Stop Giving ‘Shit Sandwich’ Feedback (and What to Do Instead)

Stop Giving ‘Shit Sandwich’ Feedback (and What to Do Instead)
Photo: Rommel Canlas, Shutterstock

If you’ve ever had a manager, you’ve likely received feedback; feedback which may have been delivered via a “shit sandwich,” where negative feedback was packaged between two layers of positivity. (It’s alternately known as a “praise sandwich” which is not nearly as fun to say.) This approach involves first complimenting an employee on some aspect of their performance (the bottom slice of bread), slipping in the critique (the proverbial shit), and topping it off with another compliment or acknowledgement of that employee’s value (the top slice of bread).

The theory behind this common technique, popularised by The One Minute Manager, is that the positive reinforcement flanking the criticism in this “good-bad-good” format will help the employee feel less attacked by the layer of corned beef critique snuck in the middle of those slices of rye. But while the ostensible objective is to spare the person’s feelings and make feedback more palatable, it often only succeeds in making the manager feel more comfortable, while leaving the recipient in a state of unease, defensiveness, or complete confusion. While it may work for some, it often backfires. Here’s why — and what to do instead.

People see it coming

For many, it’s not their first time at the Shit Sandwich Rodeo, and they’re already girding themselves for its arrival when you wind up the first compliment — which they will largely tune out in anticipation of “the bad news.”

It feels inauthentic

When criticism is delivered neatly between two snippets of praise, it feels scripted, which can make the compliments feel like superficial, obligatory additions, rather than the truth. As soon as they detect the presence of a formula, it’s easy for the listener to feel like the compliments were simply conjured to fit the equation — aka, fake.

People focus on the negative

Great work today! The presentation went on a bit longer than it needed to — let’s try to shorten it up in the future. But the information was very helpful for the team.

What do you retain from the above sentences — that you did great work, or that you apparently rambled on for too long? While presumably the uber-confident among us could filter out the “it was boring” piece of the sandwich, the more natural human tendency is to disregard the fluff at both ends and instead focus solely on the screw-up.

Or they don’t even register the negative

Sometimes, the shit sandwich works so well, it obscures the feedback entirely. When Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago, conducted an experiment where half her class was told to give negative feedback to the other half, the criticised students were left with a feeling that they were, in fact, performing well. As Fishbach explained, “negative feedback is often buried and not very specific.”

What to do instead

Feedback is a necessary part of growth and development and must be given in order for people to meet expectations — not to mention improve their professional skill set. So how should it be given? Here are some alternatives.

In an episode of the Grey Matter podcast, as reported by Inc., Google director of engineering Sarah Clatterbuck outlined her winning formula for providing clear feedback.

  1. Note the behaviour that’s holding the employee back.
  2. Explain why the behaviour is causing a problem.
  3. Have the person reflect back the importance of the behaviour.
  4. Finally, let them figure out how to fix it.

The example Clatterbuck shared began with telling an employee, “you are often off by an order of magnitude in your estimates” followed by detailing the impacts (e.g., cancelled PR campaign, prolonged support of an old app). After asking, “Do you understand why this is so important?” and waiting for them to demonstrate that understanding, you close by asking, “What’s your suggestion for making sure this doesn’t happen in the future?” This shifts the responsibility for behavioural change back to the employee, which is more likely to be effective than if they’re simply asked to follow their superior’s suggestions.

Feedback best practices

Here are some additional best practices to ensure we give feedback that has the best chance of achieving desired results.

Ask if they’re open to feedback: Of course, some feedback must be given regardless of the other person’s desire to take it on board. But if it’s not urgent, try saying, “I’ve noticed a couple of things in your work process that I’d like to share with you. Are you open to feedback?” According to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, when people take ownership of receiving feedback, they’ll be less defensive.

Explain your intentions (and come from a place of care): Expressing a genuine desire to help someone through feedback can go a long way towards them receiving it more constructively. Let them know you’re giving feedback precisely because you believe in them and their potential. According to UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, “In one study, researchers made feedback 40% more effective by prefacing it with this: ‘I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.’”

Give feedback in private: Whenever possible, avoid giving feedback when a person is surrounded by co-workers. In addition to the potential feelings of surprise, inadequacy, or failure they may experience, the employee will also have to contend with a side of embarrassment.

Focus on observed behaviour, not the person as a whole: Make the feedback about the behaviour you witnessed, not about the person, overall. Describe specifics (“I noticed the presentation had several spelling errors”) not sweeping judgments (“I noticed your work has been sloppy lately.”)

Encourage open discussion: Feedback should not be a one-way street. Always invite the other person’s response and encourage honest conversation. Acknowledge this is your interpretation, and express curiosity about their’s. “Is there anything I might be missing?” and “What’s your perception of this?” can help generate candid discussion.

Watch your non-verbals: Keep in mind that our words are only part of the message; our faces and bodies are conveying information the entire time we’re speaking. Delivering feedback with smiles, nods, and open body language (un-crossed arms, for one), will leave the recipient feeling better than if that same information is conveyed through frowns and narrowed eyes.

Give feedback truthfully and frequently: In his book Principles for Dealing With the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail, Ray Dalio, founder of the largest hedge fund in the world, Bridgewater Associates, says “constant, clear, and honest feedback” paired with discussion and an open-mind will achieve the best learning. “Providing this feedback constantly is the most effective way to train.”

And for those of us on the receiving end, he has the following advice, “Realise that you have nothing to fear from truth. Understanding, accepting, and knowing how to effectively deal with reality are crucial for achieving success.”

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