Why the Employee Feedback Sandwich Tactic Doesn't Work

a pair of business people meeting with each other
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Managers in workplaces are on a mission to discover ways to provide employees with performance improvement feedback—comfortably and kindly. The feedback sandwich has been recommended in management development, consulting, and Human Resources practices for years by many different consultants and trainers.

And, you know what? They are wrong to recommend the feedback sandwich as a method for providing constructive feedback. It just doesn't work. And, it may even prove harmful to employee feedback.

What a Feedback Sandwich Is

In a feedback sandwich, the manager layers constructive feedback between two instances of positive performance feedback. The formula looks like: start the meeting with positive feedback, then provide constructive or negative feedback, and then, end the meeting with more positive feedback. (Note the constructive meat is layered between two pieces of bread: praise.)

Regardless that this approach may be comfortable for managers who seek easy ways to provide constructive feedback, the feedback sandwich may not be as helpful as recommended. In fact, it can get in the way of effective, meaningful feedback and communication that will produce performance improvement results. Here’s why.

Problems With the Feedback Sandwich

  • Using a feedback sandwich flies in the face of recommendations about how to provide effective, meaningful employee feedback that is less than positive. The best approach recommended to performance improvement feedback is to provide straightforward, to the point, descriptive communication with examples of what the employee needs to improve.
  • When an employee is scheduled for a meeting, even if it is a regular meeting, the employee anticipates that some feedback will be constructive. Sure, the employee doesn’t like the constructive feedback as much as positive feedback, but the meeting met his or her expectations. The employee does not feel deceived or fooled. If the employee can expect honest, straightforward feedback from you, the employee will trust you. Beating around the bush is perceived as prevarication.
  • If you provide feedback in a sandwich, the employee forgets what you said about his or her positive performance when you use terms such as "and" or "but" to transition to the perceived negative feedback. The employee loses the positive first interaction when they experience follow-up constructive feedback. Hence, you lose the supposed advantage of offering positive feedback first.
  • Performance improvement feedback that is followed by more positive feedback distorts the importance of the feedback about areas to improve. The employee can be confused about the importance of constructive feedback. Since sustained improvement is the basis for recommendations about raises and other organizational perks, this places the employee at a disadvantage.
  • Positive feedback is a powerful tool that managers can use to communicate the value of the employee’s work and contribution to the organization. It reinforces behaviors that you’d like to see more of on the job. The feedback sandwich diminishes the value and the power of the positive, reinforcing feedback that is delivered during the same message or meeting.

Alternative Strategies for Providing Constructive Feedback

Convinced that the feedback sandwich may actually hinder effective performance feedback? If so, then these recommendations will help you provide more effective, employee-enabling, behavior-changing feedback to employees. (And, that's what you wanted in the first place, right?)

  • You need to prepare for any meeting during which you will provide constructive feedback to an employee. The boss plays a powerful role in the employee’s work life and you need to remember this at all times. (Yes, this is burdensome, but you chose to be a boss with the responsibility for providing constructive feedback.) Your preparation of wording, approach, and examples will make you more comfortable as the deliverer of constructive feedback.
  • An additional rule has been widely recommended to managers. If you need an employee to improve his or her performance, address only one major improvement at a time. With this approach, the employee can fully comprehend the needed changes. You can spend the time offering examples, developing a course of action, and expressing confidence in the employee's ability to improve. It makes sense to focus after you have given the employee an overview of the key areas of needed improvement. You might even ask the employee where they’d like to concentrate first.
  • When discussing the employee’s performance, link the failings to their real impact on the business and on the employee’s coworkers. Help the employee see where their actions are unfavorably having an impact on their company and their career. Focus, too, on the positive results that will occur with improvement. You need the employee to believe that they have hope on the horizon.
  • Areas that you put forth for improvement may already be apparent to the employee. The straightforward approach allows the employee to acknowledge that he or she sees the need for improvement. In fact, the employee may be experiencing frustration about how to approach improvement and how to get better results. This is an opportunity for the manager to develop a relationship with the employee in which the manager is viewed as a helpful resource who is committed to the employee’s success.
  • The outcome of the meeting should be an action plan with feedback sessions planned at regular intervals. The employee is more likely to improve with clear expectations, due dates, and your proffered regular support. Then, make sure that you do follow up with the employee to emphasize the importance of his improvement to the success of his career.
  • In a performance review setting, provide both positive and constructive feedback while providing the opportunity for discussion. Following the entire discussion, rather than provide more positive feedback, use the time to express confidence in the employee’s ability to improve. Establish an action plan and critical points timeline that specifies when you’d like feedback about progress from the employee.

The feedback sandwich is an outdated recommendation that catered to the skills, fears, and trepidation of managers who were expected to help employees improve their performance by providing clear and honest feedback. If you follow these recommendations instead, you actually have the opportunity to help every employee succeed.