We've all experienced it at one time or another:

You know how it works--you need to bring down the hammer give some constructive criticism, so you follow the popular coaching model: positive, negative, positive.

For example:

Boss: I wanted to talk to you about something, John. First of all, you've accomplished some really positive things lately...

John: (Thinking--OK; now what have I done? Brace yourself.)

Boss: [Blah blah, positive, blah blah]...But I also wanted to mention something else.

John: (Here we go...)

Boss: [Criticism, followed by awkward pause]...But anyway--you're doing a good job overall. Thanks!

John: Um...ok. You're...welcome. (Jerk.)

Where did it all go wrong?

Think about it: If you're receiving this type of feedback, you usually tune out anything good said at the beginning and the end. Why? It's mostly fluff. At this point, what you care about is what you did wrong, and most likely it's all you're going to remember from this conversation. All of the positive stuff ends up a waste of time.

In other cases, the listener may feel that the message is unclear, unsure if it was meant to be more positive or negative.

The problem is, you need both the positive and the negative.

Positive feedback gives your people the reinforcement and encouragement they secretly crave, creating a culture where they feel appreciated.

But they need the negative feedback, too. How can anyone improve if no one tells them what they're doing wrong?

So how can we make the most of both our commendation and our criticism?

My advice: Give positive and negative feedback separately.

Look for things to commend members of your team on--even if it doesn't come readily to mind. In fact, learn to do this especially when it's not so recognizable. Why? Because people perform better when they're encouraged.

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 share some praise. (Just make sure you're keeping it real. They'll know if you're not.)

Then, when you need to tell that same person that they're underperforming (or they've dropped the ball, their breath stinks, etc.)--tell them that, too. You can be totally direct with them. No feedback sandwich. You've already given them positive reinforcement at other, more appropriate times.

Very important: In both cases, it's vital that you be specific. Don't just tell them they're doing right; tell them what they're doing right, and why you appreciate it. When delivering criticism, tell them not only what they've done wrong, but how they can improve.

Now you're not the clueless boss that doesn't get your employees; you're the counselor, coach, mentor that's looking out for them. You've seen them succeed, and you don't like seeing them fail. Guess what?

They don't like it either. That's why they'll appreciate you making them better.

Sometimes I reminisce about the best boss I ever had. I was one of 5 team leaders in a group of about 40, and Marc was our supervisor. He was a pretty personable guy, usually very positive--always looking for things to commend.

But when we messed up, he had no problem letting us know. Sometimes it was "Let's go for a short walk." Other times it was more "getting called to the principal's office." But I always felt that Marc had my back. He wanted the department to succeed, but he wanted me to succeed, too. 15 years later, as I talk to some of my old colleagues, we all feel the same way.

That's the power of great feedback.

So, did you notice something good about a member of your team lately? Go--say something, already.

Or did you see something that they need to change? Don't hold back on that, either.

But just remember: You gotta keep 'em separated. And throw that rotten feedback sandwich in the trash--once and for all.

Published on: Nov 6, 2014
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