Why the ‘sandwich technique’ for feedback doesn’t work

Once upon a time, managers were taught the sandwich technique for giving (negative) feedback: sandwich your criticism in between two bits of praise. The thinking was that you softened the employee up with the first bit of praise, which helped them hear the negative comment, and then buoyed up the employee with another bit of praise.

But it doesn’t work. In a recent HBR blog, Roger Schwarz explains why:

  • Employees discount your positive comments.
  • You might save up your positive feedback to use as part of a sandwich and delaying it reduces its value. (All feedback, positive and constructive, is best when provided soon after the event concerned).
  • ‘Easing into’ negative feedback with some praise makes employees uneasy and uncomfortable (even if it makes it easier for you!).

The sandwich technique is also ‘sneaky’ because it hides your real aim. Better to be transparent and just give people the meat, not the sandwich.

  1. Flag your purpose in speaking with the employee; for example: ‘Lee, I’d like to discuss a concern I have about …’ (See pages 847 to 848 of the text for more examples.)
  2. Explain your concern and ask whether the employee has similar thoughts or shares your concern. (There may be factors of which you are unaware and which alter your thinking.)
  3. Discuss and explore the situation and the factors contributing to it.
  4. Agree improvement steps.

This approach allows you and the employee to work together to improve performance; you aren’t just telling people what they do wrong and how to do it better, which makes sense because you can’t be in possession of all the facts. This approach also shifts your mindset from controlling and bossing to coaching and working with employees to help them improve.

(See page 452 of the text for when to effectively use the sandwich technique and pages 447 to 454 for how to give effective feedback, both positive and constructive. The blog link above also gives a good example of transparent constructive feedback.)

Discussion questions

Are you giving enough positive feedback? Are you up front, or transparent, when offering constructive feedback? Do you think through your goals before meeting with an employee to give feedback? Would you describe your mindset as one of controlling and bossing or one of coaching and working together to improve performance?