Chances are you have been served a feedback sandwich at some point.
It is a common way of delivering constructive feedback and is an approach that has been recommended for many years.
But it is time for your leaders to take it off the menu.
Let’s start by reminding ourselves what the feedback sandwich is.
It is a way of making constructive or negative feedback more appetising for the person receiving it, by layering it between two layers of praise.
So, the feedback begins with some praise, then moves on to what needs to be improved, before finishing on another positive.
That sounds ok, doesn’t it? Everyone likes praise and leaders still deliver the constructive feedback they need to get across.
It may be well-intentioned, but it is also flawed.
Here are a few reasons why:
You might think the risk with this method is that cushioning the constructive feedback between the praise means it could get lost.
But it can actually be the other way round.
One of the issues with the feedback sandwich is that it is predictable and once leaders have used it a couple of times, their team members know what’s coming.
So, instead of focusing on that first slice of praise, they are instead braced, waiting for the ‘but’ and the start of the negative.
Let’s say that the employee does absorb the praise as well as the constructive feedback.
The issue now is that the feedback is confusing.
The employee could be unclear of what they need to do next or the importance of either the praise or the part they need to improve.
Feedback should not be the cause of confusion.
The feedback sandwich is well-intentioned.
But trying to soften, or sugar-coat feedback can impact trust.
Employees can see through the approach and are likely to view it as an attempt to skirt around an issue.
Most employees want open, honest, straightforward and specific feedback.
The idea behind the feedback sandwich is that it makes the negative part easier for the recipient to stomach.
But is it really for the benefit of the manager or the employee?
There is a strong argument that the model is more about the comfort of the manager.
Many leaders struggle with feedback, particularly when it needs to be candid. It can feel stressful. And the temptation is often to try to put it off for as long as possible.
So, you can see the appeal of delivering it through the softer sandwich approach which they may feel reduces the chances of confrontation or appearing unkind.
Another issue is that by searching for praise to surround what needs to be done better, it diminishes that acclaim.
Actually, the predictable nature of this feedback model can make the praise seem forced or fake.
Leaders should give praise when their team members have done something that deserves it. It shouldn’t be used to try and make constructive feedback more palatable.
So, if the sandwich doesn't taste quite so good after all, how should leaders deliver constructive feedback?
Constructive feedback needs to be focused and specific. Anything general isn't going to work and only increases the room for ambiguity.
Managers should ensure their feedback is focused on the skills and behaviours the person receiving it can do something about.
This is something we cover in a lot more detail on our business coaching training courses.
Instead of going straight into the feedback, leaders can introduce the subject through questions.
Something like “I've just read your report, did you find it difficult to put together” encourages the employee to give their thoughts first.
Many will be prepared to admit that they found a task challenging or that they struggled. And even with those who don't, with the conversation started, leaders can use it to get their feedback across.
The temptation with constructive feedback is to concentrate on what could or should have gone better.
But it might be better to focus on the future.
Feedback should be viewed as an opportunity to re-establish expectations and create clarity on what should happen next.
Leaders can suggest or point to areas of improvement that will have a positive impact on future performance.
And ideally, they should include the person they are talking to in that process by asking them business coaching questions. What would you do differently? What needs to happen next? What will be your next step?
What is particularly good about this method, is that the dialogue is two way and actions feel like they have been identified together, rather than being handed down by a leader.
Don't save feedback for the next review meeting or review session. Keep it regular and timely.
If too much time has passed, its impact will be reduced.
Act while it is fresh in everyone's minds.
Leaders need to get into the habit of catching their teams doing the right thing.
People are naturally attuned to finding fault or fixing problems and often we have more focus on issues rather than success.
If leaders put more focus on their team's successes, it helps to build currency for when they need to offer developmental feedback and lessens those ‘he/she is always on my case', ‘can't they just give me some praise' statements?
As well as giving feedback, leaders also need to be perceptive to receiving it.
They should be open to hearing from their teams about what they can do differently in future to help it achieve its goals and improve performance.
On our courses, we encourage leaders to go further and to actively seek feedback.
They should ask questions like 'how am I managing the team?', 'where should I improve my communication with the team?', 'what specific performance areas should I explore and aim to get better at?'.
The BCF group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.
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