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The problem with the ‘feedback sandwich’ - Lessons From the Training Room

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

Finding better ways to deliver feedback.

When we’re in the training room, we ask participants if they are familiar with the ‘crap sandwich’ and most of those in attendance know what we are talking about. The notion of sandwiching negative feedback (the crap) between positive feedback (the bread) started in the nineties and it made perfect sense - people experience a threat response to constructive feedback and a reward response to positive feedback - so why not build that into the conversation.

Of the many issues that the sandwich poses it’s that these responses are not weighted equally. To ensure our constructive feedback doesn’t overwhelm the recipient we need to balance the feedback ledger. In a work context, people need to hear three or four pieces of positive feedback to counteract the negative and emotional impact of a constructive piece of feedback. At home that ratio is higher.

The key is consistent feedback of all kinds. We have a tendency to only give feedback when it is constructive - the idea that this is the only feedback of any worth. It’s easy to notice when things aren’t going well and we need to improve. We tend to ignore when colleagues are doing a good job, because it doesn’t interfere with our goals. Doing a good job is considered the norm, the minimum standard. We only have to deliver positive feedback if someone is going above and beyond, but as soon as someone dips under we are very quick to correct them.

If we only ever use positive feedback to sandwich our constructive feedback then that positive feedback becomes meaningless - we’re only mentioning it to give us permission to give the constructive feedback. Perhaps it was a clever little trick when only managers knew about it, but the ‘feedback sandwich’ has been around for a long time now. It has been so overused that people see it coming - particularly if it’s unusual to receive positive feedback, then a compliment will only pre-empt the threat response, because the recipient is waiting for the axe to fall.

Team members need to know when they are doing a good job, in order to continue doing a good job. The feedback ledger isn’t about throwing a few positives around before you sledge someone with something constructive. We’re wired to analyse what went wrong, but it is thrice as important to acknowledge what went right.

The feedback sandwich is no longer useful, and it never worked. Feedback should be authentic, genuine and immediate. If you see someone doing something well, then acknowledge that straight away. If you see someone doing something that needs correcting, then let them know about it immediately. The 3 to 1 balance exists, but it’s not about doing it all at once. It is about creating a culture of recognition and reward for work well done.

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