One of the most challenging parts of becoming a manager or a leader is delivering feedback. And because it can be so difficult, many of us fall back on what people have called the “sandwich” approach to giving feedback: where you sandwich negative feedback in between doses of positive feedback, with the bread representing the positive and the meat representing the negative.
This is the traditional form of sandwich feedback – and probably something many of you have heard of, or likely even done. But this got me thinking: Sure we often use a sandwich approach to giving feedback, but is there really only one way of doing this? Is there only one version of sandwich feedback out there?
As you can tell from the title of this post, my view is no! There are multiple forms of sandwich feedback, just like there are multiple kinds of sandwiches. So, let’s broaden our minds… think outside the bun… and consider all the different ways we can mix bread and meat to give people a piece of our mind and deliver the feedback they deserve.
- The “traditional” sandwich approach
This is the old standby: the approach that many of us are already familiar with: two doses of positive feedback (in the form of the bread) sandwiching negative or critical feedback (the meat). The logic here is that by softening someone up with an ego-stroking positive message, they’ll be better poised to actually listen to your critical feedback as opposed to dismissing it entirely, or reacting defensively. And then, after you’ve delivered the pain, it’s then important to repair immediately – to provide them with a bit more positive feedback to make them feel whole again.
It’s the classic “American” approach to giving feedback in a way that sends the message, but strokes the ego – and on a “harshness scale” from 1-10, I’d probably rate this at about a 5.
2. Lots of bread, little meat approach
For some of us – well, probably many of us – feedback is really hard to do. And so another form of the feedback sandwich you often see is the lots of bun, little meat approach, where there’s a lot of ego stroking, but little actual feedback involved. With this approach, it’s even possible the other person won’t even hear your negative message because the little negative or critical feedback you are delivering gets swamped by the overwhelming amount of bread. Harshness Score: Very low — 2 out of 10
3. Open-faced sandwich approach
In Denmark, they call this smørrebrød – and in the United States – open faced sandwiches. In the world of feedback, it’s a middle ground approach: you provide critical feedback (the meat), but you also stroke the ego (the bread). However, unlike with the “traditional” approach, the ego stroking here only happens at the end. You deliver the negative or critical message – that someone needs to speak up more, or less, or that they need to be more detail-oriented, for example – and then, at the end, you add in that little positive bit, about how they are doing really well otherwise, or about how despite their lack of attention to detail, the ideas in the report were spot on. It’s slightly “harsher” or direct than the traditional feedback sandwich approach, but still provides the type of ego stroking that many people expect when receiving a negative message. Harshness Score: Moderate –5 out of 10
- The paleo diet: all meat
There’s no bread at all with the paleo diet version of giving feedback. It’s all meat. If you’re ever been to Germany, this is the type of feedback you’re apt to receive: extremely direct with no ego stroking at all. It’s just the critical message and that’s it: honest, straight-forward, to the point, and for the faint-hearted, a bit overwhelming. Harshness Score: Pretty high – 9 out of 10
5. The untraditional “wrap”
Now, we’re thinking out of the box – in both the world of sandwiches and in the world of feedback. With a wrap, it’s overlapping layers of bread and meat – not as straightforward as the traditional sandwich paradigm, but can be equally delicious, and effective.
So, for example, in the world of feedback – instead of starting with positive feedback, delivering a critical message, and ending with feedback, you might really mix them together. You might ask someone what they think about their performance, and then ask if you could share your impressions as well, and have a discussion about it. You’re providing critique, but couching it as your subjective interpretation that is open to debate and discussion. And as far as a “Harshness Score”… probably hard to tell and depends a lot on the situation and the delivery.
Few of us love to give negative feedback, but as you see there are many different options on the menu. The key in the end is to pick one that works for you, enables you to deliver the message the other person needs to hear, and to do so with honesty and dignity.
Have you ever tried a sandwich approach for giving feedback? What’s your favorite version?
Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017). Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.