Take the Feedback Sandwich Off the Menu

How to Serve up Criticism in the 21st Century

Do you remember playing the hot and cold game as a kid?

“Warmer… warmer… no, you’re getting colder. Oh, oh, oh, hot. Really hot. Burning hot.”

There was a certain thrill in playing that game. Maybe because we knew in the end, there would be a reward.

If you stop to think about it, this game works entirely on feedback. So why is it that when it comes to feedback in the workplace, instead of looking forward to the reward, the mere thought of it instills a sense of dread? Our throats tighten, our palms sweat, and we suddenly remember that we have to run home and feed the cat.

We will do almost anything to get out of that situation, which is often just as uncomfortable for your boss as it is for you.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Feedback is vital to improving performance and generating success—and we all want to be successful.

It’s Time to Change Our Mentality

The mindset around feedback has been the same for years. Deliver a positive comment, then the criticism, followed by another positive comment. This is called the “feedback sandwich,” and it isn’t fooling anyone.

Most employees are hip to this technique, and when you sit them down for this type of discussion, the positive feedback risks being perceived as insincere. While you may be heaping genuine praise upon your employee, they’re on the other side of the conference table, tuning out the good things you are saying, trying to anticipate the criticism that is coming next.

We’ve all been there. It’s not fun.

What Do You Propose We Do?

There is no doubt that delivering criticism can be tricky. But there are ways to make it more comfortable for everyone involved, producing more positive results.

If one-on-one professional conversations tend to make you uncomfortable, check out this Ted Talk, “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation.” It offers excellent tips on productive communication. Then, consider the following:

Start with Success

Conversations involving critical feedback should be opened with a statement of acknowledgment. “I know you want to be successful in your position, and I want to help you achieve success.” This is a great way to affirm your employee’s commitment to their job, and let them know you are on their side.

Don’t Delay

Waiting to deliver feedback until the end of a project or the dreaded annual employee review doesn’t help anyone. Most employees want to know right away if their performance is lacking so they can correct it.

Delivering both positive and negative feedback in a timely fashion will accustom your employees to receiving feedback on a regular basis, which allows them to adjust their work for immediate improvement. When it comes to feedback, follow Nike’s lead, and just do it.

Be Specific and Brief

This is especially true when delivering criticism. If feedback is vague, it won’t help the employee improve their performance. “Bob, you were rude in that meeting,” is not nearly as effective as “Bob, when you and Phil were discussing the budget, you spoke over him several times. I’d appreciate it if you could work on waiting for others to finish before speaking.”

Telling Bob he was rude doesn’t clarify what he did wrong. Was it his tone? His volume? His choice of words? If Bob suspects you don’t like him, this vague criticism will fall upon deaf ears. Being specific also helps you, the manager, remain brief in your criticism. If you take too long to get to the point, the message can get lost.

Don’t Make It Personal

When delivering feedback, it is very important to remove any personal statements––or bias––from the conversation. As a manager, it’s your job not to let your personal opinion of someone influence the message. There are a lot of personalities in the workplace, and performance based feedback should be focused on performance. If you have an employee that you don’t personally like, you still have an obligation to deliver praise when they have exceeded expectations, and a duty to deliver criticism when needed.

Set Goals

Sit down with your employee and establish goals for success. If you have been specific in your feedback, setting goals should be an easy next step. Remember to set incremental goals that you can reasonably expect your employee to achieve. Hitting these milestones will increase their confidence and set you up for further productive feedback sessions in the future. It also demonstrates your commitment to their success.

Feedback Goal Setting SMART

The SMART technique is a popular method to use for setting goals. Check out HR at MIT’s excellent example on how to apply this principle.

It might be best to wait a few days after the initial feedback sessions before you set goals. This gives your employee time to absorb the feedback you gave them, and puts them in a better mindset to work constructively with you on setting benchmarks.

That’s Great for Managers, But…

What if, rather than being the person that delivers feedback, you are on the receiving end of criticism? Do you have any tips for handling that?

Of course we do.

Solicit Feedback

Let your boss know that you welcome feedback. This makes it easier to open up the conversation––and keep it open. It will also likely result in more frequent feedback that will allow you to continually improve.

Remember, feedback can be as difficult to give as it is to receive. Try to be grateful for the thought and time they are contributing toward your success.


When receiving feedback, the first thing you need to do is keep your mouth closed. Don’t interrupt or jump into defense mode, just listen. No boss is perfect, and they may be mixing opinions (you’re not working as hard as you could be), with facts (you missed three deadlines this month).

feedback listening

Don’t worry if you aren’t a strong listener. We’ve got you covered. Check out our post “Becoming A Better Listener for Fun and Profit,” and sign up for our mailing list at the top of the page for a free downloadable PDF version of the document.

Opinions may be hard to swallow, but facts are indisputable. Regardless of the content or tone of delivery, listen carefully. Remove any personality conflicts from the equation. Ask yourself, “Is she right?” The ultimate purpose of feedback is to generate professional improvement and success. So listen carefully. She’s probably trying to help you.


When we receive criticism, it’s common to want to defend our actions or decisions. Allow yourself pause. Tell your boss you appreciate the feedback and you’d like to speak again the following day, or later in the week, after you’ve had some time to process it. Reacting in the moment can increase tensions, and make you seem defensive. If you found it particularly painful, you’ll need that extra time to calm down, disconnect from your emotions, and let the reality of what she said sink in.

Seek Examples 

The more specific the feedback is, the more beneficial it is to you. If your manager is being vague, kindly ask for specific examples. “I didn’t realize I was being rude. Can you tell me what I was doing that came across that way, so I can correct it in future meetings?” Pinpointing the issues will help you correct a problem more quickly, rather than wasting time trying to figure out what your boss really meant.

Ask for Goals

If your overall performance is seen as lacking, ask to sit down with your manager to set some measurable goals. This will help you stay on track and ensure future feedback is geared toward your success.

Try to set realistic objectives, and request follow-up sessions (once a month, twice a month, whatever works for your industry). These check-in sessions can be brief, and will likely give you both the peace of mind that you are well on your way to achieving greatness.

Feedback is essential to improving and growing in your position. It should be a year-round exercise in bettering the performance of employees and managers alike. Keep the conversation open and approach praise and criticism with an objective mind.

We don’t need to wedge a negative statement between two positives to get our point across. We simply need to create an atmosphere where frequent feedback is the norm. The results will benefit everyone.

2016-10-21T11:03:07-05:00 By |Categories: Career, Communication, Psychology|Tags: , , , , , |