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When Giving Feedback, Say No to the Sh** Sandwich

Russ writes on relationships, people management, music, and poetry. He is originally from South Africa and now lives in the UK.

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Many managers have been taught the crudely named ‘Sh** Sandwich’ approach to providing feedback. This is the technique of starting with positive feedback, then sneaking in the negative feedback, and then quickly ending with more positive feedback. It's based on the misleading idea that people accept negative feedback better when they also hear something good. I don’t even think it sounds good in theory! It soon becomes obvious that it doesn’t work! It is just a game; a way for unassertive or unskilled managers to hide the feedback with which they feel uncomfortable.

This misguided technique is annoying, disrespectful and manipulative. It results in an anticipation of negative feedback every time someone says something good and sincerity is quickly undermined. As soon as someone feels patronised, trust is eroded and the relationship is harmed forever.

How to Provide Feedback Effectively

Feedback is essential for any relationship. Except for formal feedback sessions such as performance reviews or skills coaching, it is important to keep positive feedback separate from feedback for improvement. Positive feedback can be given anywhere and in front of anyone. Feedback for improvement, however, should be given privately, in a calm environment, focusing on the specific behaviour rather than on the person’s character. The following guidelines are tried and tested methods of delivering feedback which influence and shape behaviour.

Positive Feedback

Positive feedback is specific information about what someone is doing well. To ensure your intention is communicated accurately, it is important to provide a 'what’ and a ‘why' in your feedback. In other words, the person must know exactly what was done well (the specific behaviour) and why you liked it. This will ensure that sincere feedback is perceived as sincere and the specific behaviour is repeated. For example:

I really admired the way you kept calm with that customer. He was quite aggressive and yet you let him finish, acknowledged his disappointment and calmly offered to fix the situation for him. I am very impressed with the way you manage your emotions and treat our customers.

Feedback for Improvement

Feedback for Improvement is specific information, about what was done and why it wasn’t effective. It is then followed up with what the alternative is and why that would have been more effective.

For example:

I noticed that when the customer said they didn’t understand, you repeated what you had just said and the customer was no clearer. It would have been better if you had asked the customer at that stage what they weren’t clear about so that you could explain that particular point in a different way.

Or, to involve the person in the style of coaching:

I noticed that when the customer said they didn’t understand, you repeated what you had just said and the customer was no clearer. What could you have done at that stage that would have helped you to get through to that customer?

Once they have answered, ask, “And how would that have helped?” This gets them to provide the second ‘what and why’.

Guidelines for Feedback

  • Don’t pay compliments just to make someone feel good. Your intention needs to be honest and sincere.
  • Speak consciously. Consider your intention as well as the message you would want the other person to receive.
  • Feedback must be delivered with gravitas and whenever possible whilst maintaining eye-contact so that your sincerity is clearly evident.
  • We often give feedback based on results; this doesn’t have the same impact as behavioural feedback. Don't respond too quickly with feedback until you know exactly what the person has done (rather than just achieved). Ask questions and listen carefully to how they have achieved it, and then you can reinforce the specific behaviour. Don’t focus only on very good or very bad behaviour.
  • Examine the average performance as well and provide feedback for effort and improvement. Providing behavioural feedback when someone is making an effort will help them achieve the goal much faster than without it.
  • Many people are guilty of giving ‘sarcastic praise.’ For example, when a sales consultant puts in extra effort and achieves an excellent result, a manager may respond by saying, ”Oh, so you can hit your target if you want to?” Don't do this.

Feedback is Essential for Healthy Relationships

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© 2019 Russ Baleson