Top Menu

A Culture of Honest Feedback Builds Winning Organizations

Monday, February 12, 2018

Ditch your sandwich appraisals and use honest, clear feedback to maximize staff potential

As the industry has moved away from the antiquated annual process to the more dynamic, continuous feedback process, appraisal methods have come under scrutiny.

During the performance evaluation modernization process, many of us have forgotten that face-to-face feedback needs overhauling too.
As a result, many managers and supervisors are relying on inadequate one-to-one feedback techniques that actually undermine their employee's evaluations.

One ineffective but prevalent technique that needs to be ditched is often referred to as the sandwich appraisal.



This feedback technique, where you position negative feedback in between two pieces of positive feedback in order to soften the blow, became fashionable a few years back. It has stubbornly persisted for years due to force of habit; but sadly, it is undermining the evaluation process.
For this reason, the sandwich appraisal deserves some serious debunking.

Staff Want to Be Told Straight – They Don’t Want To Be Patronized 

Research from Schwarz shows that managers hold the following misguided beliefs about giving negative feedback.

  1. “It iseasier for people to hear and accept negative feedback when it is sprinkled with positive feedback.”
  2. “The sandwich approach provides balanced feedback.”
  3. “Giving positive feedback with negative feedback reduces worker discomfort and anxiety.”

But the reality is that staff don’t want sugar-coated bad news.
When the staff of those same managers were asked how they wanted to receive feedback, many were adamant that hearing niceties first worsened the blow. They wanted to cut to the chase and hear the bad news straight up. Delaying the inevitable bad news with positive precursors was in itself anxiety-provoking.
Tell it straight. Don't ruin a positive with a negative.

Top Performers Thrive on Negative Feedback

Remarkably, research shows that staff actually thrive on negative feedback and turn it into a learning opportunity.
A study by Leadership IQ found that nearly half of employees fail in the first year or so, and a key reason for that is that they can’t accept negative feedback. The founder of Leadership, IQ Mark Murphy argues that “high performers are often high performers specifically because they’re good at accepting feedback and using it as fuel for personal growth.”
Murphy uses Peyton Manning as an example of a sportsman whose brilliance is based on his critical self-awareness. Peyton spends hours studying films of his performances and is always open to the feedback.
Negative feedback will maximize your staff’s potential.

Toughen Up

The message to managers out there is that it is time to toughen up when doing appraisals.
Winners and A-Players (the kind of folks you want to attract and retain) want to hear negative feedback to enable growth. They are prepared to take negative feedback on the chin.
In fact, some of the toughening up may have to be on the side of managers.

Research shows that managers use the positive sandwich as a way of alleviating their own stress. It’s this sandwich approach that leads to the unbearable suspense – and it’s the reason it has to go.

Of course, it’s all well and good telling you to ‘hang tough’ in appraisals, but it does need to be done right.
You always knew where you stood with Darth Vader, but few would advocate his approach to giving negative feedback. If you are about to shift to a more direct approach to negative feedback, make sure not to over-compensate for years of sugar-coating by going overboard.

Being direct is not the same as being aggressive; barking out criticism could alienate even A-Players. Negative feedback delivered assertively is the order of the day.

Dysfunction

Jorgan Appelo, management consultant and industry advocate of direct negative feedback, has outlined a simple 5-step technique to giving it to your staff on the chin that will work in the office.

Step 1: Describe Your Context
“The CEO is breathing down my neck for these reports.”

Step 2: List Your Observations
"You have missed three deadlines."

Step 3: Express Your Feelings
“This puts me in an awkward position with the boss.”

Step 4: Explain The Value
“Without these reports, we won’t get next year’s budget.”

Step 5: Offer Some Suggestions
“You are better than this. How can you ensure this work is completed on time? What can I do to help?”

This is constructive but direct criticism free of threats, anger, or negative labels such as ‘incompetent’ or ‘stupid,’ and it will motivate the recipient – not alienate them.

360-Degree Appraisals Can Add More Weight to Criticism

Negative feedback (and positive feedback for that matter) can be enhanced by 360-degree appraisals –  collective feedback garnered from the employee’s colleagues.
It’s hard for employees to question criticism that has been voiced by several colleagues as it has more weight. 360-degree appraisals also depersonalize the criticism, potentially reducing defensiveness, meaning the employee may more readily accept the negative feedback.

Ideally, your evaluation process should take place in an environment of continuous feedback, so that the employee does not receive a nasty surprise at the year end.

To ensure damage limitation and to promote a quick fix, give feedback immediately. Such feedback could occur on a monthly basis or after each project.


Positive Feedback Is Allowed – Just Bin the Sandwich



You could be forgiven for thinking that we are declaring war on positive feedback. We are not.

Positive feedback is beneficial. Just don’t artificially sandwich it around negative feedback in order to bury bad news – it’s counter-productive.
If an employee’s overall performance is inadequate, we shouldn’t withhold the positives, but the overall tone of feedback during the appraisal – while still constructive – should rightly be negative.

Without this honest feedback, your employee won’t get the message to improve and will continue to fail.

Of course, if you are sitting an employee down to give isolated negative feedback about one situation only, then there’s probably very little room for compliments.
Any charity you have on offer should be channelled into maintaining a professional, non-confrontational demeanour and keeping a supportive, constructive, and optimistic tone once the bad news has been laid out.
Remember , your role as a manager is to guide and teach. Any negative feedback must be supported and followed up by suggestions on how to improve and the tools to do it.
With the right balance of challenge and support your employees will reach their maximum potential.

The positive sandwich appraisal is well past its sell-by date and is no longer fit for human consumption.
Modern workers don’t want or need sugar-coating; the ensuing suspense actually increases stress and undermines the appraisal process.
Assertively delivered negative feedback will do much more good to your organization, motivating and focusing employees and enabling them to reach their maximum potential.

Image Credits: 
Fig 1. P2 - Journal of behavioural studies
Sources:
1. The Sandwich Feedback Method: Not very tasty. Journal of Behavioural Studies in Business Volume 7 - September 2014: http://www.aabri.com/manuscripts/141831.pdf
2. Leadership IQ Study: https://www.fastcompany.com/3002460/thick-skin-thinking-how-use-negative-feedback-your-advantage-work
3. 5 Step Negative Feedback Technique: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jurgenappelo/2015/08/17/ditch-the-praise-sandwich-make-feedback-wraps/2/#708a2e0d6463