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Useful feedback is not a sandwich

Imagine you're about to give some unpleasant critical feedback to someone who is definitely going to have a hard time taking it. What's your first instinct?

If you're like most managers, your instinct is to do something to soften the blow. Maybe start with a compliment or some general praise like, "We love having you on the team" or "In general, things are going pretty well." And then you eke out the tough feedback and likely want to end with something that makes you feel better and lightens the tone like, "But in general things are going well!" or "But that's really the only thing on my mind."

This is what we call a feedback sandwich, and tip number four out of the eight ways to make feedback more useful is to make sure you're not delivering a feedback sandwich.

Sugarcoating the feedback or starting with praise may make you feel better, but unfortunately, it muddies the water for the recipient. An article from the New York Times backs me up on this:

In a class she teaches, Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago and co-author of the paper “Tell Me What I Did Wrong,” conducts a simulation where half the class gives one-on-one feedback to the other half. Although the feedback givers were supposed to indicate that performance was unsatisfactory, that improvement was needed and to offer ways to do better, in surveys filled out later, the half getting the feedback “thinks they’re doing great,” she said.

This says to me that most feedback is not direct enough, rather than too direct. So if you're still concerned about hurting someone's feelings or having feedback received poorly, focus the feedback on behavior, not personality. And then cut out the sugarcoating and unrelated praise, and make sure you're being both direct and sensitive.

Direct & Sensitive

Being direct, clear, and to the point about feedback while using a caring, thoughtful tone can help. To help better define what we mean by "direct" and "sensitive," let's look at what feedback can sound like when it's direct but insensitive:

  • "You’re impossible to work with and it’s driving people nuts!"

  • "You need to take at least half of the responsibilities in this proposal because it’s your project and I have a lot on my plate already."

  • "Can you just stop being so difficult?"

Being direct but insensitive can lead to hurt feelings, accusations, and more of the reaction you're trying to avoid.

When feedback is indirect and sensitive, it might sound like:

  • "Do you think that maybe you could change the way you interact with the team?"

  • "I’m feeling like maybe some people on this project are taking on perhaps more than their fair share of the responsibility."

  • "Could you be a little different?"

Being indirect and sensitive, while likely leading to a calmer interaction, could also simply confuse the recipient about what's being discussed and whether or not it's a problem.

That's why direct and sensitive together is the best choice. You're clear with the recipient about what's wrong or what needs to change, but you're not accusing them of it or tiptoeing around it:

  • "The team is feeling frustrated by the way you interrupt them in meetings. Can we talk about it?"

  • "I noticed that I own a lot of action items on this project.  How can we better distribute responsibilities?"

  • "In the last few meetings, I've noticed you've shot down teammates' ideas without letting them finish - this is making them unhappy."

The feedback sandwich is an established practice in many institutions. So if you're not willing to give it up, I suggest trying it a couple of times without the "bread" and seeing how it's different. If it's better, go feedback low-carb! But if it's not, don't mess with something that's working.

And if you don't believe me, you can read it from Harvard, Forbes, or Inc.

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