How to Avoid Delivering the Dreaded Feedback Sandwich

Posted 10.26.2021

We’ve all been there. Your manager wants to give you some performance feedback and wraps it up in so much blah, blah, blah that you aren’t really sure what the message is or what you’re supposed to do with it.

The technical term for what you got is the feedback sandwich. There’s so much fluffy, doughy verbiage on the front end and back end of the conversation that whatever nutritional value there might be in the middle is pretty much lost. As a result, nothing much changes. No one gets better, performance suffers and dissatisfaction simmers. It’s just a bunch of empty conversational carbs.

If you’re a manager (or a coach for that matter) delivering tough feedback is sometimes part of the job. Delivering feedback sandwiches that start with a lot of happy talk, sneak in a little bit of constructive criticism and then end with more happy talk doesn’t do anyone any good. You owe it to your team member, your organization and yourself to deliver straight-up meaty feedback that can be understood and acted upon.

Here’s some of my best advice on how to avoid delivering the dreaded feedback sandwich.

Respect people’s agency – As an executive coach, I sometimes have to deliver summaries of tough colleague feedback to my clients. As I’m preparing for those conversations, I almost always ask myself, “Would I rather know or not know?” Personally, I’d rather know because if I do, I can choose to do something about it. Most of your people likely feel the same way. Respect their agency to choose to act by being forthright about what’s working, what’s not and where and how they can improve.

Do your homework – Speaking from hard-won experience as a manager myself, one of the worst things you can do in a challenging feedback conversation is going in without doing your homework. Before you have the conversation, think through what you’re trying to accomplish, gather a few substantive examples that illustrate the performance gap, and what kind of suggestions and support you can offer. Trying to wing your way through a tough feedback conversation never ends well.

Skip the preamble – When you start the conversation, resist the urge to start with a preamble about everything but the substance of the feedback. Skip the preamble and cut to the chase. A decent way to start is, “I’ve been noticing some things you’ve been doing (or not doing) that I think are keeping you from performing at your best and want to share them with you so you can show up at your best.”

Hit the main points – Shorter is almost always better. Hitting your main points clearly and efficiently makes it easier for people to determine what they need to do. Here’s a high-level outline that’s worked well for me and my clients over the years:

  • Here are the gaps that I’m seeing and the impact they’re making.
  • This is what success looks like.
  • These are the strengths you have that you can leverage to be better.
  • Here’s how I think I can help you close the gap. What else would help?

Offer hope – My favorite definition of leadership is that it’s a two-part job. The first is to define reality. The second is to offer hope. Delivering the reality of tough performance feedback without offering the support and substance that provides hope for improvement is pretty much leadership malpractice. Through your words and actions, do everything you can to convey the hope and optimism that your team member can make the changes they need to make to perform at their best.

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