The Feedback Sandwich – Tasty or Bitter?

By: Alison Wood

I originally developed and posted this infographic out on my social networks, as a ‘How-to guide’ to the constructive criticism sandwich, which in my mind is a very valuable method. However it resulted in an interesting topic for debate, between myself and project managers who disagreed with the use of the sandwich method. I’d like to share the feedback with you and compare it with my own views, and would highly appreciate your input too!

Here, I have listed the reasons that people gave for not using the sandwich method:

  1. Once you use this, every time you praise someone for a great job, they’ll be waiting expectantly for the slap in the face.
  2. The feedback sandwich is a medieval technique, like blood leeches, and the French Monarchy.
  3. The “Good Cop / Bad Cop” is hard for one person playing both roles.
  4. People remember the nice things that you said at the start and finish, and then forget about the meat.
  5. As long as you separate the process and the person, there is probably no need to sandwich critical feedback “between” praise.
  6. The concern I have with the sandwich approach is this – it amounts to enjoying the fine, yummy bread (positive) first only to discover the stale (negative) meat between. In my opinion – candour counts.
  7. I only favour direct messaging while giving constructive feedback to leave maximum impact and to have required focus.
  8. I think the impact or need for understanding improvement may be diluted.

These comments have prompted me to conduct further research into the way humans process both negative and positive information, because the impression that these managers have is that the employee is going to forget the criticism because they are bowled over by the praise. I thought this would make an appropriate follow up article.

Are we softening the blow a bit too much with the sandwich method?

From the brief research I have already conducted whilst developing the infographic, it was clear that negative information has a much greater impact on the human brain than positive information. This is due to the negativity bias theory. “Softening the blow” could be one word for the role of the ‘bun lid” in the sandwich, but I think the last piece of bread it is a bit deeper than that. It ensures the atmosphere of the situation remains positive and by leaving on a positive note, the receiver is more likely to feel confident and driven.

Obviously all situations are different and the effectiveness of the sandwich method will depend on the severity of the feedback being given. If we are talking about feedback on behaviour that is seriously detrimental to the company then maybe a disciplinary would be in order.

Will the positive-negative-positive tone of the situation confuse the receiver?

If the sandwich pieces are in proportion to each other (we don’t want to over praise or criticize anybody) then the tone shouldn’t shift too dramatically. If the manager is giving feedback on a particular situation as per the example in the infographic, then it interweaves perfectly. The negativity bias theory suggests that we remember more after disapproving news than before it. As a result of this, Cliff Nass, professor of communication from StanfordUniversityhas suggested managers offer praise after criticism, not before, so that the praise actually makes an impression on the receiver. This is an interesting suggestion, why not make a new recipe for your feedback sandwich?

Take a look at my “How-to” infographic to giving a tasty feedback sandwich. What are your thoughts on using this technique? Also, has anyone been on the receiving end of this method and how did it work for you?


About the Author:

Alison Wood works as the Communications Manager and graphic designer for Knowledge Train, a London based project management training provider



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