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When the Feedback Sandwich has gone bad

Anyone who has had any type of supervisory or front line leadership training, or has even taken a basic management course, has heard the old adage about (negative) performance feedback. That is, you need to use a “sandwich” approach when providing feedback to your employee(s). The ‘rule’ states that you start by providing a positive message or positive piece of feedback first when having the performance discussion with the employee in question. You then follow this up with the constructive piece of feedback, or in other words, the ‘negative’ piece, and then close or sandwich your discussion with another piece of positive feedback.

Generally speaking, when you are dealing with good to great performers, this approach can probably work a lot of the time. If you are doing your job as a coach and manager, you are providing regular feedback anyway and you are able to make your point about the constructive feedback while sandwiching it around a couple pieces of positive feedback. The problem starts when you are dealing with chronically underperforming employees and/ or employees that aren’t responding to your message(s) and this is when you know that the feedback sandwich has gone bad.

Moldy breadLet’s dig into this a bit deeper. Say you have an underperforming employee. Maybe they are fairly new to your organization or team, or perhaps they have had a chronic issue with not performing but have gotten by due to managerial changes, organization changes, etc. Regardless, they are on your hands now and you need to deal with them. If they are underperforming on critical elements of their job, you need to deal with this stat. If they are providing poor customer service, making errors in their code, or not balancing the books, etc. than those are all critical performance issues and you should not be utilizing the sandwich approach when having discussions with your employee. You need to sit that employee down, identify (objectively and tangibly) the performance issue(s) you have observed, make it clear what the proper expectations or performance outcomes are and ask for their commitment in meeting those objectives (with some other forms of assistance if required).

It is critical that you do not begin your coaching conversation by trying to identify something positive to lead in with as the entire point of the performance discussion will be lost. I have seen far too many coaching conversations go like this:

Manager: “Sally, thanks for coming to see me, I wanted to talk to you about an important work issue. First of all, I wanted to tell you great work in helping Steve finish all that photocopying last week, it really helped him make sure that the Annual Report got out on time.”

Sally: “No problem, I enjoying helping the team whenever I can and I find those administrative tasks take my mind off my regular work.”

Manager: “Ok, good, well, I wanted to let you know that your TPS reports haven’t been filed on time for the past 2 months and they are impacting or ability to generate client billings.”

Sally: “oh, I wasn’t aware…”

Manager: “Yes, but your teamwork has been great and everyone really enjoys working with you.”

Sally: “Ok great, well next time Steve or anyone needs help with the Annual Report I can pitch in. In fact, I am helping Reg planning the upcoming staff social. So thanks for the talk, I am glad you are happy with things.”

See how that one went off the rails? Sally completely missed the point because the manager didn’t get to the point about the performance impacting issue. While her teamwork skills may be commendable, they are being augmented at the expense of her not getting her TPS reports done on time. The sandwich was bad here because the performance impacting behavior was having a far more negative effect on her job than the other two pieces of positive performance feedback combined.

This is the inherit point – the risk with the feedback sandwich is that it can go bad quickly. You know it has gone bad quickly when your employee walks away from their meeting with you confused or if you feel frustrated with the outcome of the conversation. Sometimes you just need to get to the point – you can do so by being professional and focusing on the issue, and not the person, and still make your point. The use of the sandwich often creates a lot of noise and clutter in the performance discussion. It detracts from the core of the conversation and often ends up with the employee and manager off track and not talking about the (core) issue at hand.

So the bottom line is that my advice to you as managers is to be careful about using the feedback sandwich in the first place. But if you do, you need to recognize when it has gone bad and is not effective any more. If you or your employees are feeling more confused, angry or unfocused after you have used the sandwich approach, than know it has gone bad, so get rid of it and get to the heart of the matter. At the end of the day, the sandwich approach was probably formulated to overcome some manager’s rude or insensitive approach to dealing with their employee(s) anyway! Think about it another way, if you were providing positive feedback on something you wouldn’t sandwich it between two pieces of negative feedback…..so why do we reverse that with negative/constructive feedback? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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One Response

  1. Reblogged this on WRITINGS OF SANSAR.

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