Let’s begin with what not to do.
Start with a compliment, then describe what you need corrected or improved upon, and then end with a compliment. This is the famed “Sandwich Feedback Method”, and it is one of the worst ways to give feedback.
I’ve done it. You probably have too. We all need to stop it.
A favorite academic paper of mine is called The Sandwich Feedback Method: Not very tasty (Journal of Behavioral Studies, 2014). The authors studied this approach and here’s why it is ineffective:
While beginning and ending with a positive makes the manager feel better, it confuses the employee. The employee is unclear what the message is - “Did I do something good or did I do something bad?”
The approach undermines the manager’s sincere positive feedback because the employee waits for the criticism to come with it.
The employee may not hear the criticism at all because the positive feedback outweighs it.
When asked, employees preferred direct communication about what they needed to improve upon.
Now that we know that approach doesn’t work, now what?
Feedback is one of those things that makes us all a little uncomfortable because it is largely associated with something having gone wrong. Yet, as leaders and members of a team, we know it is an expectation of our work. We have to be able to give feedback, both positive and negative, in order to continue to progress and get the results we’re after.
To pave the way to give feedback, we need to be able to ask for it and receive it well. See here for guidance.
Once we demonstrate to others an openness for feedback, it makes it much easier to share it. Here are three steps giving valuable feedback and some guidance on timing.
1. Agree to an Approach
Normalize feedback by discussing it before you ever have to give it. Strike up the conversation with a colleague or team member and say:
“I really value our work. I want you to know I’m open to feedback about what I do so that we continue to work well together. How should we go about giving each other feedback?”
You may have to reassure them there is nothing of concern at this moment. Speak realistically that while things are going well now, they may not always. It’s good to talk about it before it comes up.
As a leader, you can mirror what a former boss of mine did. Within the first two weeks of working for her, we had a “get to know you” session. She asked a variety of questions about our work style, what motivated us, and how we liked to receive feedback (positive or critical).
“When I need to give you some feedback (good or bad, just information about performance), what is the best approach? Would you like it in the moment, any time? Or would you like a heads-up and then we discuss after? Maybe in writing first and then we discuss? What works for you?”
This was extremely effective in that it did the following:
It introduced feedback as a natural part our work. It was just “information about performance.”
It gave us choice about how we could receive it.
It made feedback an expected part of working on her team.
2. Allow Self Evaluation First
If you are fully aware of a misstep or you know you aren’t performing well, there is nothing more annoying than getting feedback about it too. It is demotivating and can feel like a “pile on”.
To avoid this, a leader can ask their employee to evaluate themselves first. This self-evaluation opens the door to recognize both positive and negative performance and gives the power to the employee to identify it. In some cases, it may even eliminate the need to give constructive feedback. If they already know what isn’t going well and are working to resolve it, there is no need to pile on with your own opinions of it.
It sounds like:
“Can we debrief the client meeting? How do you think it went?
“What went well and what would you change about it?”
“How would you make the client meeting better?”
This approach works particularly well when advanced notice is also provided. The more expected and routine feedback is, the easier it will be for both parties.
3. Use a Framework
Ever had a boss say “Great job. Nice work today.” and then wonder what they thought was so great? Or worse, get something like my client did recently. At the end of a recent call, Steve’s boss said:
“Hey. Listen. That report you did. I’d like you to take it up a notch. Really take it to the next level, ok? The executives need it to be easier to read. Thanks.”
Steve was obviously confused. What did “easier to read” mean? He followed up with his boss for details which took another day or two. The time Steve spent following up could have been saved by his boss just being more specific.
General, broad-stroke feedback (either positive or negative) is rarely helpful. Following a framework mitigates this. Here is one I was taught early in my career.
Describe what happened
Share the impact
State the expectation
Let’s now apply this to Steve’s boss. We’ll assume the boss followed step #2 and asked Steve to self-evaluate his work on the report. Steve thought he did a great job on it and called it a “very thorough report”. The boss could have said:
What happened: “The report was thorough, but it took too long for me to understand the main themes of it.”
Impact: “Our executives don’t have time to figure out the key messages. What will happen is that they just won’t read the report.”
Expectation: “Next time, include an executive summary with key themes and then alphabetize the worksheets by department so the executives can quickly find their data.”
Seek agreement: “How does that sound? What do you think?”
Steve’s boss may have needed an additional 3-5 minutes to give him this feedback but doing so would have saved Steve the energy and time it took to track him down for the specifics.
This model works great for positive feedback as well. Describe what happened, the impact of it, talk about how it reinforces the expectation you have for the work and instead of seeking agreement, say thank you.
There is rarely a perfect time to give feedback and some leaders are more uncomfortable than others with giving it. For those who avoid it or it creates a lot of stress, I recommend staying away from in-the-moment feedback. It often doesn’t go well because their nerves take over, they haven't thought it through, or the employee is caught off guard and gets defensive. Unless safety and security will be compromised or there is something else at risk, most feedback can wait at least until the next day. This gives the leader time to prepare their approach to addressing it. Yet, don't go longer than a week. Going back into the past longer than that may do more harm than good.
Feedback is really about forward progress and getting better. By agreeing to an approach, allowing self-evaluation, and using a framework, the discomfort of giving feedback is reduced and the focus can remain on advancing performance.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.