In a recent post in the Washington Business Journal, I interviewed Dr. Alice Waagen about how to be more effective when managing employee performance. She had some great insights into how the context of the performance conversation matters as much as the words you say. It’s a good read, check it out.  But we also talked about how much she detests the “Feedback Sandwich.”

Some managers struggle with praise, but more struggle with delivering criticism. One of the most commonly recommended techniques for more easily delivering criticism is the “Feedback Sandwich.” Simplistically, the idea is that you open your feedback meeting with praise of some aspect of your employee’s performance, follow it up with some criticism, and then end the feedback on another high note. It’s an idea Mary Poppins and her Spoonful of Sugar would love.

But Alice is no fan of The Sandwich. Here’s the problem as she sees it:

“According to research on listening and perception, after a lengthy conversation, the thing that is best retained is what is said last. If I sat you down for a meeting and said, “Bob, your customer is very happy, I love your enthusiasm and dedication…by the way you messed up the budget on this project. And I’m recommending you for a new project.” Which parts do you hear and remember? I’d remember the new project! You’re not improving performance, because your staff member will gravitate toward and focus on the compliments, while simultaneously shrinking the importance of your criticism.”

For different reasons, most researchers have arrived at the same conclusion: The Sandwich is a fundamentally flawed way of delivering performance feedback.  Much of the research comes down to how your brain interprets both positive and negative feedback. Some people are very focused on any praise they receive — which may also depend strongly on the management style of their supervisor. If the feedback provided by their manager is typically negative, then any positive praise may stick out. Or by contrast, maybe the positive feedback would go unheard if it’s surrounded by constant criticism. Stanford professor Clifford Nass makes this point:

“One fascinating side effect of the power of negativity is that you remember less of what is said before receiving criticism because negative remarks demand so much cognitive power that the brain cannot move the prior information into long-term memory”

No matter which cognitive theory you accept, it’s pretty useless to open with a small positive thing. It either won’t be remembered, or remembering it will potentially contribute to forgetting your constructive feedback.

The approach recommended by Dr. Nass sounds to me more like an Open-Faced Sandwich…maybe a Reuben. He suggests that you start with the important negative feedback, and then move onto a long list of praise (key word: long). Opening with “criticism will bring people to attention in time to listen to the praise,” but positive remarks are both less memorable and more readily disregarded in the face of criticism, so you’ll need that longer list of praise. The Open-Faced Sandwich grants you the opportunity to negate some of that natural anxiety that comes from receiving (and giving) criticism.

But even the Open-Faced Sandwich brings to mind what George Burns said, “The key to acting is sincerity — if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

The most devastating criticism of any kind of Sandwich is the insincerity of the conversational structure itself.  Roger Schwartz, writing in the Harvard Business Review, finds the Sandwich ridiculous, as it’s “designed to influence others without telling them what you’re doing — it is a unilaterally controlling strategy — in other words, a strategy that revolves around you influencing others, but not being influenced by them in return.” He then offers a simple thought experiment for determining whether the Sandwich (or any similar “non-transparent” strategy) is an effective way of doing things:

Imagine that you plan to use the sandwich approach with Alex and Stacey, two direct reports who just gave a presentation to your senior leadership team. To understand why you’re reluctant to share your strategy, take the transparency test — a thought experiment with three simple steps:

  1. Identify your strategy for the conversation. Your strategy is to start with some positive feedback to relax Alex and Stacey, then give them the negative feedback — the purpose of the meeting — and then end with more positive feedback so they won’t be so disappointed or angry.
  2. Imagine telling the people your strategy. You would say something like, “Alex and Stacey, I have some negative feedback to give you. I’ll start with some positive feedback to relax you, and then give you the negative feedback, which is the real purpose of our meeting. I’ll end with more positive feedback so you won’t be so disappointed or angry at me when you leave my office. How does that work for you?”
  3. Observe your reaction. Do you find yourself laughing at the absurdity of making your strategy transparent? If you think “I could never say that,” it’s because the strategy is unilaterally controlling: it is an attempt to control the situation without letting Alex and Stacey in on the plan. Unilateral control strategies only work when the other people don’t know your strategy or are willing to play along. And they are less effective than transparent strategies.

So if all forms of the Sandwich are a ridiculous way to give feedback, what do you do instead?

Consider this recommendation: Ditch Performance Reviews? How About Learn to do Them Well?

But you probably want to grab a sandwich before you read it.