Why I Hate the “Sandwich” Technique for Delivering Feedback

At the risk of inviting the ire of a great number of readers and trainers, I am once again opting for the dissenting opinion on a controversial topic. I absolutely hate the use of the “sandwich” technique in delivering constructive feedback. 

For those of you that need a memory jog, this is the approach that many trainers suggest for delivering constructive feedback-the developmental kind, not the positive kind.  It involves delivering praise, offering the specific constructive criticism and then closing off with more praise.  The criticism is “sandwiched” between two points of praise.

Many people find this approach comfortable.  It allows for an easy discussion opener and takes away from some of the fear of diving into the real behavioral issue. 

Given that many, many managers struggle to conduct the tough feedback discussions due to various (irrational) fears: fear of offending, fear of not being liked, fear of losing someone, fear of upsetting working dynamics, this approach offers a security blanket.  Those teaching the technique argue that at least it facilitates having the discussion, and that is better than not having it.

And while I am a huge advocate of delivering timely feedback, I’ll take mine without the bread please. 

5 Reasons Why the Sandwich Technique is a Truly Bad Practice:

  1. It is a crutch that is solely for the benefit of the giver, not the receiver.
  2. It obfuscates the real message. 
  3. It confuses the receiver by watering down the key message.
  4. It destroys the value of positive feedback by linking it with the negative.  Don’t forget that positive feedback is a powerful tool for reinforcing the right behaviors and the sandwich technique devalues this tool. 
  5. It is insulting to the receiver and borderline deceitful.  “Bob, you did a great job on XYZ, but… .”  It’s like a pat on the back followed by a sucker punch followed by another pat on the back.

My guidance:

  • Overcome your fear of delivering constructive feedback by planning your discussions, and importantly, planning and practicing your discussion openers by getting politely and clearly to the point.
  • Follow the single-behavior/single discussion rule.
  • Ensure that you are focusing on the behavioral issue
  • Link the issue to business impact
  • Identify the proper and required behavioral change
  • Jointly develop a plan to drive the change
  • Follow up to discuss progress and next steps.

The Bottom-Line:

Consider this some robust feedback: quit sugarcoating your performance discussions.  Your associates will respect you more for your clarity and your support of their development. It’s time to grow up and lead. 

By | 2016-10-22T17:12:10+00:00 May 7th, 2009|Leading Change|28 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

28 Comments

  1. Monica Diaz May 7, 2009 at 7:48 am - Reply

    I have to agree with you on this. I am a big advocate of positive feedback because I truly believe it builds better relationship and reinforces, as you say, practices that we want people to keep up. Plus, I think it is not used enough in the organizational setting. Appreciation should be a daily part of working together, as should be gratitude. That said, it is NOT a good crutch for the “sandwich approach” you describe here, for reason you have eloquently stated. When we build our relationships well, OPENNESS is not only desireable but most people would prefer you say things to them straight (no sugar coating, please). This also builds trust. If not, people are almost skipping the positive feedback thinking “oh, oh… here comes the awful part!” Thanks for a great post.

    • Lisa March 15, 2015 at 7:21 am - Reply

      Art Petty,

      I must say that I agree with several other people here who have posted comments about the power of positive feedback. As someone who has changed careers it is wonderful to hear someone noticed that I am doing something well, especially when it comes from your big boss (Principal). It does help build better relations with your superiors! Everyone needs a compliment every now and then, especially in a world that is filled with so much criticism.

      No one wants to feel as though they are not doing anything well.When I approach students with problem behaviors I ALWAYS start out positive and follow with the constructive criticism, then ask what positive notions they have concluded from the meeting. My students have commented that this helps empower them and helps them feel more positive about my class.

      Everyone’s behavior is situational. It’s not an excuse, but an explanation of how each human behaves on a daily basis. Think about the days you felt amazing at work. Were you well rested? Did you have positive interactions with others? Did you feel stress free? Maybe you worked out the day prior. Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  2. Art Petty May 7, 2009 at 7:54 am - Reply

    Monica, thanks for a great comment! I love your perspective on positive feedback and I agree that it is grossly under-utilized. Great point that most people prefer the straight comment. If you are leading a team, your colleagues are fortunate to have someone with such mature perspectives on this topic. -Art

  3. Fred H Schlegel May 7, 2009 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    Your view that tying positive to negative destroys the effectiveness of the positive is dead on. The cleaner and more professionally you deliver criticism the more useful it is to the person receiving it. Faint praise muddies the water when something needs fixing.

  4. Diana Larsen May 7, 2009 at 3:16 pm - Reply

    If peers or managers offer feedback effectively, it’s all positive because it builds trust in the working relationship. Sometimes we want to encourage behavior and sometimes we’d like behavior to change or stop. Those times are not the same. I like your point number 1 – the sandwich is for the benefit of the giver, not the receiver. As the recipient of feedback I want clarity about the impact of my behavior on others, not a confusing message, sugar-coated because the giver thinks I can’t take it. Let’s treat adults like adults and give clear, effective feedback. For another good post about feedback, read http://tinyurl.com/dzof5q

  5. Art Petty May 7, 2009 at 3:33 pm - Reply

    Fred and Diana, thanks for reading the post and adding your comments. It seems as if we are in agreement. Diana, I’m heading over to read your suggested blog post. -Art

  6. Esther Derby May 7, 2009 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    Art,

    Good advice!

    I find that many people–including managers–don’t know how to offer feedback in a direct and respectful way. I teach people to use this framework:

    Create an opening so you are sure it’s a good time for the person to hear you… not when he’s getting ready for a big meeting or rushing to pick up his kid.

    Describe behavior or results. Use neutral language and examples. If the person doesn’t recognize himself in the description or agree with the data, the conversation is over. Labels, comparatives, and absolutes raise defenses.

    Describe the impact. If there’ s no impact, why are you having the conversation?

    Make a request. You may have a specific behavior in mind, or you may want to engage in problem solving. It depends on the situation.

    Finally, don’t sell past the close. If the person gets the point after you describe the behavior, zip it. Otherwise, it feels like you are beating a dead horse.

    My experience is that people are likely to accept critical feedback when:

    1) the giver or source is believed to be reliable
    2) the receiver trusts the intentions of the giver
    3)the receiver has a chance provide clarifications
    4) the process is fair — both the way the feedback was developed and the way the feedback was communicated

    Praise sandwich tends to erode trust in the feedback givers intentions, and once that’s gone, there’s not much chance any useful information will get through.

  7. Art Petty May 7, 2009 at 4:19 pm - Reply

    Esther, your comment is worthy of a full post and a good course on feedback. Thanks! You’ve included some tremendous suggestions and I love your reiteration of the need for credibility on the part of the giver. Great comment. -Art

  8. CV Harquail May 8, 2009 at 5:06 am - Reply

    Art, thanks for clarifying these concerns so nicely. I’ve been bothered by this technique also because it’s so easy to see it coming that it doesn’t seem like the person offering it is doing anything more than executing a routine. It doesn’t often feel like the giver is all that mindful.

  9. Patti May 8, 2009 at 11:46 am - Reply

    Art,

    Great post and very well written and stated!

    I am reading a great book at the moment called “Made to Stick” by Dan and Chip Heath. In one chapter it talks about the ‘Lead’. Their whole discussion about making something “sticky” or memorable or reinforce the main point is NOT to bury it within extraneous facts.

    Start with the main point, make it short, concise, and memorable.

    It’s my practice to separate the “developmental” criticism from the celebratory praise. This can be done with respect, dignity and honour of the other person without wrapping it with conversational confusion.

    As an employee I want to know what the talk is really about. Confusing the main point with the “bread” can be equally confusing to the employee especially in this global environment in which we find companies more and more involved. Sugar coating the topic with someone who is speaking English as a second language can be harmful to gaining the results you desire.

    Thanks for bringing this point forward to your readers!

  10. Art Petty May 8, 2009 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    Patti, I am enjoying that book as well as I multi-task my way through several at the same time. Great point on making feedback “sticky.” Kudos as well on your approach to maintaining the honor and dignity of the person receiving the developmental feedback. Thanks for reading and for commenting! -Art

  11. Dan McCarthy May 9, 2009 at 4:00 am - Reply

    Art –
    It’s too bad trainers are still recommending this silly approach. Nice job debunking it. It’s shallow and manipulative, but I can see how well intended managers could be drawn to it. Giving critical feedback is hard, and while this technique may make it easier for the manager, it does nothing for the employee.

  12. Art Petty May 9, 2009 at 5:21 am - Reply

    Dan as a leadership trainer that I hold in high regard, I appreciate your jumping in on this one. Hopefully, this technique is one that we can stamp out as a worst-practice. Thanks for your always welcome comments! -Art

  13. […] bloggers include the sandwich approach among their list of ingredients for criticism, Art Petty at Management Excellence begs to differ in “Why I Hate the ‘Sandwich’ Technique for Delivering […]

  14. Kathleen Carrico February 20, 2010 at 7:49 pm - Reply

    As managers, one must practice direct communication – no sandwiching! Managers who worry about being liked need their own therapy. Managers need to keep in mind they must be FAIR above anything else, and you will still be liked by most. I like to phrase it, “delicately direct” in sensitive situations, but direct nonetheless – great article, thanks for sharing.

  15. Thomas Matthews May 10, 2010 at 12:09 pm - Reply

    I beg to differ. The Sandwich Technique is not for the giver, it’s for the receiver. Also, anyone in the trenches in management for an extended period understands that to be effective, the giver always tailors the feedback style to the receiver. Most people/receivers are far more receptive when there is a positive opening to discussing charged or negative issues. Your position has a “don’t be a wimp” attitude that is not conducive to being sensitive to each situation, and each person. There are absolutley times when we need to cut to the chase, but I feel you are throwing out the baby with the bath water by simply dismissing one of the tried and true feedback techniques available to us.

    • Art Petty May 10, 2010 at 12:17 pm - Reply

      I’ll beg to differ back, but appreciate your chiming in. The most important issue at the end of the day is that feedback is taking place. Nonetheless, I still hate the sandwich technique for the reasons described. -Art

  16. Mike Petrachenko June 6, 2010 at 6:58 pm - Reply

    I liked your post a lot, Art. As a long-time devotee of the sandwich method, it made me stop and reconsider my position. In fact, I am going to stop using the sandwich method whenever I can.

    That said, there are many cases where without a spoonful of sugar, the medicine simply would not go down. In my mind, there are two major situations where a “sandwich” feedback approach is the most expedient – and sometimes only – way to get a point across.

    First is in giving feedback up the chain of command to an insecure / authoritarian leader. Without baiting the hook, you won’t get the time of day. Unless your harried boss has been recently reminded that (a) they have real strengths and (b) you notice and appreciate those strengths, they won’t take you seriously, writing off your feedback as mere “whining”.

    Second is in giving feedback to an insecure co-worker or subordinate. Again, without reminding the individual that (a) they have real value for the organization and (b) that you are well aware of that value – they will just shut down in defensive anger and/or tears when you try to offer constructive criticism.

    The issue is that the above two cases are not able to act properly as “adults”. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with these personalities in the real workplace. Ideally, we could kick them out of a workplace for not having grown up, but that isn’t always practical – or even possible.

    Nevertheless, I think that a “sandwich-free” feedback world is a noble goal to work towards. Not only that, although I have a habit of delivering sandwich-formatted feedback (years in Toastmasters made for a hard-to-change habit), I personally prefer to take my feedback straight, and until you put your finger on it, I couldn’t quite figure out why. Thanks for the straight-talk.

    • Art Petty June 6, 2010 at 7:08 pm - Reply

      Mike, thanks for your remarkably thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. Your two cases are great examples where a bit of “sandwiching” may well be important. -Art

  17. Steve Whatley June 24, 2011 at 10:37 am - Reply

    I only wish we had some hard data to back up what most people feel rather than all the old data that supports the sandwich technique. It’s hard to convince a room full of managers who do not know any better and a trainer who is stuck in the old school thinking when all you have is what you know and feel.
    I know it’s been a while; I do have comments re: Mike’s two cases. The first case assumes you have to approach the manager vs the manager asking for feedback. If the organization has a culture for feedback, then the manager would be seeking it out; thus, providing the way in and eliminating the need to open with positives. Of course, if they are seeking, then they will be seeking both positive and negative. Just put all the positive together and the negative together in a non-sandwich form.
    For the employees who can’t handle it; well, they can learn to handle it. All employees have to learn what it takes to do their job and what it takes to work for the organization. They also have to learn how to work for different supervisors / manager’s if they or the management is moved around. One thing people tend to do is underestimate people’s ability to learn and adapt. Another approach is to accept people will react in different ways; once they cool down, they already know the situation and will be more up to discussing it.

  18. Jamie November 20, 2011 at 10:53 am - Reply

    I disagree. You can’t generalize every person in your statement. I think it is more effective give someone good feedback, then get down to business with what needs work, and follow it up with something like- I believe in you, you can do this, you did a great job with …blah blah blah… so I trust you can do this just as well…. it’s motivating. Not every person is wired the same. You cut one person down, and their job dissatisfaction will start to increase. they may feel less likely to keep this job and may start looking elsewhere. You cut the next guy down and he is motivated to change. It totally depends on the individual you are talking about. Art, your techniques may work with some, but certainly not most!

    • Art Petty November 20, 2011 at 10:57 am - Reply

      Hmmm…interesting generalization on “…work with some, but certainly not most!” Jamie, I’ve taught and coached feedback to thousands and employed this leading companies and business for two + decades. You are free to do this as you enjoy. Give me a call when you have similar experience. As for me, as stated in this very old but still relevant post, I’ll take mine without the bread. Happy obfuscating! -Art

  19. […] The Praise Sandwich […]

  20. Cynthia September 25, 2012 at 9:50 am - Reply

    The Critique or Praise Sandwich is used in many areas of expertise. Many editors and art directors us it when approaching writers and artists. When someone has created a work, it has become their child. Effective parental coaching is an art itself. Addressing only the issues, without seeing the good in something isn’t always taken lightly.If you draw a parallel between the criticsm of work, to critiquing a parent on their child, it brings another level on sensitivity to addressing issues. As a professional in the creative and business world,I have seen the simllarities in both creative and business projects. They can become someones’ “baby.”

    I recognize the sandwich method when I receive it. The most effective coaching I received directed me by using the positves that were working for me. An art director found an area where I was doing exactly what I needed to do. Without saying “go with this,” he started by pointing out that area and gave me the reasons he liked it. Then, he went on to show me other areas and without pointing out the differences, I got it. When I reflected on the guidance I received, it was most effective. It’s become easier to digest feedback. With the sandiwch method, there can be a good deal of meat to swallow, some pickles to throw away for their sour taste, and some bread for ease of digestion.

    As I read your post, I also noticed the remarks. The ones you responded to were the feedbacks that addressed concerns regarding your methods. The praises may have been easier to digest. Your responses were defensive measures on behalf of for your child-your critiquing methods and sheds light on how the sandwich works.

    • Art Petty September 25, 2012 at 11:05 am - Reply

      Love that this post continues to generate discussion about feedback. Retain my original view: sandwiching is a crutch for the giver that obfuscates the message and diminishes the opportunity for behavioral change…particularly in constructive situations. Give feedback early and often. Ensure that it is behavioral in nature. Be specific, link ,it to business and facilitate a discussion on the way forward. If the manager is doing his or her job, there is ample positive feedback given when earned. Why save it up and dilute it as part of the sandwich? As for your assessment of my responses, huh? -Art

  21. […] balance of positive and negative feedback – in an appraisal it is important to recognise what someone does well, whilst providing suggestions for improvement – although I am not an advocate of the positive-negative sandwich technique […]

  22. Di August 8, 2015 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    I really enjoyed reading this! It’s a whole different perspective that what we are taught at work. I think it all comes down to the fact that you have to know your people, some people work best with the Sandwich technique, some don’t and you don’t have to sugarcoat things in order to end with something positive. That positive thought at the end of a coaching session doesn’t have to be some kind of praise, it can be some sort of plan of action, you know something like yes we have a lot to work to do but this is how we will approach it.

    • Art Petty August 8, 2015 at 12:10 pm - Reply

      Di, well said! -Art

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