Don’t Sandwich Constructive Feedback Because People Aren’t Stupid

The “Sandwich Method” of feedback was the first method of constructive criticism I learned as a young manager right out of university. You know it – 1) say something positive then 2) give the constructive criticism and then 3) close with a positive statement. Example:

Mary, you are doing a great job on the ACME Products account. But I hear your project team missed the deadline for the latest ACME blog release and the client is upset. And by the way, your hair looks nice today!

bunnyIt is true that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. The difference between the analogy of “sugar and medicine” and “sandwich feedback” is that medicine is “a” – not a person, “b” – good for your current illness only and “c” – not a long term human relationship. So with all of my focus on candor and directness for competitive business advantage, why then do I fall back to sandwich feedback methods?

Because the sandwich method is mostly about the person giving the feedback. It’s easier to give feedback in a sandwich because although you know you have to give the feedback, it is hard to give negative feedback. So the path of least resistance is to say nothing about an employee who is late. You say nothing until all of the other employees come to the conclusion the late employee is your favorite who gets paid to do less and can get away with anything. Silence indicts the leader.

One step up from ignoring the issue is the ineffective sandwich method. The domain of the partially courageous.

Why is the sandwich method of giving feedback so bad? Because people aren’t stupid. That’s right – if you work with stupid people you can probably use it forever. But it does NOT work with smart people. The authors of Absolute Honesty explain it this way:

people aren’t stupid and if you always deliver feedback in a sandwich, they start to realize that the purpose of the message is the zinger in the middle. They then start doubting your truthfulness about any of the good things when you tell them because they’re always wondering when the zinger will come.


Not that there is anything wrong with acknowledging someone’s strengths when giving feedback – we just think it’s better to avoid making a sandwich and get to the point. – pg 91


Experience has shown us that, when giving criticism, the direct approach is the best as long as it’s given in an environment where positive feedback is abundant. – pg 92

To repeat, if you use the sandwich method of giving feedback then people will ignore the good things you say waiting for the negative. And they think of you as a minor league liar for saying positive things you probably don’t believe (even if you do!). So get to the point. Give lots of positive feedback on a daily basis. But when giving negative feedback say it and move on. And keep it discrete from positive feedback.

“You need fast dialog and fast conversation to get at the mission. Candor.” – Jack Welch 2005, Houston Forum


“From the day I joined GE to the day I was named CEO, twenty years later, my bosses cautioned me about my candor. I was labeled abrasive and consistently warned my candor would soon get in the way of my career. … and I’m telling you that it was candor that helped make it work.” – Jack Welch, Winning, Pg 34

And in closing – candor is the way to move up in a competitive organization. Especially one fighting off the great recession. Not rudeness mind you, but honest candor where you respectfully call things the way you see them. You don’t waste time with sandwich feedback loops so folks know you are honest. By speaking directly you are treating people respectfully. People believe your compliments and they respect your feedback. Honest.