The ‘feedback sandwich’ is out of date…how to give proper feedback

Suits - Season 2

I am often surprised by how many clients ask me about giving honest feedback at work. In large organisations there are established performance review processes, so feedback is at least taken seriously in theory. Many smaller organisations or start-ups have yet to set up these systems and so things are less formal. This has its advantages – less beaureacracy and a more genuine conversation – but I’ve also seen how it can cause problems. I discussed feedback with one client, the CEO of a successful start up. He said ‘ah yes – you give the ‘feedback sandwich’ – the good stuff, bad stuff and then a little more good stuff’. Right? Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of someone receiving this feedback – maybe they’ve experienced the ‘feedback sandwich’ before. The minute the converstaion starts, they are not listening to the positive feedback. They are anticipating the bad stuff. And what about the  feedback giver? He/she is probably also anticipating, while speaking, the slightly tougher messages to come. And by the time the final bit of ‘good stuff’ comes, the recipient is probably so consumed by the ‘bad stuff’ that they aren’t really listening. All in all, this is not looking like its going to be the sort of conversation that builds confidence and inspires change. Introducing a three basic principles of delivering honest, meaningful feedback:

1) Be clear on what outcome you want from delivering the feedback.  As a coach I notice that we undersestimate the importance of confidence on performance – it is often the single biggest impediment to performance I come across. If the only outcome from your feedback is that the individual’s confidence is knocked or they become defensive, you may have been better off not delivering the feedback at all. Be clear in your own mind what you need them to change. For example, if you have an employee who doesn’t produce the best written work but also delivers it so late that you have no time to improve it, consider what outcome will actually help you. Do you need him/her to show you a draft earlier, or to use some examples of better written outputs?  Is there someone else producing better written work who could act as a first review?

2) Ask don’t tell. You’d be surprised how much insight the individual will be able to volunteer about the situation. Especially if they aren’t feeling nervous or defensive. Instead of ‘I thought you did this (badly),’ try ‘how do you think x is going?’ or ‘what would you like to do differentely next time?’ The more you can get the individual to reflect about the situation, the more you will learn about their perspective and the better you will be able to position your own comments – and ultimately, they will end up delivering half of the feedback to themselves!

3) Ask how you can help to improve things going forward. This may require nothing other than you making yourself more approachable to the individual. On the other hand you may need to significantly alter your own behaviour. The point is that by making it clear that you are part of the situation – and the solution – you are much more likely to move towards some meaningful outcomes.

Have a go at including one or more of the above in your next feedback conversation. There are a couple of good feedback models I use with clients. The above 3 principles are what I consider to be most important features of these models, and the ones that clients have found the most transformative in their feedback conversations. I will post the models in a separate blog if there is interest.

Oh, and my final tip is to make feedback conversations more ‘little and often’ rather than big looming dreaded conversations. This will make them 1) more digestible 2) more ‘real’ – based on the previous meeting or week rather than half a year 3) more of an ongoing dialogue. Take 5 minutes at the end of a regular catch up meeting to integrate feedback and it will start to become a very powerful tool for continuous improvement – both for you and your team. I look forward to hearing your feedback on this post!

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