• The Death of the Feedback Sandwich

    by  • March 7, 2014 • OD and L&D • 2 Comments

    Do you serve your employees feedback sandwiches during appraisal season? Here are some refreshing alternatives to stale-bread-clad fillings.

    Do you serve your employees feedback sandwiches during appraisal season? Here are some refreshing alternatives to stale-bread-clad fillings.

    I read an article by Roberto Verganti a while back about how organisations should treat negative feedback or criticism from customers. This has greater implications, though. Criticism and negative feedback permeate throughout our working life, and over the years a lot has been done to minimise the bad effects of “bad” feedback.

    No such thing as “bad feedback”

    From the back of the high horse of theory, there is no such thing as bad feedback. There is just feedback that’s given badly. Every piece of criticism that you have in your head can be put bluntly, or in a hurtful way, or not.

    This notion gave way to all sorts of research (some more controversial than others) about the effect of negative criticism, and having a strength based approach. Sadly, the attempt to apply the resulted in a practical business environment gave birth to mechanisms such as the “Feedback Sandwich”, or praise/criticism ratio that strongly encourage (or coerce) people to meet stringent demands.

    You can see this in appraisal forms and 360s. “Use the box below to write 3 things you wish your colleague to stop doing”, quickly followed by “For every item written above, write 4 things your colleague does really well”.

    Watered down criticism doesn’t cut it

    While these mechanisms mean well, they are rarely living up to their potential. Furthermore, the more prevalent they are in organisations, they lose more context . They become “just another thing that HR wants us to do”, and all the meaning behind them disappears.

    That leaves us with a double-edged problem: The feedback employees receive is watered down and still delivered badly. So the employee doesn’t really know what they should be doing to get better, probably because their manager doesn’t know how to say it to them in a way that will make sense, or even motivate them.

    Fix your feedback mechanisms

    Here are some ideas adapted from Verganti’s points about criticism. These apply to employees as well as line managers:

    Collect data carefully. Think about the information you want people to give you (about yourself or your team). Think about the questions you are asking. Sometimes there are questions you can ask (for example, nominating team members for annual awards, choosing project buddies, etc.) that can speak volumes of who works well and who doesn’t.

    And by no means bring in mechanisms like appraisals and 360 without laying the interpersonal groundworks and pouring in the foundation of context. Just because it worked in a previous workplace, doesn’t make it a magic wand that will work in any organisation.

    Read the data carefully. Now you have your data, give it context. Remember that people who do okay can often go unnoticed because they don’t ruffle feathers. Another fundamental truth is about the state of the person giving feedback – if they are fed up with the organisation, they are more likely to nitpick. Last but not least, people tend to take the volume of complaints down a few notches if the organisation is undergoing massive changes. Similarly, they will turn the volume up to 11 if they think they are untouchable.

    Understand your own position. How are you affected by the organisation? Where do you view yourself – are you untouchable, or do you need to play nice? Are there things going on in your life (outside work) that are having an impact? Be honest.

    Engage with newcomers. Newcomers are a wonderful stock of insight – they are not yet used to “the way things are done around here”, they have expectations, they tend to be more attuned to little things that we stop paying attention to after a while, because they become habit, they are part of the day to day reality. More often than not they are also more keen to help and network.

    Preserve the integrity of the process. Stay true to the fact this needs to be a twice-a-year (or thrice-a-year) event, that it has implication on performance and overall organisational measurements. It is a critical conversation that can be conducted very informally, but don’t turn “informality” to “piss take”.

    Also, remember that this is a two way conversation. Both parties should listen, and both should be listened to. Approaching this conversation on an equal footing as possible is likely to make it more effective. (If you want to learn more about having equal conversations, read Edgar Schien’s Process Consultation Revisited).

    If it’s broken – fix it. If the process isn’t working, change it. But make sure you understand why you appraise the way that you do. Understand the purpose, understand the rationale, challenge them. Consider the cultural realities and implications. A strength based approach is not something you train in two hours, it is a shift in mindset. Treat it as such.

    …and for heavens’ sake – stop sandwiching your feedback, unless you have really good bread. There is nothing sadder than stale and soggy bread that’s void of gastronomic joy.


    What do you think? Should feedback sandwiches be abolished? Let us know – comment below!

    Would you like some help creating a meaningful appraisal system in your organisation? Drop us a line.


    Photo credit lockstockb via sxc.hu.

    2 Responses to The Death of the Feedback Sandwich

    1. March 13, 2014 at 8:13 am

      The feedback sandwich is definitely past it’s best before date now! Giving feedback is rarely taught well, ..and neither is how to question the giver, to understand how to implement a change! You are right, one’s ‘position’ in a company is rarely acknowledged.

      • March 17, 2014 at 9:03 am

        Thanks, Caroline!
        I do wonder, though… While we make these observations, how many organisations will own up to it and do something about it? — especially as I think there is great potential for sustainable, cost-effective improvement simply be tweaking the appraisal process.

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