Friday, April 26, 2013

Where can I get a Feedback Sandwich?

Recently me and Alison Wood got into this discussion about the Feedback Sandwich. Alison is all in favor for it and she wrote a guest post a couple of weeks ago Feedback sandwiches all round – why I like the “sandwich method”, by Alison Wood where she explains why she's in favor.
And now is my turn to explain why I'm not a Feedback Sandwich fan. Keep on reading to find out why.


Alison's guest post pictures pretty well how this method to provide feedback works, so you can check it if you haven't come across it yet. And curious enough, there's this article on Harvard Business Review The "Sandwich Approach" Undermines Your Feedback by Roger Schwarz (published shortly after Alison posted hers) where he explains why he's firmly against it.
My perspective is a bit different, I just think there are not that many opportunities to make this sandwich, but let me start from the beginning. I've written here before about feedback, you can check all the details about the ideal setting on "How to give feedback". But there are a couple of ideas there that I want to explore a bit further here.

One issue rule

The idea is counter-intuitive, but the fact is that when you have a project going wrong because of several root causes you should address one issue at a time, starting with the one that's causing the most damage. It's tempting to go all in and solve all the problems in the project simultaneously, thinking maybe the project will get on track faster. But that simply doesn't happen, either because of lack of focus on paying attention to different things at the same time or because it's not that productive to go with the same energy after issues that are causing damages with different sizes.
The same applies to feedback. If you have a team member that you really want to perform better, identify all the problems, their causes and check to see what's impacting your team member the most. Now that's the one issue you want to take care of in the first place. And once you've done that, repeat the process again and again until you're both satisfied.

Give timely feedback

There's no use of slapping your kid 2 weeks after he broke your favorite smoking pipe that belonged to your grandfather. But you may have a chance of making your point if you slap him immediately after he broke your pipe.
The same goes for feedback. If you write down everything your team members do well (and not so well) to discuss with them in the end of project review, you will fall short because:
  • The project has ended, so if your team members are going to perform better because of your feedback, it will be on their next project - no good for you or your project
  • When you raise the issues, it will be hard for you and your team member to remember the issue, it's context and the why behind the issue. So you'll have to put an extra effort to get, at best, the same result

When to use the Feedback Sandwich

If you're with me on these two (One issue rule and Give timely feedback), you'll see why it's so difficult to get an opportunity to use the sandwich feedback. You'd have to be in the following scenario:
  • you are tackling one issue with your team,
  • someone in your team did a couple of things really well related to this issue you're tackling,
  • that same team member messed up something also related to this issue, and
  • all these happened recently, like in "this morning" recently
Such a scenario can happen. But although it's not impossible, it won't happen all that often either.

And what about the benefits?

Alison says that the Feedback Sandwich leaves employees hungry to work harder. I buy that but the truth is that this should happen every time you give feedback, with or without a sandwich. So what else would you get from putting feedback in a sandwich?


It's far more important that you do provide feedback (both positive and corrective) in:
  • timely fashion
  • focusing on the one thing that you really want to get better at
Than the specific process or method you decide to use - with or without a sandwich.

And finally I'd like to thank Alison for providing the chance for a discussion where we both exposed our reasons supporting (or not) the Feedback Sandwich. I hope it proves useful to everyone as for me it just feels good to discuss any topic beyond the need to prove the other wrong.

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Alison Wood said...

Hi Luis - thanks very much for the discussion opportunity, it's certainly something our online community cares about. I read both this and your "How to give feedback" articles, in which I realized that our objectives and techniques of giving feedback definitely overlap.

These quotes from your "How to give feedback" article stood out the most for me, and are the main reasons I like the sandwich method:

1. The only reason to give feedback is to increase performance.

2. It's essential that you give feedback on what your team is doing right, so they turn it into a habit - some team members may even think they are not doing anything right because you haven't told them.

3.It's a good idea to give positive feedback before negative feedback - people are more receptive of criticism if they know what they did well first.

I certainly agree with your statement about feedback being timely and (depending on the severity of the criticism), the "one issue rule". However when I've ever been given a feedback sandwich, it has been on my weekly performance - so a few situations were referred to and it wasn't too much to absorb. How do you feel about the sandwich method being used in this kind of situation?

Luis Seabra Coelho said...

I'm glad you appreciated the article about feedback, Alison. And I'm really happy to have your own feedback on this.

I'm not against the feedback sandwich, I just don't see that many situations where you can use it and no really advantages. Take your weekly performance meeting: what if you had a tremendous week and everything you did was just amazing? Is the option not to give you feedback? It doesn't make much sense, does it?

I see the value in starting feedback with positive stuff but I don't really see what more you can you get by putting the negative in the middle.

More important than the specific technique you use to provide feedback is the context in which you the feedback is embedded. Just to picture what I mean, supposed you're a high performance athlete very close to set a new world record. Wouldn't you demand from your coach some feedback? Wouldn't you like to watch on slow motion exactly what you did wrong and picture ways to correct it?

But in the business world this context is not that easy to get as the attitude towards feedback is completely different. When you have someone in your team performing amazingly, how willing is he/she to receive feedback so he/she can get even better?
From what we both discussed about feedback, you seem to be privileged to have a work environment more like the athlete example, but that's not all too common.

So to answer your question directly, I don't see any disadvantage at all in using the feedback sandwich on weekly performance meetings. But I don't see any real difference from providing the feedback ending with corrective feedback.

Thank you very much for the discussion, Alison. I do think it will be useful to anyone who's seeking the pros and cons on the feedback sandwich!

Alison Wood said...

Hi Luis!

I think my personality is shining through on this post, as you have just noticed. I'm always striving for improvement. The athlete example is a good way to think of it - I suppose in the business world, people could almost be 'perfect'?

Thank you also for the discussion, this topic has not blown over for me yet - it seems to be something that everyone deeply cares about.

I look forward to seeing what you come up with next! Have a good weekend :)