Why the “Sandwich Feedback” Doesn’t Work and What to Do Instead.

Stop patronizing people by giving them compliments before criticism, says best-selling author Adam Grant. Read to find out what you should do instead.

Picture this.

You’re a 25 year old, newly-minted consultant brought into a multi-national company to deliver crucial advice to a CEO who is twice your age. You’ve spent several weeks collating feedback, insights and learnings from company employees and the unenviable job of giving unsavory feedback to the head honcho has fallen to you. If you’re like most normal people, just the thought of it is sending your fight-or-flight instincts into hyperdrive.

This was the predicament Adam Grant, now best-selling author, consultant, and high-profile organisational psychologist (Sheryl Sandberg also happens to be one of his biggest fans) once found himself in. To make matters worse, he was the fourth in a string of consultants hired (and ultimately fired) by the company to help the CEO deal with a dicey situation. The 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.

Sandwich feedback

Conventional wisdom told Adam to use the ”criticism sandwich” to deliver the cold, hard truth to the CEO. Give a compliment, follow it up with the criticism and then quickly sandwich it beneath another compliment.

But Adam decided not to use it. Why? Because the research simply doesn’t back it up and because, well… logic.

When confronted with situations where a piece of criticism is inevitably on its way, people naturally brace themselves for it. We don’t notice the compliment because we’re waiting for the punch. And even in cases where the person receiving feedback wasn’t preparing themselves for criticism, they will probably forget the feedback and only remember the compliments because of the recency effect: our brains are hardwired to remember the first and last bits of a conversation whilst glossing over the middle.

Think about the last time you were “criticism-sandwiched”. Did you pay attention to the compliments knowing a blow was coming? Did the compliments make you feel even the slightest bit better? And if you do recall the compliments (because the feedback-provider was probably just as uncomfortable about giving criticism as you were about receiving it and was therefore being ultra-nice about the whole thing), how well do you remember the piece of feedback you were actually given? Chances are, not very well.

Knowing this, Adam--ever the switched-on psychologist--decided to try something else.

He approached the conversation using a four-pronged approach designed to deliver hard-hitting feedback that would be accepted and remembered by the CEO without patronizing him.

1.    Explain why you’re giving the feedback

Adam started by explaining why he 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.”

Rather than give empty compliments (which, as Adam discovered, the previous three consultants had tried to do and were called out for it by the CEO), Adam prefaced the conversation by showing the CEO that he was genuinely trying to help him. Research shows that people are far more open to feedback when they know the giver genuinely cares about them.

2.    Get off your pedestal

Negative feedback can make people feel inferior. Level the playing field so the receiver automatically drops his/her guard. Adam did this by giving the CEO a chance to teach him something first.

“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?”

The CEO was naturally quite happy to have his chance to be heard and took the opportunity to discuss the qualities he valued.

3.    Ask if they want to receive feedback

Adam found a logical opening in the conversation to then ask the CEO 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?”

Unless the person you’re dealing with has fascist tendencies, it’s unlikely they will refuse feedback if approached with respect. When in doubt, go with the basics.

“I noticed a couple of things and wondered if you’re interested in some feedback?”

4.    Have a transparent dialogue. Don’t manipulate.

By being transparent throughout the conversation, Adam was able to navigate a potentially perilous negotiation with poise and more importantly, productivity. By the end of the conversation, the CEO felt included in his own feedback ceremony and actually heeded the advice. He wasn’t the recipient of a one-sided “criticism sandwich” that he never asked for. He was respected for who and what he was and reciprocated with the same level of respect he was treated with. Adam’s transparency and tactful steering of a difficult conversation eventuated in actual results. The CEO outlined the long-awaited vision for the company and resolved a problem that had besieged the company for months.

Giving feedback can be hard but by following these steps, you can soften the edge of even the sharpest of criticisms. The ultimate takeaway is to respect the person you are giving feedback to and bring yourself to their level. Understand that receiving criticism can be painful. The key takeout from this article is to be empathetic.

We’ve all received criticism. Think about the above scenario and put yourself in the shoes of the CEO. If you knew the feedback-giver genuinely wanted to help you and took the time to respect your feelings and truly connect with you, would you be more open to receiving and acting upon the feedback?

At WeQ, we’ve seen first-hand the transformative power of empathy. We design our team feedback sessions to maximize receptivity and mutual respect. Feedback sessions are always kicked-off with a high-energy session where teammates are encouraged to connect on a deeper level by discussing each other’s strengths and positive qualities. The deep connections formed in this part of the session are then bolstered by the second part of the session when team mates discuss areas of improvement. Unlike the traditional criticism sandwich, the WeQ method imposes a level-playing field by ensuring that every member of the team gives and receives feedback. No-one is placed on a pedestal. Grievances are aired in a safe and transparent environment and quickly dealt with.

Like Adam Grant’s 4-step criticism-giving process, we believe that empathy and transparency is crucial for creating meaningful progress within teams and ultimately, within entire companies.

Do you agree/disagree that the criticism sandwich is ineffective? Would love to hear your thoughts!


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