What's your preferred way to receive feedback?

Brandeis University Professor (and one of my esteemed connections) Andy Molinsky published an article on Sunday entitled, "Reinventing the Feedback Sandwich--5 Different Ways." It's an interesting read and challenges us to consider our own preferred way of giving/receiving commendation and criticism.

Although I agree with some of Andy's points, I respectfully disagree with the idea of sandwiching feedback at all.

For example, Andy begins by describing what he calls the traditional sandwich approach:

"This is the old standby: the approach that many of us are already familiar with: two doses of positive feedback (in the form of the bread) sandwiching negative or critical feedback (the meat).

"The logic here is that by softening someone up with an ego-stroking positive message, they'll be better poised to actually listen to your critical feedback as opposed to dismissing it entirely, or reacting defensively. And then, after you've delivered the pain, it's then important to repair immediately--to provide them with a bit more positive feedback to make them feel whole again."

This method is how many managers of U.S. companies are trained to give feedback, and it's often touted as highly effective.

But in reality, this type of sandwich is more rotten than the forgotten hoagie that's sitting in the back of your fridge.

Why the Feedback Sandwich Doesn't Work

Why is the traditional sandwich method ineffective in the real world?

Think about it: If you've ever had a manager or team leader who delivers feedback this way, you begin to tune out anything good said at the beginning and the end--because it's mostly fluff. In reality, you probably only remember the criticism, and all of the positive ends up getting lost in the mix... even if it was sincere.

Since you instinctively tune out most of the positive feedback you receive, you may begin to feel this person is overly critical... causing you to dismiss the feedback altogether. 

Emily Schaber, one of the many commenters on Andy's post, reinforced this thought with a personal experience:

"I had a supervisor who used the traditional feedback sandwich method to share feedback, and I would fill up with anxiety waiting for her to say what I did wrong because I knew the formula."

The thing is, your people need both positive and negative feedback. Praise and commendation give individuals the reinforcement and encouragement they secretly crave, and contribute to a culture of appreciation.

But without constructive criticism, how will anyone improve? Without others pointing out blind spots, we can't get better. 

So how do you help your people get the most out of your feedback?

Keep it Separated

The key is to deliver positive and negative feedback separately.

You should always commend first. In his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie explains why this is effective:

"There is one longing--almost as deep, almost as imperious, as the desire for food or sleep--which is seldom gratified. It is what Freud calls 'the desire to be great.' It is what Dewy calls the 'desire to be important.'

...William James said: The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.' He didn't speak, mind you, of the 'wish' or the 'desire' or the 'longing' to be appreciated. He said the 'craving' to be appreciated."

When you commend and praise members of your team, you satisfy that craving, and naturally build loyal relationships. You should actively search for areas of commendation--even if they don't come readily to mind. Why? Because people perform better when they're encouraged.

The key, of course, is keeping that praise sincere and authentic. If somebody exceeded expectations on a task, tell them. If you appreciate an employee's loyalty over the years, let them know. Everybody's good at something--find those things and let your people know how you feel.

What about negative feedback? 

There's no need to force in a bit of praise. You've already given them positive reinforcement at other, more appropriate times. Just as you look to praise positives in a timely manner, share constructive criticism quickly, yet tactfully. 

When sharing your concerns, give them the chance to respond. Be open to the possibility that you've missed something, or even that you somehow contributed to a damaging situation. And even if they are in the wrong, don't just tell them that. Help them see how to improve.

Putting It into Practice

How does this look in real life? Consider the following example (taken from my previous article, "How to Give Negative Feedback That's Emotionally Intelligent"):

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.

This isn't a specific formula, just an example. Authenticity is key, so use it as a starting point and make it your own.

Big Benefits

Everyone needs feedback, both positive and negative. When you can deliver that feedback in a way that is easily received, the recipient will truly benefit.

Additionally, you'll be building an environment where open, respectful, effective communication is commonplace--and that makes everyone better.