How do you give feedback to a CEO who’s twice your age? I was 25, a new professor called in as a last-ditch, Hail Mary effort to save a dying company. They had already fired three consultants, so why not try me?
The CEO had been leading longer than I’d been alive. After several weeks of watching him in action, interviewing his senior team, and gathering data from his employees, it was time for me to bring down the hatchet. His company had merged with another firm and he was still trying to figure out where to go. His team desperately needed him to outline a vision.
When I went to colleagues for advice, they all told me the same thing. Put a slice of praise on the top and the bottom, and stick the meat of your criticism in between. It’s the compliment sandwich, as Stewie Griffin called it on Family Guy — a technique for giving feedback that’s popular among leaders and coaches, parents and teachers.
But when I looked at the data, I learned that the feedback sandwich doesn’t taste as good as it looks.
Problem 1: the positives fall on deaf ears. When people hear praise during a feedback conversation, they brace themselves. They’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it makes the opening compliment seem insincere. You didn’t really mean it; you were just trying to soften the blow.
Problem 2: if you avoid that risk and manage to be genuine about the positives, they can drown out the negatives. Research shows that primacy and recency effects are powerful: we often remember what happens first and last in a conversation, glossing over the middle. When you start and end with positive feedback, it’s all too easy for the criticism to get buried or discounted.
Giving a compliment sandwich might make the giver feel good, but it doesn’t help the receiver.
Instead, try these four steps to make your criticism feel constructive:
1. Explain why you’re giving the feedback
“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
Rather than feeling attacked, now you feel like the person has your back and believes in your future. People are remarkably open to criticism when they believe it’s intended to help them. As Kim Scott observes, people will accept being challenged directly if you show that you care personally.
2. Take yourself off a pedestal
Negative feedback can make people feel inferior. If you level the playing field, it’s a lot less threatening:
“I’ve benefited a lot from people giving me feedback, and I’m trying to pay that forward.”
“I’ve been studying great managers, and I’ve noticed that they spend a lot of time giving feedback. I’m working on doing more of that.”
“Now that we’ve been working together for a while, I think it would be great if we gave each other suggestions for how we can be more effective.”
All of these messages send a clear signal: I’m not perfect. I’m trying to get better too.
3. Ask if the person wants feedback
“I noticed a couple things and wondered if you’re interested in some feedback.”
I’ve opened this way many times, and no one has ever declined. Once people take ownership over the decision to receive feedback, they’re less defensive about it.
4. Have a transparent dialogue, not a manipulative monologue
Organizational psychologist Roger Schwarz suggests a thought experiment. Imagine that you’re about to give feedback to two employees, but you have to be transparent about what you’re trying to accomplish:
“I have some negative feedback to give you. I’ll start with some positive feedback to relax you, and then give you the negative feedback, which is the real purpose of our meeting. I’ll end with more positive feedback so you won’t be so disappointed or angry at me when you leave my office.”
“The presentation you gave to the senior leadership team this morning may have created confusion about our strategy. Let me tell you how I’d like to approach this meeting and see if it works for you. I want to start by describing what I saw that raised my concerns and see if you saw the same things. After we agree on what happened, I want to say more about my concerns and see if you share them. Then we can decide what, if anything, we need to do going forward. I’m open to the possibility that I may be missing things or that I contributed the concerns I’m raising. How does that work for you?”
Putting it in action
When I was preparing for the meeting with the CEO, I learned that all three consultants had tried to compliment him, and he saw right through it. It was time to take the feedback sandwich off the menu and be radically candid.
I started by explaining why I was giving the feedback. “Your senior team all believes you’re the right guy to save this company, and I do too. I hope I’ve seen something that can help you do that.”
Next I took myself off a pedestal. “I see this as a two-way street — there’s a lot I can learn from you about leadership. Who are the leaders who have taught you the most in your career?”
He gave me a few examples, and one was a leader with a clear, compelling vision. I took the opening and asked if he wanted feedback: “Your team actually has some pretty consistent views on how you can deliver your vision. Do you want to hear them?”
He nodded and took out a pen. I shared a few of their observations and asked if he agreed. He did — he needed to clarify the vision. A few weeks later, he stood up and rolled out his vision. It was a triumph.
Later that year the company failed anyway. But if I had given a compliment sandwich, it might have failed even sooner.