How should you ask people to change the way they work? How can you point out shortcomings in results, in a respectful way? How do you explain that someone’s behavior needs improvement? One thing is clear: the praise sandwich doesn’t work.
The Praise Sandwich
The well-known recipe of the feedback sandwich (or praise sandwich) is to start by praising something about the person you are addressing (positive feedback), followed by pointing out the behaviors-or-results-that-need-improvement (negative feedback), followed by another friendly message to wrap it all up (positive feedback). The result is one piece of criticism wedged between two compliments.
For example, a feedback sandwich could look like this: Your conference website looks marvelous and well-designed. However, you made an error when writing my name on the keynote page, and I expect this to be fixed ASAP! Anyways, I look forward to your event, which will surely be very inspiring. I’m sure you recognize the pattern. First, try to make the recipient feel good and relaxed, then deliver the painful sting, and finally, smooth things over with a kiss and a hug.
People on the receiving end sometimes unappealingly refer to this approach as the s**t-sandwich. Professional workers appreciate accurate feedback about their work and achievements because they want to learn and improve. They dislike the praise sandwich because they feel that valuable feedback doesn’t need to be offered between two insincere compliments, as if the workers are mere children who won’t take their medicine unless it is coated in a sweetener. Such people would fix the spelling error in my name immediately, but they would judge my compliments as nothing more than meaningless padding of the message.
Novices, on the other hand, like getting praise sandwiches, because they enjoy the sweeteners. After serving such people a plate with a delicious compliment, some criticism spread all over it, and another fine compliment on top, they walk away with a smile on their face, savoring the taste of the two compliments. The medicine in the middle has no effect, because it goes by unnoticed. These workers would be quite happy to hear me praise their event and their website, but two weeks later the spelling error would still be there.
The Feedback Wrap
A more useful approach is to prepare a feedback wrap. It has five ingredients:
Step 1: Describe Your Context: “I’m writing you while I’m packing for my vacation. Sorry about the brevity of this message.”
Step 2: List Your Observations: “I checked out your event website and noticed there is a spelling error in my name on the keynote page.”
Step 3: Express Your Feelings: “I felt a bit disappointed because I had spelled my name correctly in the materials I provided.”
Step 4: Explain The Value: “It is important to me that your attendees see my name spelled correctly; they might try to find more information about me.”
Step 5: Offer Some Suggestions: “I hope someone can fix the mistake, and I will be happy to check any other information for accurateness if you like.”
I admit, this style of communication might be overkill for a simple spelling mistake. But it’s an excellent step-by-step approach to address more pressing matters, such as bad quality or service, disrespectful or unethical behaviors, or–my pet peeve–unpaid invoices and other unattended formalities. Granted, preparing a feedback wrap is twice more work than making a praise sandwich. But it has a significant return on investment: it is ten times more effective!
Why does it work? It works because you start a feedback wrap by offering a context to increase the other person’s understanding and appreciation of your situation. You then offer observations–without finger-pointing–because no smart person will disagree with simple facts. Likewise, you let the recipient know how you feel about the facts, creating awareness of the impact of the facts on you, without blaming anyone in particular. Next, you explain your needs, because the receiver just may not realize what is important to you. Finally, you allow the person to figure out what needs to be done to close the gap between needs and facts, resolving the undesirable feelings, and you offer a suggestion or two to move things forward.
The feedback wrap practice is very similar to several other communication methods, such as Nonviolent Communication. The key is not to lay blame or get mad, but merely to make the other person aware of your context, your observations, your feelings, and your needs. And then you let them figure it out for themselves.
I won’t claim this is easy. I’ve allowed my anger, frustration, and disappointment to sour enough relationships–both personal and work-related–to know that pure criticism, or negative feedback, rarely gets me what I need, no matter how many compliments I added before and after. As anyone knows who follows my Twitter updates, a cry of anguish is sometimes useful for simply letting off steam, but it doesn’t invite a resolution of the problem. And dealing with someone’s hurt feelings is much harder, and messier, than only allowing them to deal with facts.
When I value the relationship with someone, a feedback wrap gets me further, faster, with a little bit more effort. And processing a feedback wrap makes less of a mess than a praise sandwich.
By Jurgen Appelo
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