The Feedback Sandwich

feedback cigarette sandwich.jpg

Have you ever used the feedback sandwich technique?

Managers need to give their employees performance feedback to manage employee performance. But performance feedback can be uncomfortable so managers use the the feedback sandwich. This is what happened when I used it: 

Positive Feedback - Negative Feedback - Positive Feedback

I had some negative feedback to give but before I could jump into it I needed something positive to say. I searched my thoughts for something relevant and tried to make it sound sincere. Positive feedback out of the way I could move onto the negative feedback which was the real message. I’m not very good at reading body language but even I could see them disengage. They pulled back into a defensive stance and they got that eyes glazed over look which shows they’re not really listening. Classic passive-aggressive behavior. Negative feedback over I racked my brain for something positive to say to fill the silence. Awkward, population me. 

Is this a performance management experience you recognize?

Negative Feedback is unpleasant

Giving negative feedback can be stressful for both the giver and the receiver. The sandwich feedback technique tries to fix this by softening the “blow” of negative feedback by sandwiching it between two items of positive feedback. The colloquial term is a “sh!t sandwich.”

But ask yourself - how would you like to get a “sh1t” sandwich? It doesn’t matter how good the “bread” is - if the filling isn’t nice you still don’t want the sandwich. If it's not good for you then it's not an effective feedback technique. Your performance feedback will not work and you will not have engaged employees

Lipstick on a pig - Ineffective Performance Feedback

And that is my main issue with the sandwich feedback technique. Repackaging negative feedback does nothing to improve the quality of your performance feedback. At best it does nothing to make your feedback more effective, at worst it can actually be damaging as I explain below.


Some other problems with the sandwich technique:

Time & Effort:

When you want to give negative feedback you also have to come up with two pieces of positive feedback to put it between. This increases the difficulty factor plus makes giving performance feedback a much longer process. Who wants to go to all that trouble to fix employee performance? Increased time and effort leads to giving less performance feedback. Less performance feedback equals lower employee productivity.


You have to manufacture positive feedback making the positive feedback less sincere. People are very perceptive at picking up where you are only making a token effort. This ruins the whole message. Insincerity also ruins the boss-employee relations. Good relationships are built on trust. Good employee relations are the basis of engaged employees and high job performance.

Confusion and Lack of Focus:

The danger is that the message you really want to communicate can get lost. People have a limited attention span. The sandwich feedback technique is like hiding your real message between two fake messages. When you have an important message to convey it’s more effective to focus on doing this clearly. Actually there is an amusing (or tragic) study done by Professor Ayelet Fishbach of University of Chicago Booth School of Business. One half of the class had to tell the other half that their performance was unsatisfactory. The recipients of the negative feedback were actually left with the impression that their job performance was good. This is because they heard more positive feedback and the negative feedback message wasn’t well delivered! For effective performance management it's vital that managers make their performance feedback clear.

But There are Two Positive Things About the Sandwich Feedback Technique:

  1. The feedback sandwich forces us to give more positive feedback. And the fact is we do not give enough positive feedback. Research shows that performance feedback is most effective with around 5 times as much positive feedback as negative feedback. Because we have a natural tendency to spot errors we focus too much on the negatives. As a professionally trained auditor I can spot a mistake at 100 yards so I know this is something I have to constantly remind myself about. Think about your own management behavior - what is your ratio of positive to negative feedback? Are you giving enough positive feedback to make your performance management effective?
  2. The feedback sandwich technique doesn’t do much for the receiver. But it is quite effective at helping the giver to get over any reluctance they may have about performance management. Addressing low employee performance can be an unpleasant experience. And my experience is that for my own peace of mind I must either accept my employee's performance or do something to fix it. Wishing for better employee performance or obsessing about the reasons for poor employee performance is not helpful. In other words if there is something that your employee is doing that is bugging you then say something about it (effectively!).

Luckily both of these are not exclusive to the feedback sandwich technique. This means we can get the benefits and have better performance feedback without using the feedback sandwich technique.


There is a really good reason for the feedback sandwich technique. But I believe that the feedback sandwich technique is not a good performance management solution. Because the feedback sandwich is onerous, insincere and unclear.

P.S - If you think about it, the job of a Boss is to get people to do stuff. But getting people to do what you want must be one of the toughest things in the world. That’s why I've made the program. It'll show you how to make managing easy and get better employee performance in just an hour a week.

When negative feedback goes bad

I’ve learnt that the source of the problem is from the assumption that negative feedback has to be a bad thing. Yes a lot of negative feedback is bad and ineffective for performance management:

  1. When negative feedback is confrontational
  2. When negative feedback is given when angry or upset
  3. When negative feedback focuses on intent instead of facts
  4. When negative feedback is focused on blame & punishment instead of future improvement

Or a whole heap of other performance management pitfalls - as you can imagine; telling someone that they are doing something wrong is a process littered with landmines.

There is nothing wrong with negative feedback

There is nothing wrong with negative feedback, there is only something wrong with bad negative feedback.

Negative feedback for employee performance management

When you can give negative feedback in an acceptable and effective manner then you don’t need to sandwich it with positive feedback. Good negative feedback is an effective employee performance management tool. In fact it is possible to increase employee engagement by giving them effective negative feedback!

So in my opinion the solution to effective feedback isn’t repackaging. The solution is to improve the quality of the negative feedback. What have your experiences with employee performance feedback been, share these with us in the comments. Do you know any managers that would benefit from an effective method to improve employee performance? Please help us to help them by sharing this.

Performance Feedback Mistakes Series

This is an article from the “Common Feedback Mistakes Series. This series discusses common mistakes that result in ineffective feedback. There is a lot of conventional wisdom and advice that is just plain wrong. As you can imagine telling someone that they are doing something wrong is a process littered with landmines. It's incredibly easy to make a feedback mistake without realising it and then your feedback is ineffective and may actually be damaging. This leads to unengaged employees and poor employee performance. Other articles in the Feedback mistakes series include:

  1. Why you must not ask why
  2. Why managing by exception is making your staff hate you
  3. Giving feedback that is not relevant to the receiver
  4. Giving feedback only after your employees are in trouble (aka the fallacy that performance reviews are for performance management)
  5. Thinking that giving feedback is time consuming, difficult and confrontational
  6. Waiting for the perfect time/ the fallacy over what is privacy
  7. The mistake of thinking you can only fix negative behaviours with negative feedback
  8. Mixing up praise, acknowledgement and feedback
  9. Focussing on the past instead of fixing for the future
  10. Not asking for what you want
  11. Not securing a commitment for improvement

What is Effective Feedback?

Effective Feedback is feedback that is designed to effectively change the behavior of your employees to get what you want. Effective Feedback is motivational, improves employee engagement and improves employee retention. Effective Feedback is fast and non-confrontational.

Further Assistance on this topic by Manager Foundation:

To find out more about how you can use Effective Feedback for employee performance management and to increase employee engagement, refer to the “Management Sweetspot” series or:


Do you have any comments, questions or tips about employee performance feedback? Help the rest of us out by sharing in the comments below.

Boss Camp

If you think about it, the job of a Boss is to get people to do stuff. But getting people to do what you want must be one of the toughest things in the world. That’s why WWW.BOSS.CAMP is about making managing easy in just an hour a week. Te program includes topics such as:

  • How to motivate employees,
  • What are bad employee motivators,
  • What you must do as a manager but isn't on your job description,
  • How leaders get power