Throughout the years, managers and leaders have been trained to give feedback using the sandwich method. You begin by sharing something positive, followed by (hopefully) constructive criticism, and conclude again on a positive note.
It often goes something like this:
John: I wanted to talk to you about something, Jenny. First of all, you've accomplished some really positive things lately...
Jenny: (Thinking--OK; now what have I done? Brace yourself.)
John: [Blah blah, something relatively positive, blah blah]...But I also wanted to mention something else.
Jenny: (Here we go...)
John: [Criticism, followed by awkward pause.]...But anyway, you're doing a good job overall. Thanks!
Jenny: Um...OK. You're...welcome. (Jerk.)
Where did it all go wrong?
If you've ever been on the receiving end of this rotten sandwich, you know it's not very effective. So why are so many tempted to use it?
Many managers are uncomfortable giving negative feedback. They feel if they keep things (mostly) positive, the process becomes easier to bear, and the person receiving the feedback won't hate them.
But the person receiving this type of feedback usually tunes out anything good said at the beginning and the end. Why? It's just fluff. They know the deal: They've done something wrong, and that's all they care about (and will remember from) this conversation. The positive feedback goes to waste.
But people need positive feedback, too. The feeling of appreciation is a great motivator. A culture that supports sincere and specific praise does wonders for employee engagement. (More on that here.)
So how do you do it right?
The key to effective, emotionally intelligent feedback is to deliver positive and negative messages separately.
How do you do it?
1. Give praise and criticism at the right time.
According to research cited in the Harvard Business Review, any feedback--positive or negative--is best shared as soon as possible. This makes sense; you don't wait to correct wrong behavior; if you do, you risk minimizing the impact of what happened (or forgetting to say something altogether).
But you need to view praise in the same way: If you see something you like, tell the person as soon as possible. If you can't do it immediately, make a note or set a reminder to make sure you don't forget.
Feedback should be balanced. Look to praise positive behavior and actions. On the same note, share constructive criticism quickly after you notice something negative. You can be totally direct, no feedback sandwich. You've given positive reinforcement at other, more appropriate times, so they'll know you're simply looking out for their best interests.
2. Be specific and sincere.
When you praise, don't just tell someone "Good job"; tell them what they're doing right, and why you appreciate it. If you struggle to find a point to commend, think about ways the person has been loyal to the company, or has shown him or herself persistent. It's your job to see employees' good points, as well as their potential. Everyone deserves to be praised for something.
Do the same with criticism. Tell people not only what they've done wrong, but how they can improve. When sharing your concerns, give them the chance to respond. Be open to the possibility you've missed something, or even that you somehow contributed to a damaging situation.
Build a culture where others feel comfortable giving you negative feedback when necessary.
How to begin.
If you're not sandwiching the negative between the positive, how do you begin the conversation?
Consider an example. Despite preparing well, Jenny's presentation had some major flaws. When you meet with her, you might start with the following:
"Jenny, I wanted to speak to you about your presentation. How did you feel with it? Did you find anything especially challenging?"
By listening carefully to Jenny's response, you can adapt your feedback to her specific needs. Then you could ask something like: "Would you be willing to hear some constructive criticism?"
After tactfully sharing your observations and suggestions, you conclude by thanking Jenny for taking time to meet with you, and for being willing to listen. You also express that you hope it proves helpful.
The foregoing isn't a specific formula, just an example of how you might do it. Authenticity is key, so you should make it your own. Hopefully, it's a starting point.
If you can master these techniques, you'll be using emotional intelligence to guide and mentor your team. In the end, they'll appreciate you making them better.