Negative feedback might not feel great to receive (or give), but it's essential for improving your performance and the performance of your employees. Which is why many leaders try to walk a tightrope when they dole it out. You don't want to be so mean your people dismiss you as just a jerk. But, on the other hand, you don't want to be so nice that they miss opportunities for growth.
The most common approach to striking this balance is the memorably named "sh*t sandwich." First you lead with a compliment, then slip in the meat of your criticism, and then close with a few more nice words. The problem is both real world experience and research make it absolutely clear this approach doesn't work. Those fed the sandwich either feel manipulated (if they focus on the negative) or uselessly affirmed (if they focus on the compliments).
Is there a better way? Yup, answers a classic Stanford study that demonstrated you can make your negative feedback an impressive 37 percent more effective simply by prefacing it with 19 words.
Ditch the "sh*t sandwich"
The study, carried out by social psychologist David Yeager and his colleagues when he was working at Stanford back in 2013, focused on African American students who were struggling in school.
The scientists asked the students to write an essay about their personal hero and then offered feedback on how they could improve it. But they offered the feedback in two different ways. For half the students, the researchers just provided comments on tuning up the grammar or organization of the paper. In the other, they added a note containing these 19 words before spelling out their suggestions: "I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them."
Bothering to add just this simple sentence had a huge impact on students' willingness to take the criticism on board and put in the effort to improve: 64 percent of those who received the 19-word note chose to revise their essays, compared with just 27 percent of students who received their feedback with no preamble. That's a massive 37 percent increase in feedback uptake, based on nothing more complicated than how you frame it.
Trust opens ears
This approach works whether you're circling spelling mistakes with a red pen in ninth grade English or coaching your employee to be a more effective speaker or salesperson, and for the same reasons. As Adam Grant has explained, endorsing the approach, explaining why you're giving feedback assures the other party you're acting in their interest. That builds trust and opens ears.
"Rather than feeling attacked, now you feel like the person has your back and believes in your future. People are remarkably open to criticism when they believe it's intended to help them," Grant writes. (Lots of other authors and CEOs also endorse the approach.)
So next time you need to get across to a team member how he or she could improve, skip assembling an elaborate stack of compliments and criticism. Instead, lead with a simple, heartfelt explanation of why you're providing feedback. With just a few words, you'll set yourself up for an open-minded, trusting exchange that's nearly 40 percent more likely to yield positive results.