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Improve Employee Communication by Ditching the Feedback Sandwich

Posted by Sandy Yu on 10.17.2019


Employee communication is never an easy task. Add negative feedback to the mix and it is even more challenging. There’s a critical balance that leaders need to strike between communicating an issue and empowering their employees to correct the problem (as opposed to making them feel inadequate or incapable).

This is why the “feedback sandwich” was created. A crutch intended for better employee communication, the concept layers critical feedback between two pieces of positive feedback.

For example, “Jim, you’re doing a great job with the consistency of the metrics reports you’ve been providing. I have, however, noticed that you’ve been making a lot of errors in your calculations, and I’ll need to you to be more careful with those numbers. It’s really great that your work has contributed to our increased web traffic.”

It’s comfortable, accessible, and takes the pressure out of tense situations. This method of delivering feedback allows leaders to state the problem, but essentially gloss over its seriousness. The main issue is it leaves employees with a false sense of confidence and no real action plan for addressing their shortcomings.

You can’t avoid flaws and mistakes in the workplace, which means conversations about how to grow from them shouldn’t be skirted around. So how can you make sure you’re delivering the employee feedback you need to give without falling prey to the detrimental feedback sandwich? Follow these five tips to up-level your skills with this tough employee communication topic:

Start with structure

Lay out a strict meeting itinerary that will guide your conversation directly to the issue that needs to be addressed. Not only will it help set expectations prior to your time at the table, but it also makes it easier to stick to your notes when emotions run high.

When meeting with employees about improvements they need to make, it can be easy for conversations to shift focus. They may backpedal and attempt to place blame elsewhere, or bring up personal issues that have been affecting their work. To keep this from happening, build a structured meeting agenda to keep you on track and focused on finding a solution.

Know your audience

When a problem is identified, you need to know two things -- is it an individual or group issue, and how does the offending-party respond to negative feedback. Some employees are completely fine being called out for a mistake among their peers, but others take criticism much more personally. This is where emotional intelligence comes into play.

Leaders must understand the communication styles that work best for each member of their team. Then they should utilize that knowledge to create a space where feedback will be best heard and accepted.

Announcing an introvert’s mistake in front of their entire team, unexpectedly, will have a huge impact on their ability to make improvements to the issue. Conversely, you might have an ultra-confident sales rep who can handle a quick mention of a fault with a few “try this instead” tips during a team meeting. You know that they’ll take your feedback in earnest and correct the problem.

Focus and prioritize

By avoiding the feedback sandwich, you allow for a dedicated and focused discussion around the feedback that really matters. Pepper in your compliments at less-structured times of the day -- passing in the hallway, via messenger, or on your employee recognition platform. Even a quick, “Great job on X, Jim” shout from your office will give your team members the boost they need to know they’re working effectively for you.

When it’s time for criticism, be pointed and direct. Hone in on the issue and help employees create plans for improvement.

But what if you have more than one problem? Stick to the script. Identify the most impactful issue your employee is facing and focus on creating solutions for that problem. Once it’s been corrected, tackle the next offender.

Level the field

Employee communication is a two-way street, and it should stay that way even when you’re working through an issue. Instead of clogging up your valuable time with the positive ends of the feedback sandwich, use that time for an open dialogue with your employee(s).

It’s an equalizer, of sorts. It removes the intimidating superior/subordinate dynamic and, instead, positions you and your employee as equals working toward the best solution to the problem. Rather than viewing criticism as a topic to be feared, your team will begin to see it in the light of professional development.

Guide your conversation to focus on the creation of action items your employees can immediately put to use to improve a situation. This shows that you’re committed to more than just pointing out their flaws -- that you care about their success and trust they have the chops to do the work correctly.

Leave feeling happy

You don’t have to give positive feedback to end a meeting on a positive note. When you end your meeting, make sure your employees feel empowered, not knocked down. Action plans for improvement and your conveyed confidence in your employee's abilities are just as motivating as a straight compliment.

Give your team the benefit of the doubt, too. Trust that they have the professionalism to view negative feedback as a positive skill-builder. Then, give them the tools they need to knock your expectations out of the park.


Topics: hr, employee communication, employee feedback

Human Resources Today