How to deliver performance feedback that sticks

Have you heard of the feedback sandwich?

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Credit: BigStockPhoto contributor B-D-S

Have you heard of the feedback sandwich?

It’s when you start with something positive, share what needs to change, and finish with something positive. The concept has been around a long time. From what I gather, the foundation of it is sound. Over the years, it's gotten misinterpreted to where it’s applied something like this:

“Good to see you. You’re always so prompt. You need to make sure your presentation skills don’t put people to sleep. Oh by the way, you write a good email too.”

I'm stretching it a bit in my example, but you get my point. Neither slice of bread goes with the filling. People in my circle are pretty jaded about the feedback sandwich approach. So what do you do?

Make the feedback sandwich palatable

Here’s one way you can make the feedback sandwich work (after requisite greetings).

“We’ve been working together on your presentation skills for awhile now. You seemed a lot more confident in the meeting this week. I don’t know if you noticed that some people seemed lost in the detail at certain points though. Let’s review what you covered. What areas do you think could be simplified? Let’s learn from that so next time we can be sure your audience gets the very important point you are making.”

What do you notice?

  1. The entire paragraph is about the same subject. The sandwich hangs together.
  2. You use a specific example.
  3. You leave them with hope and action.

Seems straightforward enough, right? Not so fast.

Let’s take my example and pull it apart.

With a real human in front of me I probably would not say it all in one shot. This brings me to my “don’t” list.

  1. Don’t just get it over with. It's easy to want to blurt it out all at once. Slow down. Pause. As humans we can only take in so much at one time. A person is likely to hear even less when feeling discomfort -- like when receiving performance feedback.
  2. Don’t say too much at one time. My guideline to my clients is “2 sentences, then a question.” This is particularly important when giving feedback. You want to give people time to digest, think, respond and engage. Now your employee can play an active role in planning skill-building.
  3. Don’t feel compelled to fill silence. One of my favorite cautionary tales is about the manager I observed who talked for 18 minutes straight when delivering performance feedback. No pauses. That behavior does not lend itself to a two-way conversation.

Why do you want a two-way conversation?

You don’t have to do all the talking. Your work is to grow awareness and responsibility for development, in your employee. You do this mostly by listening and asking questions. This interaction does not have to come across as a downer. This is where hope and action come in.

Your employees are more likely to act when actively engaged in planning. You are guiding them, with encouragement. You are making sure they have something specific to do coming out of the conversation, even if you are going to help them. Leave them with hope and action.

One more thing – confirm what they heard

The only way you can know for certain what they understand is to hear their thoughts. If you ask, “Do you understand,” that’s a start. The person is unlikely to say no. If you get a “yes,” even if it is sincere, how can you be sure the understanding is really there? Try instead, “What are you taking away from this discussion today?”

Putting it all together

Now you know what to avoid, and also how you can make the feedback sandwich work. Tune back in for my next post when I get more specific about what you can do between the start and the end of the discussion to ensure it prompts two-way interaction.

At least now you have a place to start, without throwing out that sandwich.

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