How NOT to give feedback to direct reports.

How Not to Give Feedback to Direct Reports

In Building Your Team by Jason Cortel

When I first started with my current employer, it was stressed to me that when giving feedback to use the sandwich approach. This approach was so widely used that the employees would expect it and in many cases get upset if you didn’t use it. This was especially the case if I was the only one not using this method. Their frustration came in the form of “he is being mean” or “he doesn’t like me” or “I can’t do anything right”. My time in using this approach was short lived. I never had appreciation for this approach when it was used on me so why would I use it on my direct reports?

The sandwich approach is when you give a positive, give a negative and give another positive. As you can see the negative is sandwiched between two positives. This approach is a common one but it can jeopardize your relationship with your direct reports and very well could sabotage what you are trying to accomplish, building a great team. Often times when approaching a direct report with a positive they sit there waiting on the negative to come. This is counterproductive as well.

Why do people choose to use a method that, when really examined, is clearly not a good choice? There are several reasons, one of which is because they think it is easier for someone to accept criticism when it is accompanied with positives. Ask yourself “who is it easier for”? Some people feel the sandwich approach reduces anxiety and discomfort. Again, ask yourself “whose anxiety or discomfort does it reduce”? Others feel it is required to maintain balanced feedback, ask yourself “if I gave more positive feedback on its own wouldn’t there already be a balance”? On the surface all of the mentioned reasons for using the sandwich approach are good ones. However, the timing of them is not.

It is easier for people to accept criticism when there has been a balance of positives. In using the sandwich approach I believe most managers choose this method because it is easier for them not the direct report. Perhaps you never give positive feedback on its own and you realize that as you are about to correct someone’s actions. Or, perhaps you realize the only time you talk to this person is when it is to correct their behavior. When you are using the sandwich approach to reduce anxiety or discomfort, I also believe it is your level of comfort you are trying to improve. This is usually a result of your weak relationship with that direct report. All of these reasons for using the sandwich approach undermine your ability to lead your team.

How do you go about providing feedback in the form of criticism without the sandwich approach and still feel comfortable and good about the feedback session? You have to make sure you are providing timely positive feedback when your direct report does something well. My favorite analogy to use is called an emotional bank account. You must deposit regular positive interactions so that when you make a withdrawal in the form of criticism the balance remains positive. If the balance of the emotional bank account gets overdrawn the criticism becomes uncomfortable for both you and your direct report. The direct report may also feel you are always harping on them, that they never do anything right and eventually begin to question their position on your team and within your organization. This of course leads to reduced productivity or quality of work.

Start building your emotional bank account today by telling your direct reports something they are doing well. As time goes by, and you maintain building that bank account, when you go to correct something they have done you will not feel the need to use the sandwich approach.

What are your thoughts on the sandwich approach? Do you feel it is the best form of feedback and why? What approach to giving positive feedback do you use?

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Jason Cortel

Jason Cortel

Call Center Manager
An accomplished sales and marketing operations executive in demand generation, client services and technical support industries. Jason has proven leadership, strategic planning, and problem solving skills. He is recognized for having the ability to develop client-focused organizational cultures resulting in significantly higher customer satisfaction and retention.
Jason CortelHow Not to Give Feedback to Direct Reports