Feedback is a touchy subject for me.
Even though I give it all day in my one-on-one speaker coaching sessions, I still find it hard to receive.
Sometimes I can plug into my rational mind, hear the critique I’m getting, and make use of it. But often, I have to fight off thoughts that are angry (“Yeah, like you could have done better!”) or groveling (“OK, OK, I’ll fix it but please stop telling me I did wrong”).
Why These Childish Reactions?
Well, leaving aside my actual childhood (which, for humans, is like leaving aside the fact that we all breathe :-)), the thought process goes something like this:
- I made a mistake
- Therefore I’m not perfect
- Therefore I’m probably worthless
- So let’s get this feedback moment over fast before anyone else notices
And yes, that sounds ridiculous.
Because it is ridiculous!!
But since you’re probably someone who cares about doing a good job (that’s who reads these blog posts), can you truly say that you’ve never had a similar thought?
The Feedback Sandwich
The gnarly relationship that many of us have with criticism is probably what birthed the idea of the “feedback” (or “praise”) sandwich.
The sandwich goes like this:
- The speaker starts by praising something about the listener’s performance.
- Then the speaker addresses what’s not going well.
- Then they close by again praising some aspect of the listener’s work.
It’s as if the feedback is sandwiched between two layers of praise.
Or, if you don’t like the sandwich metaphor, it’s like giving someone a spoonful of sugar (actually two) to help the feedback go down.
But does it work??
Feedback about the Feedback Sandwich
Roger Schwarz would say no. He wrote a 2013 Harvard Business Review article titled “The ‘Sandwich Approach’ Undermines Your Feedback.” (And BTW, I highly recommend Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alert. Sign up for free, and if you only skim the titles, you’ll still learn a ton about business.)
In Schwarz’s view,
…“easing in” creates the very anxiety [you’re] trying to avoid. The longer you talk without giving the negative feedback, the more uncomfortable you’re likely to become as you anticipate giving the negative news; your direct reports will sense your discomfort and become more anxious.
Schwarz is not alone. In 2022, Steve Lowisz wrote in Forbes that, with the feedback sandwich,
…you’re manipulating someone by distracting them from the main point—your constructive criticism.
And in an excellent article in Medium, Russ W. thinks the issues are that:
- Praise heightens sensitivity to criticism,
- Most employees would rather get the bad news out of the way,
- Giving good news right before bad news nullifies the good, and
- The feedback sandwich makes employees passive listeners.
None of this is the desired effect. So…
How Do You Give Constructive Criticism?
The suggestions that follow are based on a recent incident in which I gave feedback ineffectively. (Remember I said this is a loaded topic for me? :-))
Here’s what I will try to do next time:
1. Get the listener’s agreement to a conversation, by saying something like:
I’d like to bring up something that’s probably going to make us both uncomfortable. Are you OK with that?
2. Make the point quickly
I agree that, in general, people would prefer to get the critique over with. (I certainly would!) Writing out and practicing your key message in advance are great steps in that direction.
3. Offer help; you could say,
If what I’m saying makes sense to you, I have some thoughts about how to improve things. But first…
4. Let the listener comment
Do you want to say anything about the issue I’ve raised?
I’ll be testing out this approach; and if you get a chance to do that, too, let me know how it goes!
Keep the Filling, Lose the Bread
So often, in public speaking, we run into problems because we’re avoiding the thing that needs to be said.
And so often, the solution is to “just” say it!
Of course, there’s a world of complexity in that just—all kinds of fears and motives and memories that have to be disentangled and calmed.
It’s nice to think that a formula like the feedback sandwich is going to make this easier. But maybe the real trick is saying what needs to be said in a way that’s direct but not unkind.
You may feel briefly uncomfortable about this, but your thoughts will be more digestible when your listener hasn’t filled up on bread.