Most of us were taught to deliver constructive feedback by using the feedback sandwich: Start with a positive, share the negative, close with a positive.

Unfortunately, the feedback sandwich is always tough to swallow.

Like the time a boss told me, "I really appreciate how you always come prepared to the supervisor meetings. But you sometimes run over everyone else with all your facts and figures and productivity results. Still: You're a really valuable member of the team."

The meat of the sandwich -- the "you run over everyone else with your facts and figures" -- was admittedly true.

But the bread -- the two positives -- didn't soften the blow. In fact, it kind of pissed me off.

In effect, the sandwich says, "I need to give you negative feedback... but first I'll say something nice so you won't think I hate you. And then I'll say something nice so you won't be mad at me when you leave."

That's the problem with the feedback sandwich. The recipients feel manipulated.

And even if at first they don't, give it time: Since our positive qualities tend to stay consistent, the same bread eventually starts to taste stale.

And as for the likelihood of positive change? According to research published in 2018 in Management Review Quarterly, the feedback sandwich almost always fails to correct negative or subpar behaviors. 

If only because, as in my case, I focused more on how the feedback was delivered than on the quality and accuracy of the feedback itself.

Benevolent Honesty

The better approach is what the authors of a study published in Current Opinion in Psychology call benevolent honesty.

As the researchers write:

We propose that that a better approach is benevolent honesty, in which communicators focus on delivering negative information truthfully and directly, but also employ additional strategies to ensure that their words actually lead to long-term improvement.

For example, a professor might emphasize that a student is capable of achieving high standards when giving critical feedback. Though this strategy might seem intuitive, communicators often fail to make their benevolent intentions clear -- they seem to forget (at least in the moment) that (others) do not have access to that same information.

Their findings dovetail nicely with a study conducted in 2014 that shows including one sentence can make feedback up to 40 percent more effective:

"I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them."

According to Culture Code author Daniel Coyle, that phrase contains three distinct signals:

  1. You are part of this group.
  2. This group is special; we have higher standards here.
  3. I believe you can reach those standards.

Instead of a feedback sandwich, the result is more like a relationship sandwich. 

No manipulation. No platitudes. Not irrelevant compliments. No false hope.  

Just clear, direct feedback -- delivered inside a message of connection, belonging, and trust.

That's the real difference between a feedback sandwich and benevolent honesty.

The feedback sandwich theoretically helps the feedback giver reduce the likelihood of conflict during a tough conversation. ("If I throw in a few compliments, maybe he won't get mad.") 

But how a difficult conversation might feel to the person giving feedback doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is whether the feedback helps the recipient improve his or her performance. 

And that's something a feedback sandwich is terrible at producing.

The next time you need to have a difficult conversation with an employee -- or with anyone -- forget the feedback sandwich. Forget leading and closing with a compliment.

Instead, just be direct and truthful... while showing that you care about that person's performance or well-being because you care about them.

That you want things to be better for them as a result of the conversation.

Not just to be easier for you.