3 Ways Criticism Sandwich is Giving Employees Food Poisoning

December 17, 2018

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Being a manager is everything but a simple task. Among other duties, it’s their job to find ways to provide employees with performance improvement feedback.

They need to do this in the kindest possible way, for the sake of a healthy workplace atmosphere.

Feedback is a powerful tool and it should not be taken for granted. It can make a whole lot of difference if avoided to provoke a defensive response.

Some time ago The Sandwich Feedback Method was created to do exactly that: soften the blow.

It looks something like this:

Wow! Great work, you nailed the presentation introduction! You had them at Hello! The middle part was, however, a bit slower and weaker but the conclusion blew my mind!

Get it? Got the pattern used here?

The sandwich feedback method consists of a praise followed by corrective feedback followed by more praise.

The critic is “cozily” sandwiched between two layers of praise.

So, is that a good thing or a bad one? Let’s see.

Giving criticism is never easy. Whether done by email, over the phone, or face-to-face – it can easily get very, very, very awkward. This is why some professionals thought that beginning and ending a constructive feedback (read: criticism) with something positive will create some kind of cushion for any negativity.

So, is that a good thing or a bad one? Let’s see what it can cause.

1. Confusion

And while the managers may feel good about themselves for being so positive and encouraging to serve such a delicious sandwich, the ones that are supposed to eat it may feel a bit confused.

“What is really happening here?”, they might ask. Did I do well or not?

Talking about the mixed messages and signals, right?

2. Messages get diluted

The main problem of this kind of situation is that the message the manager wanted to send, regarding the negative employee behavior, is now diluted and impoverished for one very important element – a clear and constructive feedback.

This might generate a bigger problem.

3. Pavlov’s effect

If continued, the Sandwich method might turn into a textbook example of Pavlov’s experiment (classical conditioning where a conditioned stimulus (CS) is paired with an unconditioned stimulus). It means that over time, the employee learns that praise from his manager is just a prelude to a snub.

Snub? Interesting choice of words you might say. Harsh even. We used it on purpose because that is exactly how the employees (offered with a sandwich) feel in a situation when provoked by previous experiences, where the criticism was served in this manner.

This results in employees becoming anxious waiting for something bad to happen after hearing a positive comment. The Pavlov’s Experiment in all its glory is once again confirmed and validated.

We have yet another name for it, pretty self-explanatory: “the waiting for the other shoe to drop” syndrome.

Why use this Sandwich method at all?

There are numerous reasons why managers use it.

Some say it is much easier for people to accept negative feedback when it’s seasoned with a handful of positive feedback. Others claim this approach provides balanced feedback. And there are some managers who are believing that mixing positive with negative feedback somehow reduces worker discomfort and anxiety. To simplify it: it is all about optimism and being positive.

Sounds legit. But, is it?

When a manager finds it difficult to provide the employee with a realistic, but hard-hitting feedback, the Sandwich method provides him with some kind of security blanket. Most of them are simply afraid of offending the employee, the employee leaving the company or disturbing acquired and already established workplace dynamics.

It is only human and we get it. It’s not easy to go around telling people their effort was in vain and that they must do better or… But, one of the columns of a solid business is the effectiveness of providing feedback to the employee.

And if you provide it in a sandwich, the employee’s alarm will get on when you use terms such as “and” or “but” to move on from the positive to the negative feedback. The employee can easily lose the first interaction (that was positive) when he experiences the follow up “constructive” feedback. This is the best way to get your employee all confused about the importance of constructive feedback. And, that is not a good thing. At all.

A positive feedback is can be and it is a powerful tool that can be used to communicate the value of the employee’s work and contribution to the organization. It’s a shame to waste it, as the feedback sandwich diminishes the value and the power of it.

Now that we acknowledged that this method is not (always) working, what do you think – do we have some alternatives for you?

You bet we do!

the sandwich feedback - good manager

Be sure to provide a straightforward, right to the point, and vividly descriptive communication with the exact and detailed verbal illustration of what should the employee improve. Try not to make him feel either deceived or fooled. Get him used to expect an honest feedback from you (so he can get to learn to make his own in the same manner). Get his trust and do not take advantage of it. To do so, for starters – stop beating around the bush.

Work on overcoming the fear of delivering constructive feedback. For that, you could try planning the discussion in advance. If necessary, practice the conversation that you will start by getting politely and directly to the point.

Always try to keep positives away from negatives. Mixing alcohol is always a bad idea. Same here. Let some time pass between the two, so one can really enjoy in praise and concentrate on what is to be worked on.

And the last, but not the least: get off your throne and ask your employees about their struggles and how can you be of any help.

Because that is what a good manager does. Taking care of their people. Serving a sandwich, no matter how well seasoned – doesn’t fit the profile.

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