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Is feedback a suitable filling for a sandwich?

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

I can think of few more pleasurable experiences than a freshly made crab and avocado sandwich consumed whilst sitting watching the shipping south of Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight. We often visit the wonderful Seapot café after a refreshing swim off Monks Bay; a fabulous repurposing of a public lavatory block and crab landed less than 100 yards away.

I'll save my views on the closure of public lavatories for another time; it was not the current owner who closed them, they had been derelict for a good few years.

The properly constructed sandwich is a very positive experience. Does this mean that feedback given in the form of a sandwich is also a good thing?

I don't know who first came up with the idea of hiding negative feedback in between two positives, to create the 'Feedback sandwich'. It is often given as the best way to offer feedback, but is it really?

Why am I thinking about useful and effective feedback even? Yesterday, I shared a picture of a dress I thought I had chosen to wear for our daughter's forthcoming wedding with a good friend and colleague. I thought it was very pretty, very summery and very suitable for mother of the bride. He simply said, "Good job it's not October; you would have been mistaken for a pumpkin". Then he said, " You and I are apples, that style is not going to do you any favours."


How could he be so blunt? How could he not couch it in more gentle words? Was he being unkind? Was this feedback at it's worse? What would have happened had he made it into a sandwich, as so many management courses suggest is the best way to give feedback?

Imagine the words he might use;

"That's a very pretty colour, very summery and wedding like. I really like the neckline, it will look fabulous with the necklace your husband gave you for Christmas. I'm not entirely convinced by the cut, but the sleeves are a really good length and it looks like it won't be too long. You have a good décolletage and the dress will emphasize that. It will go with the bridesmaids' dresses well." What message would I have taken away?

I think I'd have added it to my online basket and had it whizzing to my door. Then perhaps, I'd have realised on the day that it was a bit clinging and I may have spent the wedding tugging at it and feeling uncomfortable.

Instead, he was courageous enough and cared enough to tell me the truth. What I considered peach was more orange and I would have looked like a sallow, beach ball because of the cut and material. He didn't want that and our relationship is strong enough for honesty. Indeed, it is that honesty that builds the trust that permits very direct feedback that isn't couched in so many pleasantries that it becomes unheard.

We then spent an hour exploring other options and finding a more flattering outfit along with hat and shoes. He wanted the very best for me. Having someone care enough to be direct is a nice feeling. It stopped a quite significant and costly mistake. Being direct isn't about being unkind or 'telling someone off'.

The key message is, I guess, that sometimes wrapping things up and avoiding clarity is not kind. It is not helpful if someone doesn't hear what the issue is. Building a culture where people trust each other enough to be honest is essential. A positive motivation, a desire to support, to help someone improve their practice and kindness are so important when offering feedback: Malicious, irritated or vengeful comments aren't feedback - they are destructive and inhibit organisational excellence.

In practice, 'sandwich feedback is sometimes useful. Maybe in one-to-one or performance review meetings, but so often the sandwich is a way of avoiding being clear and that isn't helpful to anyone.

How direct and honest are you when feeding back to people?

Do you always use a sandwich and hide the less positive message?

Does your team culture allow honesty without causing hurt?

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