Enough of the shit sandwich! How to do feedback better

Have you been eating feedback sandwiches? Or serving them?

Do you ever give or receive feedback? Do you know about the so called feedback sandwich?

Or maybe you know it as praise, improvement, praise?

Or simply as sugarcoating?

Whatever you call it, it is really just a shit sandwich!

It’s when we “sandwich” negative feedback in between two (often very vague) compliments. At its worst, it sounds something like this

“you’re just great…”
“hey by the way… you really messed up on that thing/you have that trait/behavior that I don’t like”
“but you know, you are really great…”

It’s time to stop serving these shitty sandwiches

Getting feedback is important for all of us to grow and improve.

Whether you are a coach, a manager, a friend or a lover, sometimes you will want to give feedback to another human being.

Yes, giving and receiving feedback can be uncomfortable. Yes, I’ve also found it nice to have a little model to wrap it in. And yes, it might feel like we are communicating clearly and gently when we use the sandwich wrapper. But I think we all know when we deliver or receive one of those feedback sandwiches, it feels inauthentic, and then it’s rendered ineffective!

The feedback sandwich experience often fails in one of two ways. It could be so heavily sugarcoated that it’s impossible for the recipient to decipher the actual feedback and it’s missed entirely. Or, more likely, for anyone who’s ever had a job and a boss, it is very obvious from the outset what is going on, and it comes across as very inauthentic.

I’m sure you yourself can see a feedback sandwich coming a mile away! That awkward moment when it starts often super vaguely — “hey, you are just so great…”, and your shit-sensor internal alarm starts ringing loudly and you brace impatiently for them to hurry up with the preamble and serve up the shit they want you to dine on.

The intention of the feedback sandwich might be good, but sadly it often ends up squandering the opportunity for authentic communication and guidance by using a disingenuous model.

So what can you do instead?

Before you plow ahead with the sandwiches, consider these three things…

1. Know that you are not perfect

I’m starting with the woman or man in the mirror…

Did you think giving feedback was all about them?

Do you expect that others should respond your feedback with some variant of “yes, that’s a weakness I am going to work on”/“yes, that was a mistake”/“thank you for making me aware of that so I can change it”?

If we are not open about our own imperfections and mistakes, then we’re dreaming if we expect others to be open about themselves! Show others that you know you are not perfect, and make mistakes too. (Yep, more of that “leading by example”.)

2. Assess your motivation

Before you even consider giving feedback, take a moment of self reflection. Try to assess — is the feedback you want to give objectively fair? (Check yourself for the Fundamental Attribution Error). Ask yourself — is my intention to help this person? If you don’t have a clear yes, then I suggest hitting the brakes.

I’ll admit I’ve been pretty terrible at this to date. I can recall way too many times when I’ve rushed to blame someone under a guise of feedback. I didn’t take any accountability of my role in creating the conditions for the issues in the first place (read this on psychological projecting for a confronting reality check). It’s always worth bringing some awareness to your motivation for giving the feedback.

3. Build a culture that is caring and communicates with candor

The idea of providing more direct guidance was recently made popular by Kim Scott (Radical Candor). She explains some of the reasons why candor is not commonly practiced —

“It’s unnatural, and it’s hard. Criticizing people can feel brutal, and praising them can feel patronizing. But praise and criticism are … “the unnatural atomic building block atop which the unnatural skill set of management gets built.””

Sam Harris took direct candor even further when he wrote Lying, suggesting -

“Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from a relationship.”

It’s well worth reading over the Radical Candor framework here. Where I work we’ve instigated radical candor as a core value, and while challenging at times, I think we’re all better for it. However, there is one important caveat — it’s crucial to maintain a 5:1 positive:negative interaction ratio! Let’s get to that now.

4. Maintain a 5:1 positive interaction ratio

If you’re anything like me, you are very much affected by the negativity bias, and unfortunately automatically remember to give negative feedback more than positive feedback. The feedback sandwich attempts to rectify this somewhat, but I hope I’ve already made it clear why this is a weak solution. So what should we do?

Researcher John Gottman found that in relationships —

“The magic ratio is 5:1. In other words, as long as there are five times as many positive interactions between partners as there are negative, the relationship is likely to be stable.
…Marriages fall into the danger zone for divorce when the ratio of positive to negative interactions falls below five to one.”

It seems reasonable to apply the same principle to relationships with colleagues, and I think it goes a long way to creating psychological safety. I’m far from perfect but since I learnt about the 5:1 ratio I’m more conscious of the number of positive versus negative interactions. I’ve noticed that in relationships that are overwhelmingly positive, the odd bit of direct feedback or radical candor will be much more likely to be heard, whether I’m giving it, or receiving it.

I wish you all the best with your authentic communication. May you never eat nor serve another shit sandwich again!