Healthier feedback sandwiches

You’re familiar with a “feedback sandwich”, right? It’s a fairly simple management tool for giving someone feedback: you start with something positive, then point out the area for improvement, then end on something positive again. The negative feedback is sandwiched between two pieces of positive feedback. Simple.

I learned how to use this tool in an early job. Effective people management is a difficult thing to learn, because it sits at the intersection of knowledge, habit, personality, and context. You can’t read a few things in a classroom and then go manage well. Like a craft, management is a practice best developed through something closer to apprenticeship or coaching. The feedback sandwich is one of the few techniques that can be easily taught and broadly applied; most of management is more nuanced.

Which is why I was surprised to discover that the sandwich has quite a few detractors. See, for example, “Ban the Feedback Sandwich,” and, “The ‘Sandwich Approach’ Undermines Your Feedback.” The detractors tend to characterize the approach as some combination of manipulative (because it seeks to manage the recipient’s feelings by easing them into the feedback) or confusingly indirect (because the “real”/negative feedback gets buried). From my experience as a manager and trainer, this stems from a basic misunderstanding of the technique.

Positive feedback serves more than a cosmetic purpose. Most importantly: Positive feedback is honest. Everything in the world has both good and bad aspects. If you watch a failed presentation and only point out the bad things that your colleague did, you’re doing a disservice to what actually took place. Something went well, I promise.

If fidelity to reality isn’t enough for you, think about positive feedback’s other critical functions. First, as a manager, you have a vested interest in seeing positive behavior continue. You’d better recognize it or risk seeing it squeezed out of the picture. Second, recognizing positive contributions builds credibility with the feedback recipient. It demonstrates empathy. It shows you were paying attention and thinking critically, rather than simply looking for something to criticize.

Where I think the sandwich’s detractors have a good point is on the sequencing. I don’t think the order matters as much as the metaphor suggests. An open-faced sandwich (or feedback pizza?) can work just as well. What’s important is that both aspects are there. I still generally try to end on a positive note, but that has more to do with the long-term management relationships I try to cultivate, rather than the specifics of that piece of feedback.

In fact, the long-term relationship is important context for the feedback sandwich. This is a quick snack, not a complete diet. It’s the two-minute feedback you give after a meeting or when reviewing a first draft. It should not be your only feedback channel or format. You could imagine an hour-long performance review being structured in the same way (20 minutes positive, 20 minutes negative, 20 minutes positive?) but I don’t think it’d be a very useful structure. Longer conversations can take advantage of the luxury of meandering routes.

Finally, note that the technique is infinitely adaptable. Much like the infinite culinary variations of the sandwich (burgers, tortas, bánh mì, paninis, etc.), the technique should be adapted to context. This is also the point where an apparently simple technique borderlines on management craft.

Photo: Julien Sister