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We’ve probably all been in this performance review conversation before.
Your boss gets to the point in the conversation where areas of improvement are to be addressed. And at the beginning of the conversation, your manager expresses positive feedback. In fact, they report that you handled last quarter’s demo with a customer really well. But somewhere in the middle of the conversation, they mentioned you could’ve done better with presenting data. But then, they quickly reiterate that you're doing a really great job.
If this type of feedback sounds familiar to you, you’ve been served up a feedback sandwich. Whether giving or receiving feedback, this style can be appealing. It can essentially cushion the “bad” part of the conversation with two bookended “good” sections.
But here’s the problem with feedback sandwiches: they’re confusing and possibly not effective. The direct report walks away either not clear on what they need to improve on or the relative urgency or importance of working on it. After all, how important could it be given it was just a small part of the conversation?
Leaders admit to using this approach because they’re uncomfortable giving negative feedback. Our workforce is diverse, layered with different cultures, generations, backgrounds, and more. In The Culture Map, Erin Meyers discusses that the feedback sandwich can create friction across different cultures.
For example, she gives an example of an American manager using the feedback sandwich method with a French direct report. It left both the manager and the direct report feeling confused and misaligned. The manager felt the direct report wasn’t taking the feedback to heart. Meanwhile, the employee felt they weren’t receiving direct, actionable feedback. Ultimately, it stifled their career development.
On the other hand, others argue that the feedback sandwich still has a time and a place. Some have made the case that the feedback sandwich is certainly not for every situation. But with the right circumstances, the feedback sandwich makes negative feedback more palatable. And in some industries, it might work better than in others.
So, does the feedback sandwich work or not? Should you use the feedback sandwich method in your organization? Here’s everything you need to know.
What is a feedback sandwich?
First, let’s understand what a feedback sandwich is before we get into if it’s effective.
What is a feedback sandwich?
A feedback sandwich is a method of feedback where positive feedback serves as a cushion to negative feedback. Generally, a manager or superior delivers positive feedback. Then, they deliver critical or constructive feedback and close with positive feedback.
Now, let’s understand the different steps to give a feedback sandwich.
3 steps of a feedback sandwich
There are three components — or ingredients — to a feedback sandwich.
- Step one: Praise. The conversation starts with positive feedback. In this step, the person giving feedback reiterates praise and what the person receiving feedback is doing well.
- Step two: Negative feedback. This is where the “sandwich” comes into play. In the middle of the conversation, the person giving feedback relays the negative or constructive feedback.
- Step three: Praise. Lastly, the conversation ends with another section devoted to positive feedback. The intent of ending with praise is to end on a good note.
Have you ever been in a situation where you received a feedback sandwich? Or, are you a manager who tends to deliver constructive feedback in this structure? Take a moment to reflect on your own experience with feedback, both giving and receiving. Has this worked well for you? What hasn’t worked well? What has helped you grow and learn?
Now, let’s get into the pros and cons of a feedback sandwich.
7 pros and cons of a feedback sandwich
Like most things, there are downsides and upsides to leveraging the feedback sandwich. Here’s what you need to know.
- In some situations, it can soften the impact of negative feedback. One of the main reasons people use the feedback sandwich is because it softens the blow, so to speak. In certain scenarios, positive feedback can help cushion the impact of negative feedback. But it’s important to note that this really only works if the two parties are clearly communicating. It's important that both parties have a good understanding of each other’s communication styles.
For example, Erin Meyers talks about high- and low-context cultures when it comes to communication in her book, The Culture Map. People in low-context cultures tend to communicate very clearly. On the other side, people in high-context cultures tend to operate with the assumption that context is understood. It’s a communication style that asks folks to read between the lines to understand the context. From there, then you can decipher the message.
If a person who operates in a high-context culture is giving feedback to a person in a low-context culture, it’s likely that the feedback sandwich method won’t work well. The communication styles and delivery, while done with good intent, could cause friction and confusion. Be cognizant of the cultural differences within your organization if you’re choosing to “soften” the message.
- For the person giving feedback, it can make it easier to give negative feedback. Let’s face it: giving negative feedback is tough. And we know not many people wake up every morning excited to give negative feedback to their direct reports.
On its face, the feedback sandwich can help the person giving feedback ease into constructive criticism. It may help alleviate some of the upfront anxiety around giving negative feedback. Basically, it can help the feedback giver feel better about giving negative feedback.
- It helps to end the meeting or conversation on a positive note. Similar to the above, the feedback sandwich helps to end the meeting or conversation on a positive note. This strategy allows for the conversation to end with praise. It focuses the closing of the conversation on what the person is doing well in this particular role or situation.
- It can build more tension and confusion between managers and direct reports. Have you ever been in a feedback sandwich and left the conversation more confused than you were before? Same.
As cited in the Harvard Business Review article above, the feedback sandwich approach can be undermining. It’s designed to influence others without blatantly telling your employees what you’re doing. In some ways, it can feel like a method of unilateral control. And when employees leave these conversations without clear and direct communication, it can create tension.
In a 2019 survey, Gallup found only 26% of employees found feedback to be effective. But why is that? Part of this results from the lack of asking for feedback. On one hand, it’s important for organizations to encourage asking for and being receptive to feedback.
Employees are more likely to find feedback effective if they’re asking for it. The feedback sandwich lends itself to a reactive approach as opposed to proactive coaching. If you’re receiving a feedback sandwich, it’s likely that you haven’t asked for it.
It’s better to pair reactive feedback with a proactive, forward-thinking tactic. And that’s where virtual coaching comes into play. Coaching helps to better equip employees to fulfill their potential in the future.
- It isn’t culturally inclusive. Our workforce is more global than ever, especially with the rise in hybrid and remote work. For example, at BetterUp, we have employees all over the globe and teams that span many countries.
That means cultural differences are more prevalent than ever, which can inherently lead to friction. The feedback sandwich operates on a very Western and, arguably, American -style of communication.
Because it requires the person receiving feedback to decipher the action and negative feedback given, it can cause distrust. When employees don’t feel they can trust their employers, it can cause ripple effects across belonging and psychological safety.
- It can create more anxiety for your employees. While the upfront anxiety for the feedback giver can be alleviated with a feedback sandwich, it can cause more anxiety for your employees. Your employees are also human. They can pick up when you feel uneasy or anxious. And they can also pick up on when you aren’t being direct. They know when there’s a little dance around the elephant in the room.
Again, it’s good to make sure that you’re evaluating each situation on a case-by-case situation. But being direct and clear in your communication — while leading with empathy — is a sure-fire way to reduce anxiety.
- It can encourage bad listening habits. It’s hard to listen to indirect communication. A feedback sandwich lends itself to bad listening habits.
An employee could leave the conversation thinking that everything is going just fine. And if that’s the case, that means they likely won’t adjust their behavior or actions to adjust to that negative feedback. Or, an employee can choose to only focus on the positive (even if they did hear the negative).
Encouraging active listening requires clear, direct, and kind communication. Consider your communication skills and ways you can strengthen your communication strategies.
Examples of a feedback sandwich
Let’s look at a couple of examples to help illustrate the pros and cons of a feedback sandwich.
A people manager named Mike manages a team of seven people. Because Mike’s company is global and most folks work from home, Mike has three employees who work in different countries. While Mike is based in California, his employee Monica is based in Germany.
Recently, Mike has noticed that Monica hasn’t been closing as many deals in the EMEA market as she should be to be on target for quarterly goals. He sits in on a few of her prospective demo calls and realizes that Monica needs some coaching on her communication skills. She doesn’t clearly communicate the value proposition of their product to the prospective customers.
Instead of giving Monica feedback in real-time, Mike decides to wait until her performance review in two weeks. He tells her that she’s been doing really well with illustrating data. He tells Monica that she puts together fantastic decks and does a great job building relationships with the prospect.
But then, he slides in a comment or two about how she could do better with her delivery and communication. He mentions that he’s not sure if the prospects are understanding the value of the product. Finally, he closes with how impressed he is with her performance and decides to give her a merit increase.
A couple of weeks later, Mike sits in on another demo call with Monica. He notices that nothing has changed about her presentation skills. He’s confused and frustrated — and now Monica is confused and frustrated that he’s still sitting in on her calls.
Monica is used to direct, clear communication. In Germany, it’s common for people to speak very directly and to the point. She walked away from her performance review thinking that she was doing everything right. And now, both manager and employee are dissatisfied.
This is just one example of a feedback sandwich and the issues it can cause in the workplace. What are some examples you can think of? Have you given feedback in this method before? Have you received a feedback sandwich?
5 alternative strategies for giving feedback
The feedback sandwich method isn’t always the best. But the good news? There are alternatives to the feedback sandwich. Here are X alternative strategies for giving feedback:
- Real-time feedback
- Upward feedback
- Constructive feedback
Start using effective feedback
Critical feedback can be hard to deliver. While it might be tempting to use a compliment sandwich, it’s important to understand what lever you want to pull. Employee performance hinges on trust, psychological safety, and a culture of coaching and feedback.
It’s hard to find the best approach to employee feedback. With so many feedback methods and feedback techniques, you have plenty of options. But it’s also important to foster a sense of belonging and be cognizant of personal feelings, culture, and more. Your team members are human beings. And bad news for humans isn’t always easy to hear.
At our recent team offsite, 15 members of my team gathered and talked about The Culture Map. Specifically, all of us expressed a preference for clear, direct feedback. People are hungry for actionable insight. It's worse if you don't know where you stand.
If you’re ready to invest in the potential of your workforce, consider BetterUp. You can use a multi-faceted approach to building a culture of feedback in tandem with a culture of coaching. With a proactive coaching approach coupled with corrective feedback, you can help your workforce thrive.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.