No Margin Wide Sad Sandwich

How To Skip The Negative Feedback "Sandwich"

I’ve never fully understood the logic behind the “sandwich” method of delivering performance feedback. (I’m sure you’re familiar with this concept: Open a discussion on a positive note, then insert a negative piece of news, followed by another positive.) We like to think that we’re softening the blow by offering several of bits of positive feedback around a central negative message. However, we’re doing no such thing.

Actually, this approach may be a disservice to both categories of information — each of which plays a unique and highly valuable role in shaping performance. Overall, we need to pay close attention to the “cascade” of emotions and behavior that we initiate when delivering feedback, but also be careful to retain the value of the message.

Performance Feedback: Open Dialogue

Processing negative performance feedback is quite challenging for most of us — even though on a very basic level, we realize that accepting “where to improve” is critical to our careers. While positive feedback serves to motivate and energize our work lives (we all need this on a regular basis), the “negatives” can also provide useful information about where we should direct our attention. To remain competitive, we certainly require both categories of information — and I am not debating the value of either. Rather, I’d like to open a discussion about how negative information can be presented and approached, to afford the most progress possible.

When considering negative feedback, we must acknowledge core human characteristics; including self-efficacy (the belief that individuals can actually impact their situation) and goal orientation (some individuals focus on learning, others focus on demonstrating competence, and others focus upon avoiding negative judgement). To properly deliver negative feedback, we should carefully consider and frame the delivery, so potential damage to an individual’s psyche is minimized and progress is emphasized.

Developing A Constructive Approach

There’s truly an art to presenting information about performance deficits of any kind. When managers practice the sandwich method, I fear that once the “meat” of the sandwich is delivered — the “downside” of performance — we really don’t remember much of anything that follows. (Attempting to “hide” the information doesn’t address the issues.) We can certainly do a better job of moving the conversation to more neutral ground, where performance improvement can follow. But how? Here are some ideas:

3 Behavioral Considerations

1) How humans are “wired” to perceive bad news. We are likely predisposed to pay more attention to negative information, possibly a leftover evolutionary survival mechanism. As a result, we’re likely to become hyper-focused on the negatives. This clouds our “lens.”
2) We sorely need the positives. We should all be allowed to absorb what we are doing well at work. That’s not possible when information about our successes is delivered in conjunction with information about shortcomings.
3) We “digest” slowly. It takes time to process negative information properly. Initially, when you hear information you might not not want to hear, negative thoughts can spiral, leading to responses such as panic and denial. There are stages in this process that cannot be skipped.

5 Ways To Avoid “The Sandwich”

1) Build resiliency. Performance management should never be a once a year, “live or die” event. Ultimately, it’s a continuous process. Provide positive feedback concerning small successes along the way to provide balance. This helps difficult information become easier to absorb.
2) Address self-efficacy. Some individuals have the tendency to believe they cannot impact their performance or build a needed skill set. Explore this predisposition, to encourage a more hopeful perspective.
3) Focus on learning. Research has shown that in contrast to performance goals, learning goals can increase problem solving in relation to performance problems, possibly limiting the “sting” of negative feedback. Setting the tone to “learn from failure” can prove more effective in motivating and directing behavior.
4) Never “drop a bomb.” It’s wise to address negative feedback when it is delivered. Allow enough time to help control anxiety, and at least begin to discuss a plan for improvement.
5) Support the digestion process. After sharing negative feedback, be sure to provide plenty of support. Be highly accessible as an employee works through the information and begins to take logical steps forward.

How do you present negative performance feedback? What are your “best practice” strategies? How have these strategies helped you develop others in the workplace? Share your thoughts in the comments area below.

(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared as a LinkedIn Influencer post. It is republished with permission.)

Image Credit: Kitsa Sakurako/Flickr

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