Why You Should Ditch the Sandwich Method When You Give Feedback
We all know how the feedback sandwich works: Say something nice, then say something critical, then say something nice again to round it out. It’s a worn-out formula with a good intention behind it -- because bosses are often petrified of saying anything negative to their employees, the feedback sandwich was invented so bosses could couch the “negative” -- which is most likely the point of the entire interaction -- between two banal “positives.”
But employees can see right through it, and you need to just “get right to it” when giving feedback in a way that makes you vulnerable and builds trust with your team members. The goal is honesty that leads to improved relationships and better work. For feedback to be effective, it must flow both ways between you and your direct report.
Before giving feedback -- both positive and negative -- in a way employees are most likely to hear it, you must first establish trust. Your direct reports have to know you care about them as individuals. Trust takes time. It’s built through small daily interactions. Taking the time to get to know your employees personally -- asking about their lives and being sincerely interested in the answers -- is more than just chitchat. These conversations aren’t a distraction from your work. They’re part of your job as a people leader because if employees don’t sense that you care for them as people, your feedback isn’t going to be well-received.
How to gain integrity when giving feedback
Here’s a secret: You’ll have a lot more integrity when offering feedback if your team sees you receiving feedback. The best people leaders work hard to dissolve the hierarchical boundaries that prevent team members lower on the ladder from speaking out when they see a problem higher up. They establish a sense of shared responsibility for all aspects of the company’s success. Whatever a person’s rank, she should be able to speak out if there’s a problem; the best leaders can set aside their egos and listen to legitimate criticism, no matter who it’s coming from.
Establishing this kind of culture is hard. Not every people leader is committed to giving and receiving truthful, sometimes tough feedback from everyone. But people leaders who want to lead great teams and great organizations are.
Yet when you’re the boss, it’s rare to find lower-level employees who’ll speak their minds candidly. There’s a strange dynamic shift when you become a manager. Something in our brains is so afraid of challenging authority that we’ll do almost anything to convince ourselves that we don’t need to speak up when there’s a problem. “I guess it’s not all that bad.” “It’s probably just me -- I need to find a way to deal with it.” Yet true growth only comes when people are free to speak their minds and confront problems.
I’ve encountered this uncomfortable dynamic in my own work when direct reports left unexpectedly. This played out memorably with two former employees -- we’ll call them Ben and Rebecca. Rebecca wasn’t entirely happy with her job description at FORWARD. I would talk about benchmarks we needed to meet, and Rebecca would say, “I’m not comfortable doing that.” My inner response was: What do you mean? It’s part of your job! Yet Rebecca never felt she could speak freely about the parts of her job that were a bad fit. I wish she had felt secure enough to talk to me about it and find a solution.
Had I established a more trusting environment in which she felt free to share her concerns I believe I could have helped Rebecca lean into the aspects of the job that sparked her interests and used her talents. She might still have left, but we would have had more of a sense of closure.
Similarly, I longed to speak candidly with Ben, another direct report at FORWARD. I could tell he wasn’t bringing his whole self to work, and I wanted to know why. I pried: “What’s going on? You’re drifting off. I can tell you’re not really into it.” I wanted to help him succeed, but Ben didn’t feel he could tell me what was wrong because I was the boss. In my mind, I was working hard to establish a trusting working relationship. In Ben’s mind, speaking openly about his mistakes and struggles would be like telling on himself to the teacher. We were at an impasse. When we parted ways soon thereafter, I was left with a feeling of regret for all the conversations we’d never had.
So how can you as a people leader encourage candor from your direct reports? You have to continually ask for feedback on yourself and heap praise on the team members who actually give it. Acknowledge openly that you have struggles and need to course correct, too. If your direct reports don’t give you feedback when you ask for it, wait. Sit in silence for an uncomfortably long time. Then ask again. They’ll eventually say something, just to get out of the room! When they do, be exuberant in your gratitude. Your direct reports will get the picture: When you ask for feedback, you really mean it. They need to know you won’t bite their heads off for speaking the truth.
Does this mean you have to act on the criticism? No. You’re allowed to think the feedback is off-base or misguided. But you should know if the person who spoke out did so in good faith. If this is the case, you must thank him in public. You can have your own reaction later in private. Whether or not the feedback leads to changes in your team or the larger organization, honor the person who offered his opinion by sitting with whatever he has said. Never react in the moment; don’t shut down someone speaking truthfully by telling him how he’s mistaken or why his suggestion will never work. Say “thank you” again and again, so other direct reports will feel encouraged to speak up, too.