THE FEEDBACK SANDWICH
“When I was preparing
for the meeting with
the CEO, I learned that
all three consultants
had tried to
compliment him, and
he saw right through
it. It was time to take
the feedback sandwich
off the menu and be
ow do you give feedback to a CEO
who’s twice your age? I was 25, a
new professor called in as a last-
ditch, Hail Mary effort to save a
dying company. They had already
fired three consultants, so why not try me?
The CEO had been leading longer than I’d
been alive. After several weeks of watching him
in action, interviewing his senior team and
gathering data from his employees, it was time
for me to bring down the hatchet. His company
had merged with another firm and he was
still trying to figure out where to go. His team
desperately needed him to outline a vision.
When I went to colleagues for advice, they
all told me the same thing. Put a slice of
praise on the top and the bottom, and stick
the meat of your criticism in between.
It’s the compliment sandwich, as Stewie
Griffin called it on Family Guy—a technique
for giving feedback that’s popular among
leaders and coaches, parents and teachers.
But when I looked at the data, I
learned that the feedback sandwich
doesn’t taste as good as it looks.
Problem 1: The positives fall on deaf ears.
When people hear praise during a feedback
conversation, they brace themselves. They’re
waiting for the other shoe to drop, and
it makes the opening compliment seem
insincere. You didn’t really mean it; you
were just trying to soften the blow.
Problem 2: If you avoid that risk and manage
to be genuine about the positives, they can
drown out the negatives. Research shows that
primacy and recency effects are powerful:
we often remember what happens first
and last in a conversation, glossing over
the middle. When you start and end with
positive feedback, it’s all too easy for the
criticism to get buried or discounted.
Giving a compliment sandwich might make the
giver feel good, but it doesn’t help the receiver.
Instead, try these four steps to make
your criticism feel constructive: