From offices to factory floors, employees need constructive criticism. But is the so-called feedback sandwich effective in the modern world of work? Or is just deflecting the key message when managers need to deliver constructive feedback?

What is the feedback sandwich?

This was a key talking point in our ‘Science of Great Feedback’ seminar back in 2021. But we felt it warranted further discussion.

If you’re not familiar with the term “feedback sandwich,” it’s essentially a model of feedback where someone delivers constructive feedback between notes of praise as a way of sustaining morale. In the sandwich metaphor, the praise is the bread either side of the critical filling (the constructive feedback), as a way of balancing it out.

You might want to stress that you appreciate your employee’s effort. So, you might start by telling said employee that you appreciate the fact they’re always enthusiastic in project meetings. Then you would broach the point of corrective feedback by telling them, for example, that their organisational skills could use some work. Perhaps you’d even include a couple of tactful examples. Finally, you would praise another strength, like their ability to work well with others in project situations.

It’s easy to see the good intention that goes into a feedback sandwich. You don’t want to demoralize an employee by just berating them for their shortcomings, so by bookending it with positive praise, you soften the blow.

Also, as the giver of the feedback, giving out some praise at the same time feels like an easier task, and makes the whole process feel a bit friendlier and easy to manage. It also helps reduce the anxiety many managers have when it comes to giving constructive feedback.

The sandwich method doesn’t work

Is the feedback sandwich effective? It’s certainly popular, but so are the Eurovision Song Contest and kebabs after a night out – a signal for sure that popular doesn’t always mean good… When we look at the sandwich method for delivering feedback at work, with a more critical eye, there certainly are some potential, considerable flaws:

Employees value corrective feedback over praise

Whilst praise feels like a “nice” thing to share, and is usually much easier to deliver over corrective feedback, studies show that your people may not thank you for focusing on it.

One study by Zenger Folkman showed that the majority of employees would prioritize receiving corrective feedback from their manager over being given some praise. One likely reason for this is shown by a range of other studies. And it’s because employees value feedback that helps them to grow. To that end, praise is less effective than corrective feedback.

So, if employees want corrective/constructive feedback over praise, why champion a methodology that delivers twice the amount of praise as the feedback sandwich does?

The feedback sandwich may devalue praise

But is the feedback sandwich effective for employees who are largely performing well? Unfortunately, no. It’s actually more likely to muddy the positive feedback they would have gotten.

Most of us have probably used the feedback sandwich or had it used on us. It’s not a new idea, nor is it particularly subtle. As a result, everyone is very used to the sandwich by now. After being the recipient one or two times you can see when it is being utilized on you.

The problem with that is that this subconsciously trains people to see praise as a precursor to some sort of corrective feedback. While they’re listening to you hype up their achievements, they’re actually waiting for the other shoe to drop.

What that means is that while you’ll handing out praise, your employee is sat thinking “uh oh, what have I done wrong now”. This devalues the benefits of giving praise in the first place – are they even really listening to the praise or focusing on their anxiety around what is coming next?

The feedback sandwich is often seen as a one-size-fits-all solution

We’re going to contradict ourselves here – for some people, the sandwich method may be super effective…

Individual differences play a huge role in how you manage different members of your team, and you may well have an employee who the sandwich works perfectly for (they love praise, are less inclined to want to develop further etc.). Acknowledging these individual differences is what makes you a great manager.

Yet, there is a double-edge here. Far too often, the feedback sandwich is seen as a feedback-giving process that suits all in all situations. Evidence shows that the approach is likely not that effective for many of your staff. If not most of them. So, it certainly isn’t appropriate in all scenarios.

The psychology doesn’t add up

Okay, okay. So, clearly, it can go wrong very quickly. But is the feedback sandwich effective if you’re careful about it?

The answer is still no. In cognitive psychology, there is a phenomenon known as the ‘Primacy-Recency effect’ (also known as the ‘Serial Position Effect’).

This effect highlights the tendency for people to better remember things at the end of a learning experience best (recency). Second-best are things at the start of the experience (primacy). And, in last place, we have the stuff in the middle. Whether we’re learning through reading, viewing or listening, there is plenty of evidence to show this Primacy-Recency Effect has a significant impact on how and what we remember. And this ultimately impacts what we do with that information.

Yet with the sandwich technique, it is the stuff in the middle which is the most important. By putting it in the middle of that conversation we are, according to cognitive psychology, reducing the likely impact that feedback could/should be having on our people’s behaviors.

With these four considerations in mind, whilst there will be some situations where the feedback sandwich is an appropriate delivery mechanism for workplace feedback. But its current usage is likely well beyond that scope. We need to find more effective ways of delivering feedback at work.

How to deliver constructive feedback more effectively

So, you’re ditching the feedback sandwich (hooray!) But how else can you deliver constructive feedback? Here are a few things we’d suggest:

Start small and regular with an employee check-in

Frequency is key in creating positive feedback behaviors both for you as a manager and your staff. An employee check-in focuses on the sharing of two-way feedback. It sets up a regular cadence to help make feedback giving (and receiving) a habit.

This regularity gets employees used to receiving feedback and managers become more comfortable delivering it. It also means feedback can be delivered when it’s needed, not in a month’s time at your next 1:1 meeting.

Tailor your check-in questions to help employees reflect on their own successes and challenges. This empowers employees to lead discussions around feedback, rather than fearing them. Which leads us on to…

Feedback should be the start of a conversation

The spirit of the feedback sandwich makes sense on the surface. And just because you’re being critical doesn’t mean you need to be cruel or insulting. Approach these discussions in a well-meaning, rational way. Then you can invite questions that open avenues for further discussion and understanding.

You may be surprised by the answers and learn that things out of their control have impacted performance, for example. This means you can quickly go from discussing an employee’s shortcomings to coaching them to do their own problem solving.

Make a plan together

Agree a plan of action moving forward. This needs to be done during the meeting while it’s still fresh in everyone’s mind. Set clear milestones and expectations. You could use personal goals around this too. Then check back regularly to see how your direct report is progressing.