Don’t Eat That Sandwich!
“Say something positive. Say something negative. Say something positive.”
Ever heard of this feedback technique? It’s sometimes called a feedback sandwich. I don’t think you should eat it. Or even put it in the lunchbox.
In fairness, there’s good intent behind it. We don’t want to crush our teammates, after all. We’d also like to avoid them becoming defensive.
But at what cost?
For one thing, they may just miss the constructive critique. You call me in, start and finish with a positive, and I may walk out high-fiving my friends, “She said I’m doing great!” All sorts of things about me could make me “not hear” the more uncomfortable criticism in the middle.
The second thing is that it enables (in the bad way) some of us who are giving the critique. Those who show up to the feedback ring with giant marshmallow boxing gloves. We don’t like giving criticism and are maybe even squeamish about it! So the sandwich gives the opportunity for delivering huge buns of “keep it up!!” with a tiny slice of “fix this!” cheese hidden in the middle. It doesn’t matter who’s on the other end, that critique won’t survive the trip from mouth to ear.
Either way, the sandwich sets conditions for failure.
So should we just go around with word machine-guns, just “saying what’s on our mind?” No. Certainly not. (And if you have a habit of it, lean into some of your criticism-reluctant colleagues to discuss how that comes across and how to disassemble that machine gun.)
I think this is better than either sandwiches or machine-guns:
Ground the conversation in the reality that this person is a valued member of your team. That you value them. They are important. BECAUSE of that (not despite it), you need to give them direct feedback on something they need to change. If you’re a little squeamish about giving criticism, you can even say that. Then tell them the thing you want to see changed. Assure them you’ll do anything you can to help them, but repeat that the change needs to happen. Ask if they understand – bonus if you ask them to repeat it back to you. Maybe ask how you can help. Then finish up.
Ditch the sandwich. Maybe this way is more like eating vegetables. The ones that stink up the kitchen, but that everyone knows will keep us healthy.