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Constructive feedback OK but not with bread!


I want to bury forever the sandwich method of giving constructive feedback. Far too often I see it recommended by trainers, who seldom actually have to give that kind of feedback in reality. It’s just spouted out on ‘first-line managers’ courses or workshops and it works like this. First off you praise the person’s strengths or abilities. This is the first slice of bread. Then you tell them where they can improve which is the filling (possibly indigestible) and finally you slap on the top piece of bread and praise them again so they go away apparently feeling great about themselves. I would argue this method doesn’t work for anyone but the feedback giver! The moment someone starts telling me about my strengths I can hear the ’but’ coming like a runaway train. It is always pretty feeble generalities in the praise section because this being said to sweeten you up to stop you bursting into tears or shouting at them, when they really tell you what’s wrong with your work, your project, or your time keeping. To make constructive feedback useful and developmental you need to be honest and straightforward not confusing the receiver with mixed messages. One way to do that is to first offer to give the feedback: - “I would like to give you some feedback which might help to improve the way you tackle this project. Would you be happy for me to give you this feedback?” If they agree you can give your view and suggestions for improvement. If they say no there is no point in your wasting your breath or time because they are not going to learn from it anyway. Feedback is only for helping people to improve their skills or aptitudes and it should never be confused with disciplining an employee. As a friend recently remarked to me if you bite into a red chilli sandwich do you remember the bread? Great coaches give great feedback to their coachees, be they athletes or senior business people. And I’ve never seen any top coaches or mentors confuse their clients with sloppy sandwich making! Charlotte Mannion runs workshops helping people learn how to give difficult feedback for developmental purposes.

6 Responses

  1. Spot on!
    Hi Charlotte

    I’m totally with you on the ubiquitous ‘praise sandwich’, but have also experienced it at the other end of the spectrum. Like an over-priced motorway service station sandwich, I’ve seen ‘constructive’ sandwich feedback being delivered where the portion of filling (i.e. the ‘negative’) was almost non-existent and swamped by the ‘positive’ bread, and the individual concerned didn’t really hear the real message and went away thinking they were doing a great job and the key behaviour didn’t change!

    Let’s ban sandwiches from feedback!


  2. Good example

    — Charlotte Mannion

    Great example Owen.  The sanwich method is obviously been designed for people who are afraid to give feedback.  I once received feedback from a boss once where I went away seriously unsure if I was going to be promoted or be made redundant!!!

  3. Amen to that

    Great post

    I’ve hated the ‘Feedback Sandwich’, ‘Praise Sandwich’, ‘Ship* Sandwich’ since my first real job, where I was bombarded with this style of coaching on a daily basis… it’s dated, obvious and fails regularly. I’m definately using the idea of ‘Chilli Sandwich’ when explaining my discomfort at this

    My terribly cheesy Friday afternoon inspiration is: The Sandwich is dead long live the Wrap, the ‘Feedback Wrap’ where the Feedback (Filling) is wrapped up with professional, developmental style of coaching… I’m stopping now before I wonder how the ‘Feedback Vol au Vont’ works…


  4. Feedback

    Well said.  I agree that this method of feedback is totally disingenuous and quite cowardly really, yet i have within living memory, had to sit and listen to a fellow trainer offer this model to a group. 

  5. Interesting. isn’t it?

    Important stuff, well put. Thanks!

    Since it does not work, I wonder why people continue to train and apply the sandwich method?

    I suppose it does give some structure, which helps those people who are anxious about giving the feedback some short-term comfort – and it is amaozing what people will do for short-term comfort.

    John Gottman has shown that for marital relationships to work, there needs to be about a 5:1 ratio of positive comments to negative comments. Barbara Fredrickson found a similar 3:1 ratio between people in general and Marcial Losada found for business teams that a minimum of 3:1, an ideal of 6:1 and declining effect above 11:1 ( the Pollyanna effect) of positive to negative comments, 

    We can understand those ratios from our own experiences and there are neurological explanations. When a person feels judged, criticised or even compared, there is  relaease of adrenalin. That affects how they process infromation. It tends to make their thinking more black and white and mostly negative. It typically reduces memory and cognitive ability. literally creating a closed mind. This had evolutionary advantages, but our modern environment has evolved to more complexity than we can easily handle. The next problem is that if we do not physically overcome whatever is threatening us, the adrenaline turns to cortisol which leads to the chronic debilitating stress that wears us down and reduces our resilience. 

    Conversely, when we feel appreciated, valued and safe, oxytocin is released taht makes us more trusting, more openminded and genrally increases our cognitive ability. A hypothesis is that adrenalin is stronger and fast acting than ocytocin for good eveloutionary reasons

    The answer is not to fake positivity or think of sandwich things for the special occasion of ‘giving feedback’, but genuinely to look for positive things to notice and comment on as they occur, briefly, matt-of-factly and appreciatively and equally briefly and directly to mention the occasional act that has limited a person’s ability to add the value they want to add.   




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