Feedback Sandwich Tastes Bad


The 'feedback sandwich' might be a good idea in theory... BUT... for humans it doesn't work.

The sandwich refers to an approach to giving negative feedback from a manager to a staff member. The sandwich metaphor refers to the negative feedback being placed between two positives: start with a positive, go to the negative and then end with another positive.  

The problem with the feedback sandwich is that humans have an instinctive need to classify. We classify in order to make sense and our classifications are binary in nature – on a variation of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. So at moments of receiving feedback the listener is compelled to classify: is the feedback positive or negative? The feedback sandwich becomes a mixed message because it confuses the classification instinct. There are four problems with the feedback sandwich for humans.

We’ll analyse the four problems through a scenario where the manager has observed dysfunctional behaviour by a new team member, Sam, in now the second team meeting since Sam joined the team. Sam is late for meetings, is frequently checking her phone and often interrupts her colleagues. The manager has decided to talk with Sam.   


Problem 1 - Misclassified 

If the manager starts the conversation in feedback sandwich mode they will probably say, ‘Sam, you’ve been with us for three months now. The technical skills you’ve brought to the team are greatly appreciated.’ 

In her normal human way Sam has to classify what this is about. Sam might indeed classify what she is being told is ‘good’, perhaps saying to herself, ‘Wow, I have never had a manager who takes the time so early in employment to give me positive feedback.’ But when the manager gets to the point then Sam realises she has misclassified. At a minimum, Sam feels annoyed that she got it wrong. She feels mislead.


Problem 2 - Smelling the BUT Coming

The second possibility with the sandwich is that Sam smells the ‘but’ coming right from the start. At the classifying moment Sam detects awkwardness about the manager, that the manager’s throat is a little constricted and facial expression slightly stressed. Sam’s radar is telling her that this is not good. And then when the But comes her suspicions are confirmed. 

Problem 3 - Assumes the Worsr

A further problem with the uncertainty in Sam’s mind in trying to classify is that the uncertainty can cause Sam assuming the worst. There might be a flash of fear through Sam’s mind that they are about to fired. There is a powerful and memorable emotional reaction by Sam which can’t help but be associated with the manager.   


Problem 4 - Manager's Style Now Classified

A fourth problem with the feedback sandwich is that the manager has reduced their ability to give positive feedback in the future. For Sam, she has classified that whenever the manager starts with a positive they are heading towards a negative. 

A Better Approach

Regular readers of this newsletter and participants on our programs will know that almost everything rests on the first seven words...the two seconds we have before the listener classifies. The manager needs to get to the point quickly to enable Sam to classify correctly. 

In this scenario, an ideal opening by the manager would be, ‘We need to cover our team’s protocols’. Sam can immediately accurately classify the subject. She knows he is being held to account, knows the degree of seriousness (not drastic) and that she doesn’t have to assume the worst. 

Having facilitated Sam’s accurate classification, the manager can now raise the behaviours they have observed and of course ask for Sam’s perspective and explanation. The manager can then go to the principles, such as, ‘It’s something that I should have covered when you first joined us. Team meetings and respect for each other are very important to me. So it’s a good opportunity to cover that now.’ 

Andrew O’Keeffe


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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