The feedback sandwich is a model that was highly popular at the start of my career as a coach/trainer and that still pops up now and then. Put in a simplistic way, it essentially comes down to always having a negative message preceded and followed by a positive message. So first a compliment, then the criticism and then another compliment. This way, the negative message in the middle of your sandwich is more easily ‘swallowed’. I don’t think it’s a good model. Your negative message becomes unclear because of the positive messages, so you end up not making your point. And if it does come across clearly, the listener experiences the two positive messages as manipulative. The effect of the feedback sandwich will, in my opinion, either cause uncertainty and/or affect the openness of the relationship.
In my opinion, the basic message underlying this model is correct though: for every negative criticism you give, you must try that give two positive messages. To put it more broadly: people need positive feedback and appreciation as a basis and as a means to grow and are only able to integrate negative criticism if there is a positive foundation. And this is absolutely true. So, especially as a manager, you must make sure that your positive feedback outweighs the negative. And given our reflex as managers to focus on what goes wrong, it is good to impose a rule on ourselves to give employees more appreciation than criticism. Just don’t do this chronologically in succession. State your criticism clear and precisely, without wrapping it in a positive message, but first make sure that your relationship with your employee has a positive foundation built up over time.
However, a third element is needed to keep the matter in balance: getting criticism as a manager and naming your own mistakes.
If, as managers, we want our employees to be able to receive criticism, we must not only create a positive foundation, but we must also show them that we as managers can deal with criticism and face our own mistakes. And here too you could implement the ½ rule. For each criticism you give, you name two of your own mistakes or listen to a criticism by an employee.
And if you now think ‘I never get any criticism from my employees’ or ‘I don’t make mistakes’, then there is much work to be done.
This brings us to the ‘feedback triangle’. It has one short side at the top: giving criticism. And two long sides (twice as long) down to the point: express appreciation and receive criticism. So the latter two must be done twice as much. The longer the long sides become (the more appreciative and self-critical you are), the longer the ‘give criticism’-side becomes and the more evident and easier it is for you to bring things into agreement. The triangle stands on its point, in an unstable equilibrium; it requires a constant effort to keep the three in balance.
As a manager, you should first and foremost try to admit your own mistakes and focus on positive aspects, the rest will naturally follow.
Checklist for the manager: review of the past week
- How often did you express appreciation? How often did you give negative feedback? How often did you receive feedback from your employees or express self-criticism? Are these in proportion with each other?
- Could you express more appreciation about the actions of your employees in the past week?
- And is there any criticism on your own performance you could express to your team?