The Feedback Sandwich is Out to Lunch

by Shelle Rose Charvet

Jodi is waiting for Marco to come to her office. Today is feedback day and she has the Feedback Sandwich formula open on her desk.

Marco arrives and plunks himself down in the chair opposite Jodi, submitting himself reluctantly to what is about to occur. “I’m glad you’re here,” says Jodi, getting the ball rolling on an upbeat note. “Let’s talk about your presentation to the team yesterday. You were very enthusiastic about the project’s progress, and I also thought that….” Jodi stops as she notices Marco slumping in his chair, eyes cast downwards. “What’s wrong?” she asks.

Sighing out loud, Marco says, “Do we have to go through this crap? Just tell me what I did wrong and let’s get it over with.”

What happened to a meeting that was supposed to accentuate the positive? Why didn’t Marco even want to hear the positive feedback?

As many managers know, a feedback sandwich consists of criticism “sandwiched” between two positive comments, as follows:sandwich

Make a specific positive comment.
Critique and/or suggestion for improvement.
Overall positive comment.

It is intended to make criticism both easier to give and receive.

But here’s the problem: employees aren’t stupid. After a few examples where the boss ties criticism to compliments, the formula is easily recognized by anyone who has heard it more than once. So now everyone knows that as soon as you hear praise, you know that you will be criticized.

This has effectively changed the meaning of praise. Now it signifies that you have done something wrong. Is it any wonder Marco sat cringing in his chair waiting for the axe to fall?

Management theory has recognized for quite some time that creating and maintaining a positive emotional state is key to performance. Ask any athlete. Ask anyone who makes presentations. Ask a student about writing an exam. Ask anyone who makes a living curing others of performance anxiety.

And then let’s take the context of learning. Many people had stressful experiences at school or other environments that they describe as traumatic. When I was first hired in a French management training company, a well-known author and my senior consultant, conducted what he called “sales training” for myself and another newcomer to the firm. This consisted of video taping role plays between us and colleagues playing potential customers.

During the playback he pointed out everything we did wrong. For me this created a huge “Incompetency Attack”[1] where I became convinced I would never be able to sell and therefore would never ‘make it’ in this industry. This dreadful feeling lasted well over 6 months.

I found that neither direct criticism, nor the “Feedback Sandwich” model improved my ability to learn or my mood. There has got to be a better way, I thought for years.

I run an annual 2 week international Consultant/Trainer Certification Program in the Words That Change Minds model that I teach. Experienced trainers, consultants and corporate leaders attend from around the world. The program is very challenging and the participants’ performance is evaluated against clear standards for certification. In my experience the participants who learn the new skills quickest and easiest are those who immediately incorporate feedback and suggestions from me and the coaching staff, without justifying what they were doing and without feeling criticized or getting themselves into a bad state.

But each year a few people would freak out and have Incompetency Attacks. Over the years, my coaching team and I developed many strategies to help people manage their emotional state. We were using the traditional Feedback Sandwich to make performance improvement suggestions and we found it only made matters worse for just about everyone – including those participants who had no trouble being positive.

Then we tried inviting people to use techniques from the field known as Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) to create their own positive learning states. For a while, we had them label the negative feelings as an ‘Incompetency Attack’ and to realize it had nothing to do with their real level of competency.

One year we tried ignoring the problem, in the naïve hope that if we didn’t mention it, it wouldn’t happen. Ha! We developed “The Incompetency Attack Facilitation Approach” that the coaches could use to help people understand and move from their debilitating emotions to get back to a positive state. I even created a new technique, “The Success Strategies State Management Process” to help people recapture their own best strategies and transform their experience as learners. This strategy worked very well, once the stressed-out learners had had some distance and some time away from the stressful learning experience.

But it still bothered me that some people experience these devastating negative emotional states when they are learning a subject matter about which they are passionate. I knew there had to be another way. And I know there are many people who experience terribly demotivating negative stress states in the normal course of their work who need a better solution.

Once we had a smaller group than usual for the certification program. I decided that we would change the way we coached participants to see if we could reduce the number of Incompetency Attacks and increase the number of people who met the certification standards.

Instead of simply noticing what a participant did incorrectly and gently pointing that out, I decided that we would think about what we needed them to do instead and request that in a motivating way. Here is the formula we used when we wanted a participant to change something that he or she was doing:

  1. Make a suggestion.
  2. Give 2 reasons why we think it is a good idea: one reason states what the suggestion would accomplish (the benefit), and one reason would state what problem the suggestion would prevent or solve.
  3. Make an encouraging comment about the person, his/her abilities, etc.

We decided to forbid any criticism, either direct or implied. If anyone noticed something wrong, before speaking they were to think of what they wanted instead and express it in the above format.

Here’s an example:

“I was thinking that when you are asking a client about his needs, consider repeating back his key words (suggestion). This would allow you to make sure that your client knows you got what was important (benefit) and also avoid any misunderstandings (problem avoided) on the deliverables. You already acknowledge what is important to people by nodding so this should be do-able.(positive comment)”

This straight-forward formula is harder than you might think. It took the team of coaches a couple of days to be doing it fluently with each other without any critique. We also taught our participants to use this formula when giving each other suggestions instead of critiquing. And we threw out the traditional Feedback Sandwich altogether.

What were the results? For the first time since beginning the certification,  all eligible participants met the certification standards. While there were a couple of people who had some difficulty with some of the exercises, no one freaked out! Not one Incompetency Attack. And all we had done was shift the environment slightly!

This was a one-time experiment with a small group of people. Not the stuff of scientific inquiry. During the next year’s program we continued the experiment, only this time we had a much larger group. 33 participants from 17 different countries and 8 coaches from 8 different countries, so not only a significantly bigger group, but a much more diverse one in terms of languages and culture. Two participants left the program, one right away because her English language skills were insufficient and the other for personal reasons. Of the remaining 31 participants, all of them met the certification standards.

One person had difficulty maintaining a positive learning state because she was reliving some traumatic past associations towards the end of the program, but we were able to help her get back into sufficient shape to enable her to feel better and complete the requirements. Others had challenging moments because the program is challenging but for the most part, with some help from the coaches they stayed in a positive emotional state, and met the standards to achieve certification.

While this is clearly not enough to draw a scientific conclusion, I am left wondering what difference could we make in all our communications if we were to not only notice behaviors that don’t meet our needs, but to reflect on what we might like instead.

What if, instead of criticizing others, we requested what we wanted, gave a couple of reasons why (benefit and problem avoided or solved) and ended with an encouraging statement?
Would this reduce Incompetency Attacks?
Would we have fewer arguments and defensive reactions?
Would people learn new skills and adopt new ideas more quickly?

Wouldn’t it be great if you tried this out with your colleagues, participants, family, friends and audiences? You could find out if it does work and possibly avoid having people become defensive when you want to make a suggestion. It takes a bit of practice for it to become natural but after a couple of tries it is much easier.

I would love to know what you discover. Please email me at [email protected]

[1] Incompetency Attack is a term invented by my good friend Gillian Keefe. It refers to an extremely negative emotional state wherein one believes one is utterly incompetent. The state however has no bearing on one’s real level of competence.
[2] Traditional Feedback Sandwich: What I liked. Points of Improvement (typically phrased as what I didn’t like), Overall positive comment. Most people agreed that this has become so familiar that as soon as someone gives them a compliment they brace themselves to hear the criticism that inevitably comes next and therefore cannot take in the compliment.

5 thoughts on “The Feedback Sandwich is Out to Lunch

  1. Joan E Barrett

    I adjudicate competitions with my comments delivered in a public forum. I use a similar strategy and have had great response to it. People hear the content and consider what I have to say rather than going to their safety zone of defensiveness, tuning out and other such strategies. The other piece that I am careful to do is to frame the suggestion in future tense – the past is no more and we can only influence what is ahead from this moment on – a much more empowering position.
    Thank you Shelle for sharing your experience and insights with this.

  2. Shelle Rose Charvet

    I am very glad to see this recognized in the literature. I have been a manager/supervisor for a very long time and find that honesty and tact are my best friends. The old “Oreo” theory (and many others that I can name) that I was taught was nearly always a dead giveaway for employees. The good the bad and the good (which was usually never absorbed due to the sharing of the bad) was somewhat like a cookbook approach to dealing with an employee/supervisor relationship. When a supervisor engages an employee as a part of the solution rather than the problem in totality, it engenders a lot of positive stuff and much more enthusiasm about his/her job (in most cases). And if we thought employees were so stupid that they would not catch on to such canned efforts, I am not sure why we would hire them in the first place or continue to retain them.

    Jan Drury, Health Services Administrator
    Iowa Medical & Classification Center, Iowa

  3. Michael Webb

    Nice post, and a great alternative to the feedback sandwich.

    I wonder if you are familiar with David Maister’s work?

    He too very concerned also with improving people’s performance: he is the leading consultant to professional services firms, where the central problem involves improving people’s performance.

    His newest book, “Strategy and the Fat Smoker” is illuminating, and may give you an approach you could use, because, in addition to focusing on the interpersonal communication required, as you aptly do in this post, he also deals with the organizational structure and strategy issues … changing the environment the individual “lives” in to enable them to improve.

    Anyway, thought you might be curious about that, since you are interested in how consultants can transition from being “Merchants of Success” to “Partners in Progress.”

    Michael Webb


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *