How to Deliver Constructive Feedback With a 'You Suck Sandwich'

Providing criticism to a team member can be a real challenge, especially if done wrong. Here is a simple and easy to remember strategy that will help you avoid uncomfortable confrontations.

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By Peter Gasca

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Early in my career, I was tasked with providing annual performance reviews to a group of highly trained and experienced consultants, each of whom were much older than me. I was young and fresh out of graduate school, and because I was originally hired to develop new consulting tools and provide support for the team, I was nervous about now being asked to critique them.

It did not go well. And by "not well," I mean that I narrowly avoided a violent uprising.

Related: Make Performance Reviews Less Dreadful With These 5 Tips

In addition to being ill-equipped to critique anyone, my attempt to over-confidently demonstrate knowledge and establish authority made me look pompous and arrogant. Seeing the trouble, a close colleague and mentor pulled me aside and gave me a simple piece of advice.

"You need to give them the 'You Suck Sandwich.'"

As funny as it sounded, it turned out to be brilliant advice. Here is how he described the process.

Lay down a bottom slice of soft bread.

The first piece of the sandwich is a soft layer of bread, which will serve as the cushion for the crushing criticism you are about to provide. This piece of the conversation is a structured, thoughtful and sincere discussion of what the team member has done well to this point, how he or she has contributed value, and why you are happy they have continued to serve an integral part of the organization.

Remember that this must be sincere, so do not overdo your gushing enthusiasm and have specific examples of how they have contributed.

Give them the meat.

The meat of your discussion (a nicely served up pun) is the actual critique of his or her performance, during which time you will identify problem areas in need of improvement. It is very important to prepare proposed solutions in advance, because identifying problems without solutions will simply come across as complaining. A great way to start this conversation is with a question.

"What areas of your job do you feel you can improve upon?"

Related: How to Turn an Underperformer Into an Ideal Employee

By first offering the team member the opportunity to honestly critique their own performance, you can then more comfortably lead into the discussion about how they can improve. If the employee misses the issues you have identified in advance, try to tie them together or simple address each individually. As you discuss the challenges, be prepared to quickly offer solutions, but allow the employee to contribute to this part of the discussion by asking them for feedback.

"How do you believe we can work together to resolve this?"

By empowering your team members and allowing them to take an active role in identifying areas of improvement and goals for resolving them, you will greatly improve your chances of sticking to the actions and getting results.

Lay down the top slice of bread.

The last slice of bread that you layer will be the inspiration. You have covered the uncomfortable part of the conversation, and now it is time to wrap it up with optimism for the future. Conclude with another honest and sincere discussion of the future direction of the business and how the team member fits in. Leave him or her with the understanding that future success is dependent on the entire team, which why it is important that you all aim high.

It has been a while since I have delivered an actual annual performance review, because my personal belief is that constructive feedback should be delivered on a much more regular basis. Regardless of when you deliver your feedback, just remember to serve it up as a "You Suck Sandwich," and you will avoid uncomfortable situations that could ultimately lead to violent uprisings.

It worked for me.

What do you think? Do you have other tips for delivering constructive feedback? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Related: Inspire Performance by Providing Optimum Feedback

Peter Gasca

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer

Management and Entrepreneur Consultant

Peter Gasca is an author and consultant at Peter Paul Advisors. He also serves as Executive-in-Residence and Director of the Community and Business Engagement Institute at Coastal Carolina University. His book, One Million Frogs', details his early entrepreneurial journey.

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