The Sandwich Feedback Method: Not Very Tasty
C. W. Von Bergen
Southeastern Oklahoma State University
In correcting employee behavior and providing negative performance feedback managers are often encouraged to begin such coaching and counseling sessions with the “sandwich approach” in which one sandwiches criticism between two positive comments. Although offered by many well-intentioned management trainers and organizations as an effective and humane way to give negative feedback to one’s subordinates, this common method may be undermining both a supervisor’s feedback and relationship with their workers. After reviewing this method of corrective feedback, the authors discuss why leaders use the sandwich approach, the problems presented by this technique, and then provide an alternative effective procedure managers can use to address problematic workplace conduct.
The Sandwich Feedback Method: Not Very Tasty
“You’re one of the best workers I have—when you’re here. But if you don’t
improve your attendance in the next two months, I’m going to have to fire
you. You’ve got more talent in your little finger than most people have in
their whole body and that’s why I’m so worried about you.”
When employees do things that are unsafe, unhealthy, unfair, or destructive to the organization, such misconduct cannot be ignored or allowed to continue. Misconduct is defined here from the supervisor’s perspective as behavior that falls short of his or her moral or technical work standards (Trevino, 1992). Given this definition, employee theft, drug or alcohol abuse, tardiness, excessive absenteeism or sick leave use, insubordination, and below standard work performance may all qualify as misconduct (Redeker, 1984). Such performance must be corrected using constructive feedback. One very common way that managers are taught to deal with a worker’s poor performance is to apply the sandwich method illustrated in the above statement from a supervisor to her employee (Daniels, 2009).
It is called the sandwich approach because in such a conversation criticism is sandwiched between two positive statements. In essence, this method recommends that supervisors begin coaching and counseling sessions with something positive. The intent is to reduce defensiveness, enhance useful communication, and make the input better tolerated by the person receiving the coaching (Nelson & Quick, 2013). After praising the worker for something, the leader should then tell the person about the problem performance and the negative consequence for its continued manifestation. Finally, managers are encouraged to end the discussion with some cheerful affirmation to pick the worker up so that he or she will receive the correcting with a good, positive attitude. Briefly, this approach involves: compliment → criticism → compliment.
In using the sandwich method the supervisor wants to correct some employee bad behavior while simultaneously protecting the worker’s self-esteem and increasing the individual’s receptivity to changing his or her problematic performance in the future. This approach often makes the supervisor feel more comfortable because s/he believes they are protecting the worker’s ego in bringing up positives while still addressing unwanted or ineffective employee behavior and the negative consequences for its future occurrences, which was the point of the conversation to begin with.
While the supervisor may feel good because he or she was being upbeat at the end of the conversation, the employee, on the other hand, often becomes confused as to what is really going on, and the message of the manager regarding the negative employee behavior intermixed between the two praises is diluted. If continued over time, the employee may learn that praise from a supervisor is a prelude to a rebuke. The reaction to supervisory-initiated positive reinforcement soon becomes, “What have I done wrong now?,” and workers develop a “waiting for the other shoe to drop” syndrome (Holm & Hovland, 1999, p. 156) since the positive comment has become a prelude to criticism (Daniels, 2009). As an unintended consequence, this procedure makes reinforcement and praise less credible at other times. Sandwiching detracts from the reinforcement value of the positive comments and diminishes the corrective value of the punishing consequences (Daniels, 1989).
This article discusses this common managerial error and why leaders use the sandwich approach and the problems presented by this technique. The authors then provide an alternative procedure managers can use to address problematic workplace conduct followed by a series of guidelines and a conclusion.
Why Leaders Use the Sandwich Approach
There are numerous reasons why managers use the sandwich technique. Schwarz (2013) offered several reasons: 1) they think it is easier for people to hear and accept negative feedback when it comes with positive feedback; 2) they assume the sandwich approach provides balanced feedback; and 3) they believe that giving positive feedback with negative feedback reduces worker discomfort and anxiety. Regrettably, these supervisors simply assume these reasons to be true without any corroborating evidence from the management literature (Daniels, 1989; 2009). Interestingly, when these leaders were asked to query their subordinates on how they preferred to receive feedback almost all their direct reports said they just wanted the meat—no bread! Another interesting finding was that leaders admitted that they used the sandwich approach because they find giving negative feedback stressful and often ignore poor performance hoping it will simply disappear (Von Bergen, 2012). It was more comfortable to ease into the conversation with some positive feedback, these leaders said. However, “easing in” creates the very anxiety they are trying to avoid. The longer these managers talked without giving the negative feedback, the more uncomfortable they were likely to become and direct reports sensed their discomfort and the subordinates then became more anxious.
Other reasons why leaders may use the sandwich method surround the issues of optimism and being positive. Managers are encouraged to be upbeat based on two fundamental motivational perspectives: approach and avoidance. Many of the major theorists of motivation and personality have incorporated the approach-avoidance distinction into their conceptualizations (Elliot & Covington, 2001) as fundamental and basic to human functioning. The origin of the approach–avoidance distinction may be traced back to the ancient Greek philosophers Democritus (460-370 B.C.) and Aristippus (435-356 B.C.), who espoused an ethical hedonism that proscribed the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain as the central guide for human behavior. These two perspectives, one approach and the other avoidance, help account for the popularity of the sandwich method.
Approach The approach perspective holds that individuals move toward those things they find attractive. There is perhaps no virtue more desirable in America than being positive and optimistic (Ehrenreich, 2009; Matlin & Stang, 1978). Philosophers, theologians, teachers, counseling and sports psychologists, management theorists, and popular self-help gurus have placed a premium on being positive as a means of achieving happiness, satisfaction, productivity, and personal growth and effectiveness (Judge, Erez, & Bono, 1998; Neck & Manz, 2007). The American way of life is replete with stories emphasizing optimism. The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831 to determine what made the country so vibrant and successful and remarked on America’s optimism and emphasis on the positive. Perhaps such an emphasis on being positive should come as no surprise since it is a cultural byproduct of a country that placed the right to happiness in its 1776 Declaration of Independence.
The cultural tradition of positivity still fuels the American dream in the 21st century (Handy, 2001). Many parents raise their children to see the glass as half full and to recognize that every cloud has a silver lining. Americans are a positive people—cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat: this is their reputation as well as their self-image (Ehrenreich, 2009). Such a positivity zeitgeist has become so ingrained in American society that positive seems to not only be normal but also normative—the way a person should be. Thus, it is understandable why managers in correcting poor employee performance want to highlight the positive even as they address a worker’s poor conduct.
The avoidance perspective holds that individuals try to evade that which they find to be undesirable or disagreeable. Such is the case with providing subordinates negative feedback. Such feedback presents a dilemma. Most believe it necessary but few want to deliver it (Ilgen & Davis, 2000). It is apparently so aversive that it is often neglected (Landy & Farr, 1980; Von Bergen, 2012) frequently leading to future, more serious problems. Many supervisors would rather endure a root canal than deliver negative performance feedback where there are some hard, cold truths that they cannot avoid discussing (Kjerulf, 2008). This perspective suggests, once again, why managers may like the sandwich approach with its emphasis on positive aspects of employee behavior while sliding in a few words about problematic conduct.
Why the Sandwich Method Is Ineffective
Some people find the sandwich approach comfortable even though there is no research to support its effectiveness (Daniels, 2009). The intent is to reduce defensiveness and enhance useful communication. Given that many, many managers struggle to conduct the tough feedback discussions due to various (irrational) fears—fear of offending, fear of not being liked, fear of losing someone, fear of upsetting working dynamics—this approach offers a security blanket. Those teaching the technique argue that at least it facilitates having the discussion, and that is better than not having it. Nevertheless, while many argue for the sandwich it may not be as tasty as some might think, and may actually hinder performance.
Reasons why the sandwich technique may be a truly bad practice (Daniels, 2009; Knowledge_train, 2013; Petty, 2009; Wood, 2013) include the following observations:
It is a crutch that for the most part benefits the giver of feedback—not the receiver—although many managers believe they are implementing such a strategy to help their employees it does little to increase the effectiveness of the negative consequence on the performance of the person being corrected. Daniels (2009) indicated that “… sandwiching benefits the sandwicher more than the sandwichee” (p. 101).
It obfuscates the real message and confuses the receiver by watering down the key message. This results, in part, because messages positioned in the middle tend to be overshadowed by those at the beginning (the primacy effect) or those at the end (the recency effect). For any presentation, people are more likely to remember the first and last parts (Hogarth & Einhorn, 1992). Supervisors should not reinforce what they want and punish what they do not want in the same breath (Daniels, 1989). The feedback recipient may fail to recognize the most important aspect of the feedback provided and therefore the original objective of providing the feedback (i.e. identifying inappropriate behaviors or opportunities for improvement) is not achieved.
Over time when supervisors praise someone for a great job which is then followed by a reprimand, employees begin anticipating the slap in the face. Daniels (2009) calls this “the waiting for the other shoe to drop syndrome” (Daniels, 2009, p. 96). Employees will ignore the good things supervisors say waiting for the negative and they think of their leader as a minor league liar for saying positive things that they probably do not believe. Allen and Snyder (1990) relay a story about a supervisor, Alex, who as a result of positive reinforcement training went into an employee’s office and said, “Lisa, I just saw the report you wrote and the letter was excellent. You have saved me considerable time here and I appreciate it.” The worker stared at the supervisor for what seemed to be a very long time before the leader turned to leave. As he was going, Lisa called out, “Alex, what did you really come in here for?” It seems that his straightforward and sincere compliment made her suspicious.
Workers are not stupid and if leaders consistently deliver performance feedback in a sandwich, employees start to realize that the purpose of the message is the zinger in the middle. They then start doubting the manager’s truthfulness about any of the good things when the supervisor tells them because they are always wondering when the criticism will come. It is insulting to the receiver and borderline deceitful: “Bob, you did a great job on XYZ, but….” One supervisor indicated, “It’s like a pat on the back followed by a sucker punch followed by another pat on the back.”
The sandwich tactic destroys the value of positive feedback by linking it with the negative.
The manufactured positives provide the person with an over-stated and inaccurate reflection of how they are performing and often undermines the credibility of the leader. The last part is a feeble attempt to prop an employee up after the real message has been delivered.
One take away from the above concerns addresses the issue of truthfulness. It appears that the sandwich approach is somewhat disingenuous in order to make the giver of the negative feedback feel more comfortable (Johnson & Phillips, 2003) in correcting worker performance. Whether this approach is labeled sugarcoating, softening the blow, or putting the worker at ease, there appears to be an element of opaqueness inherent in the sandwich method.
Effective leaders, however, are transparent about the strategies they use when working with others. For example, Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric (GE) and current management guru noted, “From the day I joined GE to the day I was named CEO, twenty years later, my bosses cautioned me about my candor. I was labeled abrasive and consistently warned my candor would soon get in the way of my career. … and I’m telling you that it was candor that helped make it work” (Welch & Welch, 2005, p. 34). Not rudeness, but honest candor where an individual respectfully calls things the way they see them. These individuals do not waste time with sandwich feedback loops so subordinates know they are honest. By speaking directly they are treating people respectfully. People believe their compliments and they respect such feedback.
Consider the transparency scenario submitted by Schwarz (2013) using the sandwich approach with a hypothetical direct reports named Alex. A supervisor might say something like the following: “Alex, I have some negative feedback to give you. I’ll start with some positive things to relax you, and then I’ll 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 too disappointed or angry with me when you leave my office. How does that work for you?” Hopefully, most readers will see the absurdity of making such a strategy transparent.
A Sandwich Alternative
If supervisors have some corrective feedback to give someone, we believe it is important to provide it in a straightforward manner. For some managers it might be helpful to also remember the words of noted behaviorist Aubrey Daniels (2001) who indicated, “‘Always be positive,’ is the worst advice you could ever give or receive” (p. 44), when correcting worker conduct. This may be important for some supervisors who find it difficult to engage in decidedly non-positive behavior required in disciplinary discussions. There are times when a person’s conduct does not warrant the supervisor being positive and rewarding such behaviors can be detrimental to a well-functioning company or the long-term success of a worker or group. Indeed, rewarding individuals indiscriminately by always being positive fails to teach and clarify for workers what are the rules.
Correct correcting is not easy. To decrease unwanted performance a supervisor must pay careful attention to several guidelines. Supervisors who follow these guidelines help people do the right thing as well as reducing the chance that they will perform in an undesirable way in the future. These guidelines are summarized in Table 1 and are designed to provide straightforward, direct, descriptive communication with examples about what the employee needs to improve in an honest and sensitive manner.
Insert Table 1 about here
Plan the discussion. If possible, overcome fear of delivering constructive feedback by planning the discussion with the worker, and importantly, planning and practicing your discussion openers by getting politely and clearly to the point. If you find yourself in a situation where correcting behavior is necessary, do it without apology. Such planning might involve speaking with one’s supervisor and/or the human resources development. Supervisors need to prepare for any meeting during which you will provide constructive feedback to an employee. A leader’s preparation of wording, approach, and examples will make you more comfortable as the deliverer of constructive feedback.
Keep positives and negatives separate.Separate the positives from the negatives. Let some time pass between the two. For example, “Jim, I like your report. It is concise and you completed it ahead of schedule. Thank you.” The next morning, the supervisor might say, “Jim, I was thinking about your report and if you will make these two changes, I believe the report will be even better.” Avoid saying “You did a good job, but ….” Henry Ward Beecher, noted liberal US Congregational minister, said it succinctly over a hundred years ago: “The meanest, most contemptible kind of praise is that which first speaks well of a man and then qualifies it with a ‘but’” (n. d.). Give staff members the opportunity to bask in their accomplishments by focusing only on the positive when it is warranted. By doing so, when there is something positive to communicate, recipients will completely hear and appreciate it. During the occasions when a negative issue needs to be addressed, employees will be able to focus on the problem and potential resolutions without having the issue muddled with a “compliment sandwich.”
Time discipline so as not to be too soon or not too late.Timeliness is also important for worker punishment because it increases the perceived connection between the misconduct and the feedback discussion (Arvey & Ivancevich, 1980; Arvey & Jones, 1985). Punishment tends to work immediately and so if a behavior needs to stop without delay, as in matters of ethical and safety violations, then punishment can be used as an effective strategy (Daniels & Daniels, 2005).
Nevertheless, it may be best to not take punitive action without some review. There can be many extenuating circumstances associated with inappropriate behavior. Therefore, supervisors must evaluate the situation thoroughly before deciding on any punitive action. Additionally, delaying criticism may be prudent if the manager is unsure how to administer discipline correctly or has concerns regarding procedural issues (Butterfield, Trevino, & Ball, 1996). Atwater, Waldman, Carey, and Cartier (2001) found that both managers and recipients recognized that managers often make mistakes in the employee correction process. They also noted that managers often make mistakes because they were often “out of control” (Atwater et aI., 2001, p. 267). Thus, it may be desirable to delay punishment if a manager’s emotional state would likely lead to an unduly harsh interaction with a worker. All too often, persons in authority tend to criticize subordinates only when they are upset, angry, and no longer able to hold their temper in check (Baron, 1988). Because of the criticizer’s strong emotions, feedback is typically delivered in a biting, sarcastic tone that includes threats of termination, demotion, transfer, and other negative outcomes (Heldmann, 1988). Such criticism is highly dysfunctional.
Hence some delay in administering punishment may be appropriate-but not too much of a postponement. This is because many managers who wait too long to deliver negative feedback to others often let it fester and then blow-up at the target employee thus creating an even more problematic situation (Larson, 1986). The feedback they supply then is likely to be ineffective and may exact serious costs for organizational commitment, job-related motivation, and negative attitudes toward supervisors or toward appraisal procedures generally (Ilgen, Mitchell, & Fredrickson, 1981).
Focus on the behavioral issue.Keep the feedback focused on job-related behaviors and never criticize someone personally because on an inappropriate action. Telling people they are incompetent, lazy, or the like is almost always counterproductive. It provides such an emotional reaction that the performance deviation itself is likely to be overlooked.
Link the issue to business impact. 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.
State consequences if behavior does not improve.
Identify the proper and required behavioral change that the supervisor expects.
Help the worker. Many times it is appropriate for supervisors to ask how the supervisor can help the worker.
Express confidence in the employee’s ability to improve. Following the entire discussion, rather than provide more positive feedback, use the time to express confidence in the employee’s ability to improve his or her performance. Establish an action plan and critical points timeline that specifies when you’d like feedback about progress from the employee.
Maintain appropriate documentation of the corrective discipline.No discussion of worker misconduct can end without addressing documentation. The world is becoming increasingly litigious and one of the most essential guidelines for handling any and all worker disciplinary action is documentation. The goal of documentation is to memorialize the firm’s efforts to address problematic behavior (Clancy & Warner, 1999). When followed regularly, accurate and contemporaneous documentation will add authenticity and credibility to the events leading to the supervisory action and will help the organization prevail against claims of wrongful discharge, breach of contract, and discrimination. Furthermore, documentation will make it difficult to doubt the motives of the manager. Taking notes during or immediately after a discipline interview will create a record of what happened and support personnel decisions.
Maintaining a journal with dated notes of any and all conferences that take place in the manager’s office should become routine, and in a litigated matter, could prove invaluable. Retrieval of those notes when needed will provide detailed and recorded observations that memory cannot provide. While showing fairness and equity, documentation reflects sound and rational judgment on the part of management. Notes, journals, and observations are the “backup” to any memorandum. Therefore, they should be kept as part of the supervisor’s file in a secure area. If there are no documents, the employee is much more likely to win should there be a court case (e.g., Lloyd v. Georgia Gulf Corp., 1992). Employment punishment administered and then overturned by a court, mediator, arbitrator, or an organization’s human resources department reduces its effectiveness over the long run.
To increase the value of the documentation should litigation arise it is important that individuals stay with the facts and provide details but be concise and do not editorialize, neutralize their tone, keep emotion out, and avoid sarcasm (Bruce, 2011). Additionally, Attorney West, principal at Employment Practices Specialists in Pacifica, California, indicated that it is critical to get the employee’s explanation for performance issues and to include it in such documentation. According to West this does several things:
1. Ties the employee to his or her “story.” From a legal perspective, that’s important, West notes. If you do not pin the employee down to a specific explanation, a clever attorney may later come up with another explanation that could be plausible to a jury or government agent.
2. Shows two-way communication. Including the explanation indicates that authorities want to find out if there is something positive that they can do to improve things.
3. Demonstrates supervisory fairness. Juries are often more motivated by their sense of fairness than by the specifics of the law in question.
4. May help a manager correct employee performance. Supervisors should be perceived as wanting to help employees improve and be productive staff members.
5. May reveal a reasonable explanation. It is normal to assume that there is no reasonable explanation, but there may be. For example, perhaps materials 11m out at certain times and that is interfering with production, or perhaps there is a child with a terrible illness, and that is responsible for an employee being 10 minutes late (HR Daily Advisor, 2011).
Putting all these guidelines together might look something like this: “Tim, you have been late three days this week. I have spoken to you about this before and you know how important it is for you to be here on time because other employees cannot complete their work until you do yours. If you are late again this month, you will be terminated. Do you have any questions? Now, what can I do to help you be punctual?” Adapted from Daniels (2009, p. 97)
Baron (1988) found that it was generally not the delivery of negative feedback, per se, that produced such unconstructive outcomes as increased levels of conflict, resentment, and aggression, but rather the manner in which supervisors conveyed such information that seemed to play the crucial role. Baron (1988) observed that performance discussions about poor performance using constructive criticism (specific, considerate, feedback that does not contain threats of termination or reassignment, or suggestions that an individual’s poor performance results from negative internal attributions such as the person being stupid or lazy) did not generate strong feelings of anger and tension nor increase recipients’ tendency to adopt ineffective techniques for dealing with poor performance (e.g., making endless excuses, refusing to change). Furthermore, Ilgen and Davis (2000) forcefully argued that giving negative feedback carries with it a responsibility to convey the message in such a way that will not adversely affect the probability that the person will perform better in the future. Clearly, managers should engage in constructive suggestions with their poorly performing subordinates regarding how they might improve their future behavior.
A 2010 study by the Corporate Executive Board (Griffin, 2010) found that companies that encouraged honest feedback among its staff, and that rated highly in the area of open communication, delivered a 10-year total shareholder return that was 270 percent more than other companies—7.9 percent compared to 2.1 percent. This illustrates the importance of providing feedback. But how it is done is equally important as indicated in this paper. While the sandwich approach has been heralded as an excellent way for giving such corrective feedback, this paper has shown that it possesses a number of problems and, in reality, may do more harm than good.
The sandwich tactic is an ineffective method of correcting behavior in which a positive comment is followed by criticism which is in turn followed by another positive remark. While it has been said that the sandwich technique is a method of softening the blow when dishing out criticism to someone so as to relieve their stress, we agree with Daniels (2009) who
Quit sugarcoating your performance discussions. Your associates will respect you more for your clarity and your support of their development. It is time to grow up and lead.
The sandwich approach is a well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective method. Be straightforward and candid. This does not mean being cruel or uncivil.
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