Management and The Compliment Sandwich

April 22, 2013 at 08:00 PM

Harvard Business Review has published an essay about the "sandwich approach" to giving negative feedback by Roger Schwarz. The essay takes issue with the practice of providing positive and negative feedback together. While I wouldn't say that I stick to the positive-negative-positive format of the sandwich, I do try to balance feedback when I need to address an issue with a co-worker or employee. I try to find something positive to say that is in proportion to the negative points that I have to get across. Something light for a small issue, or larger praise to accompany the discussion and resolution of a larger issue.

The article states that this waters down and undermines the message, and I can understand that. Sometimes people only hear the good things and ignore the "room for improvement".

The method that the article encourages is a "mutual learning" approach that encourages the employee to particiate in creating the structure of the discussion and the resolution:

I want to start by describing what I saw that raised my concerns and see if you saw the same things. After we agree on what happened, I want to say more about my concerns and see if you share them.

The "sandwich" approach is painted as "unilateraly controlling". I agree with that terminology in situations where the negative feedback and resolution is laid out by the manager. Typically when I address an issue, I bring collaboration into the resolution, my philosophy being that as a manager I am there to help them understand why it needs to be fixed and how to fix it.

Managers do make other mistakes with the sandwich approach. They may not keep the positive in league with the negative in terms of tone and relevant size, and they may be uncomfortable with the negative part of the conversation to the point where they minimize and gloss over it, instead of ensuring that the person heard and understood the feedback. They also may not work out a resolution and set expectations of how to measure the improvement.

In defense of my balance method I would offer an additional point. Many roles in the teams that I work with in the technology field are creative ones. Getting the most out of creative people means leading them through inspiration and not just task driving. For those people, providing negative feedback in a direct manner is quite a buzz kill and I have seen them take a few days to get their stride back.

Another issue that I have with the proposed "mutual learning" approach is that when explaining an issue or observation, asking if the person agrees puts them on the defensive. Hearing excuses then escalates my assertiveness. While I am sure that some HR policies create a rigid framework for reviews, and that there may be bad managers out there that are dictators, situations like this should never be one-way discussions. At every step the person receiving the feedback should be able to make their points, and I would frame this as a conversation and open dialog.

Overall the message of the article is something I am very in tune with - being transparent as a manager. In these kind of situations, making the process transparent and not masking the feedback in either dimished or amplified persepective is the key to improvement. It also helps the person being managed learn and grow themselves.

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