Taking Apart the Feedback Sandwich

I have been working with several individual coaching clients recently on improving their coaching skills with staff. One aspect that always comes up is how to give critical feedback. One of them told me recently that she is known for her sandwich feedback with one of her subordinates in particular. (He’s the one who struggles the most). The standard format of the feedback sandwich is praise-criticism-praise. She said that whenever she gives him a compliment he now jokes and asks what it is she really wants to say to him. The sandwich isn’t really having the impact it is supposed to. He doesn’t really hear or believe the positive acknowledgement because he knows that the meat of the conversation is coming, and then doesn’t really hear the compliment on the other side because he’s thinking about the critical feedback and knows that the praise is just designed to soften things anyway.

That said, the sandwich approach to feedback, “praise-criticism-praise”, is a well-known strategy in management training. For those who are giving feedback, many believe it feels a bit easier to “soften” the negative feedback by adding in some positives. Some people think it will give balance to the feedback, and others think it’s easier for the recipient to hear it when presented this way.

Roger Schwarz in his Harvard Business Review blog, “The ‘Sandwich Approach’ Undermines your Feedback” offers an alternative view. To summarize:

  • “Easing in” to sharing negative feedback can actually increase discomfort and anxiety for the person giving the feedback as the longer one talks without giving the negative feedback the harder it can become. This may also result in the recipient sensing the discomfort and becoming more anxious themselves.
  • In his work with teams interviewing direct reports, it turns out that almost all say they want just the meat-not the bread on each end. It undermines trust.
  • People learn better when receiving feedback, positive or negative, in a timely manner, so rather than holding positive feedback for a time when you need it as a part of a “sandwich”, offer it when it happens. Employees report not believing the positive feedback anyway if it’s presented as a part of a feedback sandwich, so to increase one’4ts trust, authenticity and transparency, offer the positive separately from the negative feedback.

So what’s a better way to approach giving negative feedback than serving a lukewarm, stale, overdone sandwich? Try two things. First, don’t assume that you necessarily have all the facts. Sometimes you can start with an open-ended question—“Bill, I heard that the client was unhappy that you didn’t get that to her by the deadline. Is that right?” Maybe you don’t have all the information.

Furthermore, a mind shift may be helpful for you in giving negative feedback. We try to soften it with a sandwich, and sometimes dread giving it, because we worry that it will hurt them and our relationship with them. But if you can identify what they care about and anchor your feedback in that, then you’re not hurting, you’re helping them with their goals and helping them to improve.

Not easy, but certainly worth trying if it might have a deeper impact. Let me know what you learn!

Book Review: Change Anything

By: Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler

 This award-winning team of writers does it again. What I like about Change Anything is that it breaks down how we make change happen from six main sources: 1. Love what you hate- learn to like the changes you make; 2. Do what you can’t- learn the skills through deliberate practice in order to make the changes you want; 3&4. Turn accomplices into friends- we all have people in our lives who sabatoge our best efforts- turn them into supporters. 5. Invert the economy- by bribing yourself and raising the cost of bad behavior you can actually get yourself to act in ways you want 6. Control your space- use the environment to become an ally for the change you want rather than a barrier. It’s an engaging book, with good examples and really breaks down the change process which will increase your likelihood of success! (Their book Influencer does the same thing in an organizational context).

Moving From Theory To Action: On Planning

To support you in moving toward action, here are some reflection questions based on the recommendations by Richard Wiseman:

1. What are the benefits to me of taking on this goal? How will my life be better?

2. How can I break down this goal into manageable steps? What are some realistic dates for completing these dates? What is one action, no matter how small, that I can take today?

3. After looking at this concrete timeline, what are small rewards I can give myself to celebrate milestones along the way?

4. How will I track my progress? Visual calendar? Phone app? Handwritten journal? (set this up now)

5. Who do I want to tell about my goal, and what are the specific ways people can support me in reaching it? (accountability partners can be very helpful).

The Power of Planning vs. Dreaming

This summer I decided to begin my goal of hiking the entire Long Trail. It’s a 272-mile trail that runs north to south in Vermont, and I’ve been thinking about it for years. The problem was that my mindset around it was getting in the way. I had dreams of hiking it with my two daughters and a friend of mine who also had a daughter or two. One minor flaw to this plan was that this ideal person didn’t exist, my daughters have stated in no uncertain terms that they “Hate” hiking (and walking for that matter these days), and other family trips took priority over planning a week in the woods for the next three summers.

And then I paused, broke it down and started thinking concretely about this goal. First, I decided it was my goal to hike the Long Trail, no one else’s, and so I would let go of finding a partner to hike the whole thing with, and instead would section-hike it, breaking it down into small chunks. One weekend I could go with my husband and do a part of the trail, another weekend with a girlfriend, a weekend alone, and if the stars align, perhaps in a few years, I might even get my daughters to do a section with me. I moved the timing on my goal out- no need do complete it by the time my elder daughter completed high school. What if it took me ten years or more? After all, to repeat the often-said quote, it’s about the journey, not the destination, right?

And so I have begun, first with my husband in August, then with a girlfriend a week later. I thought that was it for this summer, but unexpectedly a bike trip with friends turned into doing another section of the LT when I injured my shoulder and couldn’t bike for a while. With this long-term goal clarified, I am now seeing ways to make progress even though the completion date isn’t in sight. It’s a good reminder about the power of breaking goals down.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about dreaming. It can provide us with hope and inspiration. In my case it motivated me to buy new gear so that I could travel lighter on the trail. That said, just as buying the gym membership doesn’t improve your health, a new backpack didn’t get me on the trail.

Here is an excerpt from researcher and best-selling author, Richard Wiseman, from his book: 59 Seconds: Think a Little Change A Lot. See below for his top five list of what works in achieving one’s goals:

  1. Break your goal into a series of steps, focusing on creating sub-goals that are concrete, measurable, and time-based.
  2. Tell your friends and family about your goals, thus increasing the fear of failure and eliciting support.
  3. Regularly remind yourself of the benefits associated with achieving your goals by creating a checklist of how life would be better once you obtain your aim.
  4. Give yourself a small reward whenever you achieve a sub-goal, thus maintaining motivation and a sense of progress.
  5. Make your plans and progress concrete by keeping a hand-written journal, completing a computer spreadsheet or covering a notice board with graphs or pictures.

OK, so I didn’t pull out this list before I started thinking about my Long Trail adventure, and in fact, I didn’t know about it until I started researching for this newsletter. But what is interesting is how many of these I had done in my own way:

  1. As I shared, I decided to section hike it in smaller pieces, extended the timeframe, and shoot for 2-3 weekends a year (that puts me at under 10 years if I do 27 miles a year- clearly doable).
  2. I put my goal on Facebook- and was surprised and grateful for the number of encouraging comments. Several people said they would love to join me for a weekend.
  3. Benefits are clear, as I love being in the woods, hiking and sleeping out. I miss my big international backpacking trips of my 20s, and this connects me to an important aspect of myself.
  4. From my backpacking friends in Lithuania, I learned a lovely tradition to bring a “surprise” on each trip. I love pulling out an unexpected surprise and to receive one. My girlfriend carried in fresh orange juice for our morning after our first sleep out-awesome!
  5. The Long Trail requires a journal to get credit so I created a spreadsheet with who, where, miles covered, and fun notes to remember about the trip. I also started taking one video on each section to remind me of the experience. Maybe I’ll put it into a montage at the end.

What about you? Any big goals that you haven’t figured out how to make happen yet?

Book Review: The Upside of Stress-Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It

By: Kelly McGonigal

If you’re curiosity is piqued and you think you’d like to really pause and dig into this really important concept- please read this book! It’s a way to walk yourself through a process of creating a new, more positive relationship with stress. Part One engages you with rethinking the narratives and stories you have about stress and countering it with some useful research that shows stress actually has some upsides. Part Two explains how to transform stress, including rethinking anxiety and building deeper connections with others in stressful times as a way to build resilience against stress. Throughout the book there are personal reflections to prompt your thinking and great stories that cause you to nod your head and say “Me, too!” Two thumbs up!

P.S. If you’re feeling too stressed to read another book, here’s Kelly’s  TED talk on the topic:

water-shed (watr'shed') Noun: a critical point that marks a division or change of course; a turning point — © 2014 WatershedCoaching. All rights reserved.