stretch the sandwich metaphor, sometimes you eat meat without the bread. And sometimes you have a slice of bread that isn’t part of a sandwich.
Better Than a Sandwich
If you want your feedback to be received and understood by others, give it often, make it specific, and keep it balanced in both positive and constructive ways. When you do that you will rarely need a sandwich and can create clear conversations that will get great outcomes and help people be hungry for improvement.
Giving effective feedback is just one of the essential skills needed to be an effective and confident coach. If you know that you want and need to be a better coach, join me at an upcoming virtually delivered Coaching with Confidence learning experience. Or contact us about bringing this learning experience to leaders and coaches in your organization.