Feedback – The sandwich method – Part 2

Time to talk about the sacred cow of feedback – the sandwich method.

Just so you know it is not just my opinion, here are some references. This list is not exhaustive.






There are more. As I said in Part 1, Human Kinetics is different than many companies in that we make products designed to improve how people communicate and interact. We look at our own internal processes regularly. Using research, I was able to persuade my company to change how it did performance reviews, which include how to give feedback. We adopted the method that Adobe uses and removed the feedback sandwich as well. Such a change required proof and diligence. The change came because the new way was better.

For those who don’t know, the sandwich method is basically “say a positive thing, say a negative thing, say another positive thing.” It is sometimes also called the compliment sandwich, or the hamburger method. It is a fine method IF you are skilled at it AND the person you are using it with wants the feedback that way.

Reasons to use the sandwich method are:

  • May ease the sting of hearing difficult comments
  • Encourages specificity in the feedback process
  • Allows employees to increase their receptiveness to criticism
  • Enables meetings to end on a positive note
  • Can be useful for managers who find it difficult to engage in criticism

So what is the problem then? There are two major ones.

Most people aren’t good at eating these sandwiches. What am I talking about? A standard method of getting your dog to take the medicine is to hide it peanut butter. Since your dog likes the peanut butter, it doesn’t notice the medicine. That is the problem, it is too easy to pass up the “criticism” part since it is buried in the praise. Another problem illustrated by the dog-medicine analogy is that sooner or later, the dog starts associating peanut butter with the medicine. Same with people and the sandwich method, sooner or later, the moment you offer praise, the recipient starts to wonder what the bad news is.

Or to borrow from these articles

  • Including positives may undermine the criticism involved, thus rendering that criticism ineffective
  • The method trains employees to distrust praise, as they will begin to anticipate the criticism that comes along with it
  • The method detracts from praise when it is truly due
  • The method may serve more as a crutch for managers who struggle with giving feedback rather than as a tool for helping employees improve
  • It may give employees a diluted or inaccurate understanding of their work performance and what changes are required of them

According to the first study, managers liked using the sandwich method because they felt less like the bad guy. But the employees actually wanted the criticism straight up without the praise!

The second problem is implicit in the first, not only are people bad at eating them, they are bad at making them. It is too easy to make a bad sandwich. The praise can be too little, the criticism too harsh. Or the opposite, the praise is too much and criticism is too little.

Now this is in the business world where you are normally giving and getting feedback from the same people, often on a fixed, periodic basis. Why not the sandwich method as a one-time, or special circumstance?

The main plus to the sandwich method is that it is easy to teach, in theory. Just find two things to praise and one for the person to work on and you are golden. It assumes people are good at identifying items to give feedback on, good at constructing feedback, and good at relating that feedback.

For the SCA, it is often the desire to make the other person comfortable that we use it. Like the study above referenced, we don’t want to be seen as the bad guy. Because the entrant KNOWS the bad news is coming, the praise feels fake. Add to the fact that we are often judging something we know little about, how can we make a good sandwich? We praise that which is trivial and criticize that which is next to impossible. Then we have to come up with a second item to praise!

Lastly, the sandwich method is formulaic. What if I only have 1 item of feedback? What about 5? Can I make a dagwood sandwich (two praises but tons of other stuff in between)? Do I make a club sandwich (praise/criticism/praise/criticism/praise)?

The natural response is to get better, to just train people better at feedback. I agree with that. Again, there are problems. There is no requirement that people get training. There is no budget, no mandate, no way to force this training to happen. Good feedback can come in a variety of forms, some just as easy as the sandwich method. Many are more natural to use than the sandwich method. In the SCA, we seem to insist on the form, because it is easy to teach, rather than the substance, which is easier to use by both parties. While not a formal survey by any means, my canvassing and my experience is that people want the substance. Digging through the form to get it is not helpful.

I am not suggesting that everyone stop using this. I am suggesting we stop recommending it as the default method. If you are skilled at using it and your audience wants it, do it. That is one tool.

As I said in part 1, there are no binary answers here. What works is sincere, actionable, and meaningful feedback. That can take a variety of forms. It means more listening, less judgementalism. It means the person giving feedback needs to be an active learner in this situation. You probably don’t know much about the thing to be judged. Listen, learn, ask questions, figure out what this person needs, and deliver if you can. It works for performance issues in business as well. Be sincere, provide feedback that can be done, and will be meaningful to the situation. Again, this isn’t easy.

More in this series
Feedback and Leadership- Part 1
Feedback – Being S.M.A.R.T – Part 3
Feedback – The Halo Effect – Part 4
Feedback- Getting the Most out of A&S – Part 5
Feedback – Miscellany & Conclusions – Part 6

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