new manager wonders about the best way to give feedback

A reader writes:

I have only recently acquired a position where I am expected to supervise someone for the first time in my life.  Unfortunately, I found myself recently in a situation where I had to give my new direct report his first bit of less than positive feedback.  Having no supervisory experience and no real mentor to speak of, I’ve turned primarily to reading some literature on the subject and your blog, of course.

I keep reading about different methods of giving feedback and I am wondering – when in a situation where you have to ask someone to stop an undesirable behavior, do you prefer to preface it with positive feedback (I have read on this as the “sandwich” approach), or just out and say what needs to be said without a whole lot of fluff?  It kinda seems to me like I don’t want to mix positive feedback into a situation where the primary desired outcome is not to encourage the person to keep doing something good, but to stop doing something less than good, but I’ve read/heard different things about how to “cushion the blow” so to speak.  To me, it feels like doing this would make someone anticipate something negative is always around the bend when you say something nice to them first, but maybe this approach does have some merit I don’t see.  Just curious what your preferred method is.

There is indeed a school of thought that advocates sandwiching corrective feedback in between positive feedback, e.g., “Great job on that presentation, Ron. You really connected with the audience. One thing I noticed, though, was that all your data was made up. Can you use accurate data in the future?  Also, that slide on China was really compelling.”

The idea, of course, is that the person then doesn’t feel like you aren’t recognizing the things that they did do well.

I think there’s a more straightforward way to handle that though, and it’s to ensure that you’re regularly talking to people about the things that they do well — an ongoing basis. That way, when you need to talk to them about something they’re not doing well, you don’t feel the same need to pad the conversation in order to reassure them that you know they’re not a complete screw-up. If they’re getting positive feedback on a regular basis, the “corrective feedback” conversation is going to happening against that backdrop. (Of course, if they are a complete screw-up, that’s a different and bigger conversation.)

Being able to just be direct without having to worry about sandwiching it in between positive feedback also means that the person is less likely to miss the message entirely. Sometimes managers get so caught up in wanting to be tactful that their message gets diluted or lost altogether. Then you’ve got a manager who’s frustrated that the employee didn’t get the point, and an employee who wasn’t given the opportunity to clearly hear that the manager wants something to change.

I’d also add not to over-think it too much, if the issue isn’t terribly serious. If it’s a relatively minor thing in the scheme of things, you may not need to “cushion the blow” at all — lots of people would rather just hear what they need to do differently in a matter-of-fact way, rather than having to pick up on your worry about how about they’ll react. (In fact, as a new manager, it might help you to think about times when your own managers have had to give you less-than-positive feedback in the past; think about who did it well and model yourself after them.)

Some other suggestions:

* When you have less-than-positive feedback to give, give it immediately. The longer you wait, the more the problem will take root (and the more startled the person will be that they didn’t hear about it earlier).

* Be  honest. If something isn’t meeting your expectations, make sure that’s clear — don’t present feedback as a suggestion when it’s really a requirement. It may feel easier to couch it as a suggestion, but that just sets you both up to be frustrated down the road — you because your “suggestion” wasn’t acted on, and the employee, who’s now confused about your expectations.

* Be specific — about the ways in which the work fell short and about concrete ways to improve.

* Consider asking the employee for her sense of what went wrong. Sometimes you may learn about highly relevant factors you didn’t know about (for instance, that another department caused part of the problem), or you may get insight that will help you help the employee improve (for instance, you might realize that she could use guidance on time management or that she needs more clarity on what the final product should look like).

What other suggestions do people have?

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Sarah E. Welch*

    When I notice negative behavior, my first action is to determine if there’s something going on in the person’s life (work or home) that is keeping them off their game. If it’s at work, I mention that I’ve noticed this behavior, that I understand why it’s happening, and I will help fix the situation if they will help correct the behavior. If it’s at home, I try to determine if it’s temporary (e.g. kid is sick, spouse is on travel). If it is, I try to find a way to spread the load a bit so that the impacts aren’t felt so much. Personal things happen to everyone. Now, if personal things are constantly an issue with a particular employee, that’s an entirely different story.

  2. JaneA*

    One of the problems with the “feedback sandwich” approach is that the other person doesn’t know ahead of time if this piece of positive information is leading to a corrective comment. She or he may therefore be wondering what the criticism is going to be every time you just want to offer a positive comment, and may not hear it properly.

    At least, that’s how I’ve responded at times, though I think it depends on whether I know ahead of time that the other person is critical or generally affirming.

  3. Emily*

    I’ve received a fair amount of feedback in my career, and I agree with Alison– have a culture and a policy of giving positive feedback continually, and negative feedback when needed. I flourished in a similar environment– knowing that overall I was doing a good job but that this or that wasn’t quite up to snuff made me extremely motivated to correct those areas. On the other hand, I’ve also been in an environment where I got absolutely no positive feedback whatsoever, even when I was doing an awesome job (or so I hoped). Instead, all I got was criticism. It made me feel like I wasn’t doing anything right, and made it harder to go the extra mile (which I did all the time in my previous position) because I knew it wouldn’t matter. It made me into a mediocre employee.

    1. Anonymous*

      I think that constant feedback, positive or negative, is really necessary in order to establish a trusting relationship between boss and employee, and for the employee to feel like they’re a valued part of the their team. I got ambushed with negative feedback at my first performance review. While much of it was fair and accurate, I was bewildered and upset that I hadn’t been given the opportunity to fix things earlier. Since then I’ve gotten a promotion in the same company, but I still kind of resent my boss for for that review. That event instilled me with a lot of paranoia and anxiety that still haunts me two years later.

      1. a non-amus*

        I had this exact thing happen. The guy has since turned into a pretty good manager, but the experience poisoned our relationship and I’ve neer trusted him further than I can throw him.

        1. Jamie*

          I’ve never understood how any manager can think this technique is helpful.

          Personally, I don’t think you should ever be surprised by anything at your reviews. I see it more as a summary of where things are now and a chance to map out a game plan going forward.

          What would be the benefit in saving the negatives for a review? You deprive the company of contemporaneous improvement and you allow your employees to unknowingly solidify bad habits.

          This baffles me.

        2. Anonymous*

          Me, three. My first 6-month review after I started with this group was mostly negative! Mind you, I’d gotten NO feedback–and barely any training–before that point. It was like I was set up to fail.

          Later, when I needed to take medical leave, I was similarly grilled and raked over the coals.

          I’ve been looking for another job for 4 years now. That sort of treatment definitely de-motivates you, AND it damages your self-image–even if you try hard not to let it. You’re never sure if you’re doing things right. It’s ridiculous.

          Sorry. Didn’t mean to go off on a tangent. My bottom line is that I feel like the abuse (because that’s really what it is) has actually affected my performance.

  4. Nate*

    As an employee and as a subordinate to someone else, I really appreciate tactful feedback.

    With that being said, I have a few suggestions:

    1) If you are going to give corrective feedback, please explain why the action needs to be corrected. For example, if I am taking lunches for too long, you would mention that it is critical for production that I take no more than a one-hour lunch. Saying it like “I really need you to do ____” doesn’t tell me anything, and it just makes it sound like it’s just a personal peeve of yours. I am going to ask “why” this action needs to be corrected. If you give me a logical, business-related reason as to why it must be corrected, I’ll correct it.

    2) If you are worried about how the subordinate will receive the feedback, consider why you are feeling that way, and address that first. Then, give the feedback.

    3) Be proactive. Nothing is worse than laying the hammer down on everyone just because you couldn’t police up a few bad apples. That just makes us mutter badly about you under our breath.

    I could probably come up with a few more, but these are just a few that came off the top of my mind.

    1. OP*

      Thanks Nate. In this situation I did actually provide a business case for why the problem needed to be addressed.

      My main concern the first time around was concern for how this person would react and frankly, I think that was mostly my own insecurity. In the end I should not have been surprised to find that the feedback I provided was received maturely and in the several weeks since the issue we discussed has become a non-issue.

    2. Jamie*

      I respectfully disagree with #1, to a degree. I do think policies should make sense, and I do think employees should understand why policies are in place.

      But where I don’t advocate a “do it because I said so” approach, I don’t think every request should need an explanation of a logical business reason. What if they give you a reason that is logical to them, but not to you. This has shades of following the policies one agrees with, and that’s a slippery slope in most businesses.

      I would see the logic in this if it were something you were being asked which didn’t apply unilaterally to others – but for the example you have regarding lunch breaks, if the rule is an hour for lunch then it’s an hour for lunch…there doesn’t need to be a more compelling reason, imo.

  5. OP*

    Thank you for the advice AAM – Personally I think I’ve always done best in an environment where I am given frequent positive feedback I try to make a point of letting him know when I think what he’s doing’s spot on right away (which in fairness is a lot). I have scheduled weekly one-on-one conference calls with him (hope I’m figuring this out because more reports for me are on the way this month) where I can give him the good or the bad – I’m not liking the sandwich at all at this point – for the week without letting anything linger too long. Because I am in a very public shared space situation where immediate less-than-stellar feedback is not always feasible I scheduled it the day after his once-per-week office visit (he works in another office on the other side of town)

    RE your suggestion statement this is also good for me to hear because oddly enough this is something else I had evidently been struggling with without realizing it. For days I’ve been “suggesting” something and recently I finally made myself clear: I need you to do this now please. The results were what I had been hoping for with all my polite suggestion. For someone like me who has never had to direct people or discuss what might be considered less than optimal feedback I figure I probably just have a lot to learn. Much appreciate your advice here and the thorough response to my question.

  6. Emily*

    I think the feedback sandwich is effective for more general feedback – for example critiquing a presentation or in an annual review.

    For specific problems, it’s generally better to address it head on. Make sure the person understands. Then when the problem is fixed (or even if you can see they’re working at fixing it), give some warm fuzzies.

    And it’s much easier to give feedback when you keep in mind you’re working towards success, rather than punishing misbehavior.

  7. Cassie*

    As an subordinate, I would rather just get the critical comments and save the positive ones for another time. Otherwise, next time you start to praise me for something, I’ll be too busy wondering what you’re going to criticize me about in a minute.

    And (I’m sure no one who reads this blog needs this reminder) keep it professional and even-tone. One of our managers tends to take the “why did you do this?” tone of voice, which results in the employee apologizing profusely for a small mistake (catering was ordered for the start of the meeting, not for 15 mins prior and they were late). I don’t think it’s good to make your staffers afraid of you. Provide feedback, yes. Attacking employees for mistakes, no.

    Everyone makes mistakes – we should just try our best not to repeat them. And along the same lines, I don’t think it’s always necessary for an employee to apologize for a mistake – obviously, it depends on the situation, but if it was a genuine oversight, so be it. If it’s general carelessness, well – then you better shape up!

    Of course, I’m not a supervisor/manager so I don’t have any real-world experience, but that’s how I would go about approaching it. So often, I see supervisors who avoid addressing problems with their staffers – they either don’t want to be confrontational, or they think it’s pointless because the staffer won’t/can’t change. How sad is that? For me, I’d rather you tell me what I’m doing wrong (nicely, if possible!) so I can fix it. Otherwise, I will continue doing stuff my way, while you gradually get more and more annoyed until one day you blow up at me for some super minor issue.

  8. EngineerGirl*

    May I suggest “Crucial Conversations” by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler & Covey

    PLEASE don’t use the sandwich method. Let praise be praise and correction be correction. As another poster said, if you use the sandwich method, people will start to cringe when you praise them because they are dreading the nasty middle of the sandwich.

  9. Kelly O*

    I’m not a manager either, however I have to agree with others that the whole “sandwich” thing isn’t always a great way to provide constructive criticism or feedback on an issue that needs to be fixed. I’d also agree with AAM that a culture that provides positive feedback on a regular basis is a huge factor in making the corrective conversations not only easier, but more impactful. (I may have just made up a word.)

    The way I see it, if I’m in an environment where I get positive feedback (and we’re not talking “way to keep breathing, Kelly!” feedback, but actual specific comments on things done particularly well) then I’m automatically more receptive to ways I can improve, or how to keep that positive feedback coming.

  10. Long Time Admin*

    I’m attending a communications course at work right now (well, in 20 minutes). I realize that a lot of people haven’t had any training at all in communicating with other human beings, and this could potentially be helpful to them. Overall, though, I think it’s a huge waste of time. They do endorse the “sandwich” method of delivering negative reports, which is think is just plain stupid. They also endorse explaining to people how we understand *this* and understand *that* and how we want to have a “win-win” solution, blah, blah, blah. Frankly, if someone spoke to me that way, I’d want to slap them.

    Being tactful is one thing, and it’s a very important way of communicating. The other way seems very condescending and leaves people feeling manipulated.

    I agree with everyone who said communication about job performance should be ongoing, not saved up to ambush an employee at annual evaluation time. OP, it sounds like you have already solved this problem in a great way!

  11. De Minimis*

    I dislike the “sandwich” method because generally I can see the negative feedback coming, and I would prefer that we would just have a straightforward discussion about the issue, which is the reason for the whole conversation. I would prefer that people just get to the point.

    This attitude is probably because I’ve usually been managed by people who didn’t give regular feedback, and usually only did when there was something that needed to be corrected.

  12. Jamie*

    Add me to the chorus who feel the sandwich method is disingenuous. Regular feedback should be mostly positive, because if honest feedback toward an employee would be mostly critical you have serious performance issues. So for most people who are getting positive feedback on a regular basis there is no need to cushion the blow of a correction.

    And in most cases negative feedback is exactly that – just a correction.

    However, if you’re having a serious conversation about someone who is giving it 100% but isn’t the right fit for the job then I would advice also pointing out some positives…so they know the criticism isn’t an indictment of them as a person. Pointing out the positive skill set they do have can not just soften the blow, but be helpful.

  13. Karl Borris*

    While most of us agree that the ‘sandwich’ technique is the inferior approach, I think most of us regress to it when we sense we might hurt someone’s feelings. Keeping our messages pure, both positive and negative, is the key to having them clearly remembered.

  14. SME*

    I vote no on the sandwich approach. That just happened to me for the first time recently and it was completely bewildering. 90% of the conversation was about how I’m so awesome, and one of the best people they’ve ever had in this role, etc etc. Then out of nowhere I was told about an issue that’s apparently so bad that if it doesn’t change immediately I’m going to be fired. Then more about my awesomeness.

    Like…what? It was bewildering and awful. I’d rather just hear what the issue is, what I’m expected to do to fix it, and leave it at that. Especially if it’s a serious problem. Being told in essentially the same breath that they LOVE you and are also probably going to FIRE you is awful.

  15. Lesley*

    I think the sandwich approach can only work as part of a formal review–not to discuss a current problem.

    My old manager, who was awesome, used a modified sandwich (open-faced sandwich?) approach for my annual reviews: We’d start by discussing my strengths and accomplishments over the last year, then talk about areas where I needed to grow (there were rarely issues, because she’d bring those to me right away), and then we’d finish by looking at where I could go next and how my strengths could help me get there. The focus was on making me better at my job and helping me move forward in my career.

    If she had an issue she needed to discuss, she’d usually temper it with praise, but I never minded, because she was pretty clear: You did really well on X, but we have a problem with Y. Why was that?How can we get to Z?

    So maybe the sandwich approach can work with long term career planning, but not with actually delivering criticism?

  16. Joey*

    There’s no one size fits all way to giving critical feedback. You have to customize it to the person. Jane may want you to give it straight up,no bs, but jack may be a little sensitive to criticism so you may need to soften it around the edges. Sure you may personally prefer one way over the other, but as long as the issue is corrected why not be sensitive to different personality types.

  17. Lisa*

    If it really is just “less than positive,” not “totally negative and this person is getting fired if they don’t shape up,” you can be tactful by phrasing it as a question about the behavior you DO want. My manager does this and it makes it much easier not just to accept the criticism but also to ask followup questions.

    IE, “Jane, can I ask you to focus on being at least five minutes early to meetings when you’re presenting?”


    “James, could you please proofread all of your reports, and ask for help if you need it?”

    Only works if the behavior hasn’t already been brought up and the feedback ignored, but as a first try it’s gentle and clear. Phrasing things as a question and committing to sticking to the question then waiting for a response also prevents ranting, if you’re the type who tends to hammer a point home with a sledgehammer.

  18. Lexy*

    First: The sandwich method takes me back to my sorority days. We had to give two positives to every negative when recruiting. “She had good grooming” was a popular way to say “I can’t think of anything nice to say about this girl.”

    Second: If something really is just “less than positive” it can be helpful to say something to the effect of “you do really great work, but I would prefer it if you staple on the left-hand side, it just makes things easier for me” or whatever. (Note, this is a real example, I had somebody who stapled on the right hand side and it DROVE ME UP A WALL)

    Third: I always like to have three things when I’m making a list.

    1. class factotum*

      I would prefer it if you staple on the left-hand side, it just makes things easier for me

      Does this also apply if the copy machine auto-collates and staples on side A but someone, a long, long time ago heard someone on the board of directors say, “I prefer documents to be stapled on side B,” which meant that someone now orders powerless financial analysts to go down to the copy room in the basement every other month and stay at work until 10:30 p.m. removing the staples from side A of the BOD materials and re-stapling on side B? Really, it’s not a waste of money because said analysts are salaried.

  19. Joe*

    I try to take the “give positive feedback regularly” approach one step further: Consistently demonstrate a desire to support your employees personal and professional development. Positive feedback is a part of that, but be proactive in working with them to find out their goals, and help them to move forward on those goals. In an atmosphere like this, the employee will understand that you have their interests at heart, so when you give constructive criticism, it can be perceived as, “This is a behavior that is causing me problems” rather than “This is a behavior that is causing my manager problems”.

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