“You’ve done such a good job, but…”
Whatever comes after but, this case may be familiar to you. It’s familiar to me, as I’ve found myself placed in this situation a couple of times by the managers I’ve worked with. They used this feedback loop so many times that I started to recognize it immediately and, worse, disregard it. Oh, brave new sandwich technique!
The sandwich technique is probably one of the most popular ways to give criticism to someone. Unfortunately, it’s still widely used in corporate settings and applied to correct misbehavior. Except that it does not correct anything at all being usually off-the-rack.
“Imagine going to the butcher/deli, asking for 100g of salami and getting a sandwich instead. That’s what the sandwich technique feels like on the receiving side,” says Patrik Varga, one of LinkedIn opinion-makers.
In this guide to delivering feedback, I’ll try to single out methods of delivering feedback that work better than the sandwich technique. Therefore, you’ll discover:
The Definition of Constructive Feedback
The most important thing to remember when giving feedback is that feedback does not mean negative criticism.
The task in front of you as a project manager is to create a culture of psychological safety where feedback won’t be taken for an effort to criticize or blame someone for underperformance. Where psychological safety refers to a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes – according to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson who coined the term.
Constructive feedback is an organic part of this safe culture – it grows with people’s understanding that you’re working on the same goal.
Why the Compliment-Feedback-Compliment Technique Is Lame
The concept behind the sandwich technique is hiding negative feedback between two pieces of positive sentiment.
Managers usually call for it to sugar-coat unpleasant comments and mitigate their impact. Doing so, they act on the premise that it’s much easier for people to receive negative feedback when it is followed by praise. But here’s what can really happen.
The message can get lost. Managers’ concern about being tactful can confuse the receivers, who will miss out the main point of feedback. Giving feedback, you have to take care that it will stick.
The manager may get frustrated. In the end, you’re left with a feeling that your efforts didn’t have much results and your feedback was ill-conceived.
Effective feedback is actionable feedback. In the culture of psychological safety, there’s no need to sweeten it or mull the real picture.
How to Deliver Actionable Feedback That Sticks
Aside from the sandwich technique, there are many methods to deliver feedback more efficiently, fostering at the same time the culture of psychological safety.
Feedback wrap is a Management 3.0 practice that addresses the particular challenge of giving actionable feedback, which spurs the team to self-motivated action. It helps maintain transparency in the workplace and encourages personal improvement. Even though this feedback model is good for fixing only minor issues and mistakes, the form it takes will further encourage your people to improve their performance.
Using this model, it’s best to follow the next steps:
1. Specify the context. Start by describing the situation you’re in so that others can understand what’s on your plate right now. “I’m writing to you while I’m traveling to meet with the client. Sorry about the brevity of this message.”
2. Note your observations. Reveal specific examples and instances of work you’d like a person to review and fix. “I checked out the tickets and noticed there is the one you haven’t addressed for a while.”
3. Express your emotions. Let the recipient know how you feel in terms of the impact. “I felt a bit disappointed because all the quality assurance have been mentioned in the guide I provided.”
4. Prioritize by value. Briefly explain why you’re badly in need of the review, because the recipient may not realize how important it is at this moment. You can also state your own interest as a manager. “It is important to me that our clients get an immediate response to what troubles them; they might try to contact our senior management if they don’t get a proper reaction.”
5. Always end with suggestions. A manager with hands-on experience will both encourage the team to figure out what needs to be fixed and offer some help in resolving the issue. “I hope you can fix the mistake, and please let me know what I can do to help you.”
Feedback wrap, in contrast to the sandwich technique, proves much more effective when applied to remote workers. Feedback delivered this way can hardly be forgotten. On the contrary, it will contribute to getting things done and pushing results forward.
Nonviolent Communication (NVC), is an older method to lead the communication process. Despite the fact that it has been developed in the 1960s, NVC is still relevant to managers who find themselves in strained communicative situations. It offers a model that’s non-confrontational and fact-based in its nature.
Originally, the founder of NVC, Marshall Rosenberg, grounded his method on three core values:
- Self-empathy – an in-depth insight into one’s feelings and needs
- Empathy – the ability to understand and empathize with other people’s feelings and needs
- Honest self-expression – voicing the previous two values in an authentic way
It takes four levels to overcome in the process of delivering feedback, according to NVC: observations, feelings, needs, and requests. The idea is that people often run off the rails and resort to violent forms of communication when they don’t know how to meet the needs of the people involved. As a result, they make others experience fear, guilt, or shame – an unacceptable behavior for a manager of any level of experience.
Essentially, to deliver feedback that sticks, start with making a keen observation you noticed, assess whether the indicated behavior meets a need, and put in a request to improve.
For more insights, check Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication and other books to deliver feedback effectively in the 21st century.
Feedforward, a term first used by Marshall Goldsmith anticipates giving feedback that has a sharp focus on possibilities for the future rather than fixating on the past. Consider drifting from “You talked too slow delivering the presentation” to “Next time you speak at the presentation, try doing it faster, with less time spent on each slide.”
This method can be best used to modify future behaviors and processes. While people can’t travel back in time to fix their past mistakes, they can do it during the next round. Feedforward is perceived more like a suggestion for the future than personal blame or correction, being more effective than other patterns when it comes to establishing a dynamic and candid communication between you and your team.
PAUSE method is an acronym that stands for Prepare, Affirm, Understand, Search, and Execute. It is a clear-cut pattern to follow.
- Prepare – Collect datasets that point to a problem
- Affirm relationship – Say that you’re happy to have a person with such qualities and start a conversation on how to have an even better experience
- Understand interests – Focus on external factors that influence misbehavior and try to reduce them to a minimum
- Search for mutual understanding and solutions that enhance it
- Execute those solutions
Clear-cut patterns to follow through, are predictable and can soon be recognized by your teammates. This is not necessarily a warning signal, but to avoid this from happening, try using different models. After all, feedback is situational and patterns are usually no good.
New Movements in the Art of Giving Feedback
Marcus Buckingham, one of the key opinion-makers who contribute to the subject of providing feedback, is convinced that we need new techniques to deliver feedback. To quote him:
“If we continue to spend our time identifying failure as we see it and giving people feedback about how to avoid it, we’ll languish in the business of adequacy.”
His crisscrossing point is that people can’t evaluate others objectively and continue making systematic mistakes. To avoid this fallout, Buckingham suggests taking the following steps to help the team excel:
Look for outcomes. Basically, Buckingham advises taking notes every time you’re satisfied with the result and approaching your team with what you’ve observed was best in their performance. “By doing this,” writes the expert, “you’ll stop the flow of work for a moment and pull your colleague’s attention back toward something she just did that really worked.”
Replay your reactions. Because there may be some trace of bias towards your observations, the best way to overcome it is by describing what exactly you experienced when that particular moment of excellence caught your attention.
This simple, yet powerful advice will definitely set a course for improvement.
Advice from Experienced Project Managers and Directors
I also asked project managers what has proven effective for them when giving constructive feedback and what’s their opinion of the sandwich technique. Here’s what they answered:
Jay Spitulnik, Associate Director at Health Informatics Graduate Program at Northeastern University
“People tend to remember what they see or hear first and last in a discussion. That means that unless you have someone who is highly skilled in using the sandwich technique, the person who is receiving the feedback might only remember the compliments. This is not an argument against using the sandwich technique, it’s just a strong suggestion that you need to make sure the compliments don’t bury the real feedback.”
Andrew Soswa, Enterprise Project Manager, Innovator, Entrepreneur, Presenter, Agile Coach
“The sandwich technique, just like any other, will work but only in the hands of skilled reviewer/ manager/ feedback giver. Just attend a Toastmasters’ meeting and you’ll notice a wide difference between experienced feedback givers and those who just started practicing it. I advocate practicing and iteratively refining your feedback techniques. You will notice that not everyone responds to the same type of feedback – and then you will break it to certain cross-sections of the population (Millennials vs Y-gen) vs. professionals and students. In the end, you will come up with the same results as most personal coaches do – that the best feedback is one-on-one, where you have only the interest of the person on your mind (not yours, or your business), and you show that you want to help and improve that person. You have to show transformational leadership techniques in your feedback.”
Kiron Bondale, Trainer, Trusted Advisor, Coach & Speaker
“Communication as most other leadership activities is situational. The sandwich technique might work in some cases with certain individuals but not for others. Someone that is a “straight shooter” might prefer to have feedback provided right away with minimal small talk or compliments before. Being as specific as possible, providing the feedback as soon after the incident, asking permission to provide the feedback and actively listening after providing the feedback often help.”
Bill Hoberecht, PMO in IT Program Management
“The starting point for any feedback discussion starts weeks or months prior to the discussion itself. During that time, it is essential to build trust, and for the “giver” of feedback to become credible in providing feedback.
Feedback should be emphasizing the positive aspects of the individual and encourage continued & expanded use of those skills and abilities. That is where you’ll see productivity and contributions increase. In situations where performance is unacceptably poor, the sandwich technique will likely obscure the key message that changes are necessary.An important element of any “constructive criticism” is that both parties understand the actual impact of current behavior. It is best if the receiver is requesting feedback as part of their professional development – that signals openness to listening. The sandwich technique is an attempt to overcome the potential for a lack of trust, the anticipated lack of honest discussion, and a desire to smooth over difficult discussions.”
As you can see, there are many methods to give feedback. My best advice would be to abstract yourself from patterns when possible and listen to what your team is actually trying to say through their performance. Don’t limit yourself to the sandwich technique. Experiment and you’ll eventually see which of the methods mentioned above works best for you.
Iryna is a Founder & Chief Editor at PM Column, a creative digital magazine for project managers. She strives to deliver magnetic content to the body of PM knowledge and supports project practitioners in their endeavors.