Have you ever used the "sandwich approach" to give negative feedback to your direct reports? You sandwich the negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback. It's a common method, but the sandwich approach may be undermining both your feedback and your relationships with your direct reports.
First, let's look at why leaders use the sandwich approach and why it doesn't work. In my work with leadership teams, the majority of leaders say they have used the sandwich approach to give negative feedback. They offer several reasons:
They think it's easier for people to hear and accept negative feedback when it comes with positive feedback. When I ask these leaders how they know this, almost all of them acknowledge that they simply assume it. When I ask — or have them ask — their direct reports how they would prefer to receive negative feedback, almost all of the direct reports say they want just the meat — no sandwich. If you give a feedback sandwich, you risk alienating your direct reports. In addition, they are likely to discount your positive feedback, believing it is not genuine.
They assume the sandwich approach provides balanced feedback. These leaders want direct reports to understand that the negative feedback is only part of their performance evaluation. But this balance claim disintegrates when I ask, "Do you also feel the need to balance your positive feedback with negative feedback?" It is important to give positive feedback, but saving it to offset negative feedback delays the value of the positive feedback. The research shows that feedback — positive or negative — is best shared as soon as possible.
They believe that giving positive feedback with negative feedback reduces discomfort and anxiety. Less often, leaders admit that they use the sandwich approach because they're uncomfortable giving negative feedback. It's easier to ease into the conversation with some positive feedback, these leaders say. In fact, though, "easing in" creates the very anxiety they are trying to avoid. The longer you talk without giving the negative feedback, the more uncomfortable you're likely to become as you anticipate giving the negative news; your direct reports will sense your discomfort and become more anxious.
Effective leaders are transparent about the strategies they use when working with others. The sandwich approach is designed to influence others without telling them what you're doing — it is a unilaterally controlling strategy — in other words, a strategy that revolves around you influencing others, but not being influenced by them in return.
Imagine that you plan to use the sandwich approach with Alex and Stacey, two direct reports who just gave a presentation to your senior leadership team. To understand why you're reluctant to share your strategy, take the transparency test — a thought experiment with three simple steps:
1. Identify your strategy for the conversation. Your strategy is to start with some positive feedback to relax Alex and Stacey, then give them the negative feedback — the purpose of the meeting — and then end with more positive feedback so they won't be so disappointed or angry.
2. Imagine telling the people your strategy. You would say something like, "Alex and Stacey, I have some negative feedback to give you. I'll start with some positive feedback to relax you, and then give you the negative feedback, which is the real purpose of our meeting. I'll end with more positive feedback so you won't be so disappointed or angry at me when you leave my office. How does that work for you?"
3. Observe your reaction. Do you find yourself laughing at the absurdity of making your strategy transparent? If you think "I could never say that," it's because the strategy is unilaterally controlling: it is an attempt to control the situation without letting Alex and Stacey in on the plan. Unilateral control strategies only work when the other people don't know your strategy or are willing to play along. And they are less effective than transparent strategies.
You can use this three-question transparency test in any situation to determine whether your strategy is unilaterally controlling.
Avoid the Sandwich: Use an Effective, Transparent Strategy
Here's an approach to giving negative feedback that is transparent and increases you and your direct reports' ability to learn from the feedback:
"Alex and Stacey, I want to talk with you because I have some concerns. The presentation you gave to the senior leadership team this morning may have created confusion about our strategy. Let me tell you how I'd like to approach this meeting and see if it works for you. I want to start by describing what I saw that raised my concerns and see if you saw the same things. After we agree on what happened, I want to say more about my concerns and see if you share them. Then we can decide what, if anything, we need to do going forward. I'm open to the possibility that I may be missing things or that I contributed the concerns I'm raising. How does that work for you?"
This transparent approach is more effective than the sandwich approach for several reasons. First, by sharing your strategy and asking them if it will work, you, Alex, and Stacey jointly design the meeting process, increasing the chance that you will all learn from it. Second, because everyone knows the planned sequence of the meeting, everyone can work jointly to keep the meeting on track. Finally, by expressing that you may not have all the information and that you may even have contributed to the problem, you shift the meeting from one in which you're simply telling Alex and Stacey what you think to a meeting in which all of you are exploring together what happened and planning how to move forward.
This transparent, mutual learning approach doesn't work better than the unilaterally controlling sandwich approach simply because you are saying different words. It works because you've shifted your mindset. That shift means thinking of negative feedback as a way to help your direct reports improve as you learn what you may be missing. It means thinking of feedback as a way for you and others to make informed choices together. Giving negative feedback transparently means respecting your direct reports, not controlling or alienating them; makes both your negative and positive feedback feel more genuine to your direct reports; and lowers your discomfort and their anxiety.
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