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  • Writer's pictureJill Hauwiller

Taking a Bite out of the Feedback Sandwich

Conventional wisdom says that pairing critical feedback with positive feedback will make it easier for the recipient to process the bad with the good - this is the classic feedback sandwich. For some that may be true, but I would argue it’s not a universally effective approach – especially if there is a behavior or other performance concern to address. Be generous with positive feedback and specific with feedback intended to improve performance or change behavior.

Building a culture of continuous improvement through feedback

Before we get back to feedback, you need to share a vision of what continuous improvement means for your team or organization. What business outcomes will be accelerated through continuous improvement? You will be making a case for innovation, ongoing learning, and a focus on performance. Once that is established, you can connect ongoing feedback as a tool to support continuous improvement. Over time, this type of feedback can become a positive cultural attribute, driving personal and organizational growth.

For this to be effective, both the goals for improvement and feedback have to be clear and aligned. Spending time on role clarity as well as team and individual contributions to the organization’s purpose and goals is a critical step. You will know you are on the right track when employees can articulate how they drive business outcomes and connect to the organizational purpose in their own words. This also provides a framework for accountability when giving feedback because performance objectives for individuals and teams will be transparent.

A culture of feedback is most effective in teams and organizations that have high levels of psychological safety. Organizations with healthy, inclusive environments have a strong foundation for implementing a culture of feedback. They have already fostered an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas and raising concerns. Diversity of thought is valued and supported. Learning and curiosity about past mistakes are encouraged, further driving the culture of continuous improvement. This is a ripe environment for building skills around giving feedback and demonstrating a commitment to acting on feedback.

Providing training, resources and guidelines for peer-to-peer feedback can be a great way to engage employees in a culture of feedback to drive continuous improvement. Done well, peer feedback helps employees understand how they are viewed within their team and can build trust and collaboration within the team. However, this isn’t a suggestion to open the door to having everyone tell each other what they think without guardrails. That might have the opposite of the intended effect. Use experts in your organization - like your HR team - to provide support and coaching on giving feedback. Encourage your team to have candid conversations about when they are most open to feedback. Check in with each other on both how feedback was delivered and how it was received and help your team make adjustments.

Finally, as you are building a culture of feedback within an organizational focus on continuous improvement, celebrate individual and team successes. Recognize the role that feedback is playing with continuous improvement initiatives to encourage continued engagement and skill building in this area.

Accountability versus empathy

Believe it or not, accountability and empathy are not in conflict with each other. I often hear from leaders who are concerned that holding employees accountable means they aren’t being supportive or understanding. Brene Brown popularized the idea of “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” This is also the link between accountability and empathy. By setting clear performance expectations and responsibilities, you are being empathetic. You are removing ambiguity around the criteria for success, You are also creating a visible path for future accountability conversations.

In all feedback conversations that are intended to drive change, ensure that you are focusing on behaviors that are getting in the way of the employee’s success or outcomes that are not meeting expectations rather than an employee’s personality traits. It is particularly important to not ascribe intent or judge someone’s character as part of a feedback conversation. By limiting the conversation to behaviors, actions or outcomes that are missing the mark, you can keep the conversation focused on tangible performance goals that can be addressed through a development plan or even increased self-awareness.

As a leader, you are also accountable in the feedback culture. It is your responsibility to offer prompt feedback on good work and also when improvement is needed. Fresh feedback is better than stale feedback. Addressing needed growth in the moment allows more opportunities for leaders and employees to work together to identify solutions and strategies that align with the team needs and the individual’s development plan. This also helps the employee build their sense of accountability and engagement with the development plan, along with confidence in their problem solving skills. While it can be tempting to take the lead on these types of planning conversations, a coaching approach can be more effective long-term because of the skill building and self-awareness it takes to reflect on feedback and determine steps to incorporate the feedback into a personal development plan.

Feedback for high-performers

Even the best performing members of teams have gaps in their self-awareness and opportunities to further develop their skills. However, when you have critical feedback to offer a rockstar employee who is used to praise, a couple of things can happen. As a leader, you may think that it isn’t worth providing constructive feedback because there is so much good work happening, but by avoiding this conversation, you are depriving a really strong employee the chance to grow and also learn how to respond to feedback that challenges them. The employee could also reject the feedback which may erode trust on both sides of the relationship. While I am still not advocating for the feedback sandwich, this is a situation where acknowledging an employee’s positive contributions alongside a limiting behavior or area that needs development may help the employee feel seen and valued. What may also be valuable in helping a high-performing employee understand how continued growth and development positions them for continued career success is putting the risk of not addressing a development need into context.

Like with all employees, involving high-performers in creating plans for their own development builds engagement and alignment. This is also a time when sharing your own experiences about responding to and incorporating feedback into your personal development plan has benefited your career trajectory.

Be a feedback role model

The further you progress in your career, the smaller your peer network becomes and the smaller the pool of people who are likely to give you honest feedback also becomes. By demonstrating consistent openness and responsiveness to feedback early in your career, you are more likely to maintain access to this important source of insights even as you reach executive level roles. Once you have reached those senior levels, you can set the tone for receiving and acting on feedback in a way that sets the tone for the whole organization.

Leaders who demonstrate their commitment to professional development and continuous improvement create an example for others to follow. They are showing that learning and skill building happens during all phases of a career. Leaders who know the value of feedback create regular channels for receiving feedback in addition to regularly providing feedback to others. Opportunities to provide feedback may include meetings, surveys or polls, or anonymous mechanisms. These leaders welcome both formal and informal feedback.

But more than anything, to be a feedback role model, you need to demonstrate how you act on feedback. This doesn’t mean taking every comment to heart. Not all feedback is valid but even feedback that is offbase often contains a kernel of insight if you take the time to reflect on it. Both through communication and action, leaders who place a high value on feedback show how it is changing or influencing their actions.

If you aspire to be a feedback role model but are still developing your skills, you can look around your organization for other leaders or teams who are using feedback effectively for professional development and team performance. Ask them what’s working for them and how they got there. Both giving effective feedback and responding to feedback take time and practice. Use the skill of self-awareness to reflect on what types and styles of feedback you are personally most receptive to and share this with those who provide you feedback. Similarly, get curious with your team to understand what types of feedback help them continue to grow.

Building a culture of continuous improvement driven in part by consistent feedback takes time and intention. It doesn’t become part of the fabric of an organization overnight. Celebrating the results of your continuous improvement efforts and how feedback has contributed to your organizational and individual success will go a long way in instilling these practices throughout your organization.


This article was also published on Medium.

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