No one enjoys giving or receiving negative feedback. Those on the receiving end might feel small and incompetent, while those dishing it out might feel they’re being too harsh … or not harsh enough. No matter what, both parties feel uncomfortable. However, giving feedback is a crucial part of employee performance management. The problem is knowing how to go about it.
People often fall into the trap of serving the “$#it sandwich.” This useful slang term refers to negative feedback squished between two soft, bland buns of positive sentiment in the form of irrelevant praise. The intention here is to soften the blow and minimize the bad taste left from hard criticism. However, delivering a $#it sandwich often results in a worse outcome than offering direct feedback. Why is this? And how can leaders give feedback to employees without disguising or diluting it?
Why the $#it Sandwich Goes Bad
Effective leadership depends on transparency. The $#it sandwich approach to feedback is antithetical to this. When leaders insert their true feedback between compliments and niceties, the message quickly gets lost, and the receiver often feels patronized and confused. This isn’t to say that those giving the feedback should be intentionally mean, of course. Rather, all feedback, good and bad, should be to the point. This will allow the person receiving it to understand exactly what he/she did right or wrong, making course correction easier to handle.
Better Ways to Deliver Feedback
For leaders to improve their business performance management, they need to go beyond the $#it sandwich. There are several better ways to give feedback, but they all follow the same principles.
- Avoid the Ego
The human ego makes feedback delivery and reception very difficult. We often feel personally attacked when hearing about our mistakes. Delivering feedback can feel personal too, as the giver might feel self-conscious about how this interaction will affect the relationship. It’s not easy to detach oneself from the ego, but leaders can find ways to give feedback that focuses more on the problem and less on the people. This is a difficult balance to strike because the people involved have to be the ones making the change.
Still, leaders can help erase the ego from the equation by focusing on the future rather than past. In other words, negative feedback shouldn’t simply dwell on a person’s past mistakes. Rather, it should address the problem before quickly moving toward a future scenario in which things have improved. This still keeps the employee accountable but provides a more objective pathway for correcting errors.
- Establish an Atmosphere of Openness
When the workplace is closed off in terms of communication, any feedback feels abrupt and even offensive. Conversely, work environments that encourage questions, criticisms, changes, and friendly dialogue allow feedback to flow naturally. Employees and leaders are constantly giving each other feedback in this type of open space so that even the harshest criticisms are understood to be constructive and normal. Staff members will naturally become closer and more connected so that the flimsy bread of the $#it sandwich becomes an unnecessary platitude, thrown away altogether.
- Keep Reviews Consistent
Another way to avoid the abruptness of negative feedback is to create a regular performance management review system for all employees. These can be monthly, bi-annual, or annual check-ins with employees to go over areas of improvement, make suggestions, and discuss the concerns of both parties. There is always a risk of making these reviews too formal and rigid, however. While these surveys should include specific items, the review itself should flow like a conversation where both parties truly feel engaged.
Conducting these reviews well will take the $#it sandwich and expand it into an organic meal. This is a space for both positive and negative feedback, but none of it will feel crammed in, hidden, or artificially procured. Additionally, the focus of these reviews should be more on the future than the past. In other words, leaders and employees should examine how the previous period of time went, but use it as a springboard for making course corrections in the future. The regularity of these examinations will keep employees and leaders aware of the present moment at all times.
Learning how to give and receive feedback is one of the most challenging and important leadership qualities to develop. Leaders should aim to establish a workplace open to communication, detached from egos, and structured enough so that everyone receives feedback on a regular basis. Leadership Resources can help leaders develop ways of giving feedback that go beyond the failings of a $#it sandwich. Contact us here to learn more.