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Ban the Feedback Sandwich!

Posted by Shelli Jackson on 02/09/2016
Delivering feedback can be so tough for many managers, but doing it well it is a crucial skill needed to develop your people and lead a successful team.  During this first quarter of 2016, we know that many of you have either recently held or will be holding annual performance appraisal meetings with your employees. While the goal is for these discussions to lead to boosts in performance, the reality is that they are often approached in a way that is ineffective and is even disliked by employees.  

Managers are typically taught to hold appraisal discussions in a balanced way that highlights the employee’s strengths and accomplishments, identifies areas in need of improvement, and then ends on a positive note with compliments (i.e., the feedback sandwich).  While this seems like a fair and palatable approach, the problem is that there’s no clear message! Rockstar employees may leave feeling deflated and underperformers may feel encouraged by your balanced message.  This is the exact opposite of the result wanted.  

So, if it is ineffective and disliked, then why do so many managers continue to sandwich the feedback?  Fear of confrontation is the primary driver for many people.  We worry that by giving direct constructive feedback, our employee will react negatively and may dislike us.  Our fear of confrontation gets in the way of providing the difficult feedback.  We end up avoiding the conversation or softening it too much through use of the feedback sandwich.  It becomes a missed opportunity to establish open dialogue to correct problems and develop plans for improved performance.

While it can be painful to directly confront poor or problematic performers, the cost of avoidance can also be high for your team.  Research looking at the effects of toxic colleagues (i.e., those who withhold effort, deenergizers, and those who are interpersonally disrespectful of others) on work groups indicates that withholding negative feedback from such people results in a significant cost to the team.  Work groups with even one person who fit this category suffered a performance disadvantage of 30-40% compared to groups without a toxic colleague.  That is a huge loss! Negative interactions with toxic colleagues can clearly do a lot of damage to your team and are crucial to address.  

In his book, “How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals", performance management expert Dick Grote recommends a very different approach to delivering feedback in performance appraisals.  He advocates for tailoring your approach to the type of performer with whom you are meeting.  Specifically, he recommends that you:

1.    Focus on successes and positives with solid and rockstar employees.
2.    Concentrate on areas in need of improvement or immediate correction when talking with underperformers and problem employees.
In contrast to the mixed message of the feedback sandwich, the take away here is to provide a clear, one-sided message in your appraisal discussions.  

Remember that the cost of avoiding or sandwiching negative feedback far outweighs the brief period of discomfort you must tolerate in order to deliver it.  Not only is it a disservice to the employee, but it punishes your entire team.  Challenge yourself this year to overcome avoidance and resist sandwiching your feedback in discussions with employees.  Have the courage to give honest, direct, and professional feedback during performance appraisals and in feedback throughout the year.  Your team will thank you and, most likely, the employee will, too.  

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