What’s wrong with a ‘feedback sandwich’?

Experienced givers of feedback will know the alternative (and more widely used) name for this workplace snack. Whatever they’re called, I’m not a fan of them. I’ve lost count of the number of times this point has come up during Zoomly’s ‘How to give effective feedback’ workshops. Someone asks,

“What’s so wrong with the old @*$% sandwich?”

There follows a short detour whilst those who aren’t familiar with the term have their knowledge gap filled by eager exponents of the sandwich. “Oh, you know, it’s when you give someone a good comment to begin with, then some bad and then some good again to finish up with.” The phrase “butter them up” has also featured.

Sandwich fans typically point out that they ‘soften the blow’ and people don’t feel so bad – both the giver and recipient. It’s easier to have a potentially tricky conversation by dressing it up in good news or downright flattery. Surely they’ll get the message?

No, they won’t. Human nature being what it is, the sandwich recipient may remember the bread and butter or the filling. Those who tend to a negative view will notice the comments about where they’re going wrong. Others who are focused on the positive will choose to hear what they’re doing well. The majority, being somewhere in the middle, will be confused.

It’s a mixed message that benefits the giver far more than the recipient. What’s more, over time any praise will be devalued by the recipient, who’s learned the foul-smelling sandwich filling is about to be delivered.

When feedback works well it pinpoints the recipient’s behaviour. By that I mean it defines the behaviour by using verbs, not adjectives. Behaviour is observable; I like to say it ‘passes the impartial observer test’. Adjectives are the speaker’s opinion and may not pass the test. Indeed, the opinion may be challenged.

Take these steps to stop serving sandwiches and start giving the gift of clear feedback:

Observe. Lazy feedback – whether positive or negative – is littered with adjectives. If you find you’re thinking a colleague is ‘being proactive’ or ‘being defensive’ you need to observe more closely and think more clearly. What is the person actually doing? Would one of your peers agree with you?

Empathise. It’s not about you, getting it off your chest. It’s about the person and their performance. If they’ve done something well (or not), tell them what you noticed about how they did it.

Simplify. Feedback that’s clear doesn’t need a paragraph. It’s a short and sweet comment, best given in the flow of work.

Practise. Some of us need more practice than others – if you find the whole ‘feedback thing’ excruciatingly awkward you may need to make extra effort.


You may find this post useful: ‘Giving actionable feedback needs action words’


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’

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Image credits: Sandwich with ham and cheese – @blueringmedia – Depositphotos

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