As VC Ben Horowitz has pointed out giving negative feedback is one of the most unnatural things managers have to learn to do. We're socialized to be nice--how many times did you mom tell you, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all?"--telling your team they're doing badly violates our deep-seated desire to make people happy.

As a result, many managers engage in a tactic known colloquially as "the sh-t sandwich," or if you're in polite company, "the praise sandwich."

The sh-t sandwich doesn't work.

Even if you've never heard the term, you're almost guaranteed to have been served such a sandwich in your working life. The manager begins with praise, then offers criticism, then closes again with praise, supposedly making the negative feedback more palatable by sandwiching it between two compliments.

You can see why this would appeal to our people-pleasing instincts. Only there's one big problem. The sh-t sandwich doesn't work.

Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, conducted an experiment "where half the class gives one-on-one feedback to the other half," reported the New York Times. The students giving feedback were supposed to communicate to their classmates that they were doing poorly, but the supposedly criticized students actually ended up thinking they were doing great.

Why? First, people tend to block out negative information they don't want to hear. But second, "negative feedback is often buried and not very specific," Fishbach explained. In other words, the sh-t sandwich works too well, disguising feedback to the point that it's missed entirely.

The usual approach to feedback "dilutes the message and it leaves the person totally confused as to whether they were totally awesome or need to fix something," agrees Google director of engineering Sarah Clatterbuck in a recent Grey Matter podcast.

A better way to serve up negative feedback

Thankfully, for managers, Clatterbuck doesn't just criticize the usual sh-t sandwich approach. She also goes on to offer a simple and way more effective alternative. It comes down to four basic steps:

  1. Note the behavior that's holding the employee back.
  2. Explain why the behavior is causing a problem.

  3. Have the person reflect back the importance of the behavior.

  4. Finally, let them figure out how to fix it. 

Clatterbuck walks listeners through an example of how this might play out in action, offering the case of an employee who was wildly off in his estimate of when he'd complete his work, forcing the company to delay the release of a new app. It's not the first time this person has been incredibly over optimistic.

Start by telling the employee "you are often off by an order of magnitude in your estimates" she suggests and then detail the impact of the latest foul-up, including a canceled PR campaign and the need to support the old app for longer. Then ask, "Do you understand why this is so important?" and wait for the employee to reflect back the realities you just laid out for them.

The final move might be the most important. Your end goal is to improve the situation by changing the person's behavior, so Clatterbuck suggest you close by asking: "What's your suggestion for making sure this doesn't happen in the future?"

"If you let the person reflect and own how they can make it better in the future, they're more likely to stick to a change in behavior than if I suggest to them what I would do," she concludes.

Does this technique call for a little more of a steel-stomach on the part of the manager? Sure, but that doesn't make it mean. Clear, specific feedback is the only way for people to improve. By having a shame-free but explicit discussion focused on future behavior, you offer your team member a far better chance of evolving into the star employees both of you hope they'll become.