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How To Avoid The “Feedback Sandwich” When Evaluating Staff

By Guest blogger - Jun. 3, 2014
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Editors Note: This is a guest post written by Keith Tatley – Founder of Manager Foundation. His opinions are his own.

Have you ever used the “feedback sandwich” technique?

Managers need to give their employees performance feedback to manage employee performance. But performance feedback can be uncomfortable so managers often use the feedback sandwich.

This is what happened when I used it: Positive Feedback -> Negative Feedback -> Positive Feedback

I had some negative feedback to give but before I could jump into it I thought I needed something positive to say.

I searched my thoughts for something relevant and tried to make it sound sincere. Positive feedback out of the way I could move onto the negative feedback which was the real message.

I’m not very good at reading body language but even I could see them disengage. They pulled back into a defensive stance and they got that ‘eyes glazed over’ look which shows they weren’t really listening.

Classic passive-aggressive behaviour.

Negative feedback over I racked my brain for something positive to say to fill the silence.


Is this a performance management experience you recognise?

Negative feedback is unpleasant

Giving negative feedback can be stressful for both the giver and the receiver.

The sandwich feedback technique tries to fix this by softening the “blow” of negative feedback by sandwiching it between two items of positive feedback. The colloquial term is a “sh*t sandwich.”

But ask yourself – how would you like to get a “sh*t” sandwich?

It doesn’t matter how good the “bread” is – if the filling isn’t nice you still don’t want the sandwich.

If it’s not good for you then it’s not an effective feedback technique. Your performance feedback will not work and you will not have engaged employees.

Lipstick on a pig = ineffective performance feedback

This is my main issue with the sandwich feedback technique. Repackaging negative feedback does nothing to improve the quality of your performance feedback.

At best it does nothing to make your feedback more effective. At worst it can actually be damaging.

Some other problems with the sandwich technique:

  • Time and effort: When you want to give negative feedback you also have to come up with two pieces of positive feedback to put it between. This increases the difficulty factor plus makes giving performance feedback a much longer process.  Increased time and effort leads to giving less performance feedback. Less performance feedback equals lower employee productivity.
  • Insincerity: You have to manufacture positive feedback making the positive feedback less sincere. People are very perceptive at picking up where you are only making a token effort. This ruins the whole message. Insincerity also ruins the boss-employee relationship. Good relationships are built on trust. Good employee relations are the basis of engaged employees and high job performance.
  • Confusion and lack of focus: The danger is that the message you really want to communicate can get lost. People have a limited attention span. The sandwich feedback technique is like hiding your real message between two fake messages. When you have an important message to convey it’s more effective to focus on doing this clearly. For effective performance management it’s vital that managers make their performance feedback clear.

Two Positive Things About the Sandwich Feedback Technique:

1. The feedback sandwich forces us to give more positive feedback.

The fact is we do not give enough positive feedback.

Research shows that performance feedback is most effective with around 5 times as much positive feedback as negative feedback. Because we have a natural tendency to spot errors we focus too much on the negatives.

As a professionally trained auditor I can spot a mistake at 100 yards so I know this is something I have to constantly remind myself about. Think about your own management behaviour – what is your ratio of positive to negative feedback? Are you giving enough positive feedback to make your performance management effective?

2. The feedback sandwich technique doesn’t do much for the receiver. But it is quite effective at helping the giver to get over any reluctance they may have about performance management.

Addressing low employee performance can be an unpleasant experience. And my experience is that for my own peace of mind I must either accept my employee’s performance or do something to fix it. Wishing for better employee performance or obsessing about the reasons for poor employee performance is not helpful.

In other words if there is something that your employee is doing that is bugging you then say something about it (effectively!).

Luckily both of these are not exclusive to the feedback sandwich technique. This means we can get the benefits and have better performance feedback without using the feedback sandwich technique.

When negative feedback goes bad

There is a really good reason for the feedback sandwich technique. But I believe that the feedback sandwich technique is not a good performance management solution. Because the feedback sandwich is onerous, insincere and unclear.

I’ve learnt that the source of the problem is from the assumption that negative feedback has to be a bad thing.

Yes a lot of negative feedback is bad and ineffective for performance management:

  1. When negative feedback is confrontational;
  2. When negative feedback is given when angry or upset;
  3. When negative feedback focuses on intent instead of facts; or
  4. When negative feedback is focused on blame and punishment instead of future improvement

As you can imagine, telling someone that they are doing something wrong is a process littered with land mines.

There is nothing wrong with negative feedback, there is only something wrong with poorly delivered negative feedback.

When you can give negative feedback in an acceptable and effective manner then you don’t need to sandwich it with positive feedback.

Good negative feedback is an effective employee performance management tool. In fact it is possible to increase employee engagement by giving them effective negative feedback!

The solution to effective feedback isn’t repackaging. The solution is to improve the quality of the negative feedback.

 Keith Tatley founded the Manager Foundation to “Make Work Work”. Manager Foundation specialises in employee productivity. If you want to increase employee performance or are a manager with a staff performance problem, find a solution at Manager Foundation.


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