Taking The Whack Out of Feedback

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Today’s quest contributor is a long time friend of the community, Certified Life Coach, NLP Master Practitioner and writer, Tim Brownson.


Have you heard of the feedback sandwich?

I’m sure if you’ve ever worked in the corporate sector you have, because a great many companies employ it as a way of offering criticism/feedback to employees during annual appraisals.

Just in case you’re not familiar with it, it works like this.

A manager offers the bread of positive feedback to an employee for some work well done. She then cuts to the chase (and often the real reason for the meeting) by telling the person the areas she needs to see improvements in, and this is supposedly the meat.

Then she gives the person some more bread (positive feedback) and sends them on their merry way relaxed that they heard twice as much good stuff as bad and thus will be implementing the required improvements quicker than you can say, “It’s HR on the phone for you”

It’s great in theory and sounds perfectly plausible and sensible in the same way that designing a new and better version of Coke would have sounded plausible and sensible to the senior executives of Coca-Cola in 1985.

Unfortunately, the feedback sandwich makes the Coke fiasco look like a runaway success. Whereas a glass of New Coke may leave you wishing you’d opted for water, a feedback sandwich my leave you wishing you’d opted for a different employer.

Yet bizarrely it is still used by thousands of businesses as a way of ‘helping’ their employees move toward improved performance, and it is done so for a very simple reason.

Few managers are astute enough to notice that it simply doesn’t work because they have nothing to measure it against. It’s always been done this way, so it must work, right?

Why Doesn’t It Work

Let’s put to one side the fact that so many people recognize when a feedback sandwich is coming their way and it’s the moment they get the ‘good news’.

They have probably been through this process many times and have actually started to form a conditioned response (anchor) to good news from their boss being followed by bad news.

In and of itself that is a good enough reason to look for alternative ways of delivering feedback, but it gets much worse.

It’s pretty much widely accepted now that whereas he did a very commendable job, and as hierarchies go it’s one of the best, Maslow still got his hierarchy of needs a bit wrong.

He did so by underestimating the need for love and connection as well the need for respect and appreciation. And it’s that last part that can be neatly summed up by the word ‘Status’.

Over the centuries we have hard wired ourselves to linking an increase in status to an increase in security and happiness. As such any threat to our status is seen as a threat to our potential security and happiness.

Therefore, maintaining the status of the recipient is absolutely crucial to offering feedback that is effective and will lead to improved performance, rather than forcing them to defend and/or lash out.

When somebody criticizes you (and make no mistake, that is what feedback always is), they are in effect threatening your status. That triggers a dopamine crash in your brain and the fight or flight response kicks in.

That response may be very slight such as when my wife asks me why I haven’t fed the dogs and I’ll maybe get a bit defensive by saying I was busy with clients all day…honest.

Or it may be incredibly intense and even debilitating when somebody thinks their job is under serious threat after a poor performance appraisal.

In the latter example it’s not unusual to kick start a thread of (often unconscious) rapid thought that can go something like this:

If I lose my job, I’ll lose my house. If I lose my home my family will be under threat and I could lose them and literally end up starving to death.

It sounds kind of silly doesn’t it, because few people go from losing their job straight to starvation? And at a logical level it is a bit silly, but your unconscious mind doesn’t deal very well with logic, which is why almost everybody has certain irrational beliefs and fears that no amount of conscious analyzing remove.


What Can You Do Differently?

Even though some people deal with criticism much better than others (usually by employing techniques like reframing that stop the emotional limbic system area of the brain from being activated), you have to understand that it never feels good to anybody.

So if you have to regularly offer feedback (and yes that does include any parent that gives it to their kids), then you may as well presume that your recipient is likely to go postal and adopt the following approach.

1. Lower Your Own Status

Whereas I said we hate to have our status lowered, that isn’t totally accurate. We hate for other people to lower it, but we are much more relaxed about lowering our own. The reason being is that we have control over the latter approach and there’s no external threat.

Here are some examples of lowering your own status

“I remember when I first joined the company, I was way behind where you are now. In fact it probably took me a year or so before I really got my head round things”

“It’s been a tough week and to be honest I don’t think I have managed things as well as I could have done and I’m glad that I have such a great team around me including yourself”

“Wow, it’s so great how well you are doing in math, you are much better than me and your mom were at your age”

All of those openings allow you to lower your own status and thus increase the status of the other person making them feel good about themselves.

However, that’s not enough to allow you to then just dive in and starting ripping them a new one, kid gloves are still called for if we want to keep that limbic system from getting all aroused.

2. Raise Their Status

You have already done this to a certain extent, but you can go a stage further by asking solution focussed questions such as:

“What areas of your work do you think you could improve on?”

“I’m really interested in your take on how we can maximize production in your area”

“I can’t think of any way we can get this room cleaned up in time for dinner, do you have any cool ideas?”

Questions  like those achieve two purposes. Firstly, as I said, they raise the other persons status and they do so by implicitly suggesting they are the expert and they have all the answers. Secondly, they also focus on solutions rather than any problems that may exist.

A brain looking for a solution is in a completely different state to one looking to defend it’s position and status.

We rarely come up with interesting and innovative solutions when we are under attack because cognitive function deteriorates and we get bottle necks (or impasses as they are known to neuroscientists), in the brain.  The brain needs space to work on finding solutions and the best way to give it that space is to remove all threat.

So what do you reckon? I’m just a lowly Life Coach, but I’m sure you have some really cool ideas on offering feedback or stories of when it has gone horribly wrong.


Tim Brownson is a Certified Life Coach, NLP Master Practitioner and writer living in Orlando.

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31 responses

31 responses to “Taking The Whack Out of Feedback”

  1. Allison says:

    Brilliant! I am always looking for ways to keep folks at the table and in the game. This suggests some tangible strategies. It also reminds me a Margaret Wheatley point in one of books– better to be curious than certain.
    Thanks for the perspective!

  2. Dave says:


    Have you tried this in the field? What’s been the response? I’m a big fan of authentic conversation and I like this approach. Reading it though, I have to admit that “lowering my status” sounded a whole lot like a proxy for positive feedback, and “raising their status” the same for starting the areas of improvement conversation.

    If our premise is employees are pretty smart about these things and sniff out pretext easily, then is there a chance this might come of sounding like just another ploy to lesson the blow of talking about something they need to work on.

    I wonder if sometimes we over-think conversations like this. What’s so wrong with simply sitting someone down and having an honest, respectful, authentic conversation with an employee about an area of their performance you would like to see some improvement in? And do we really want to keep employees that can’t take such comments or aren’t interested in their own improvement?

    • Tim Brownson says:

      “What’s so wrong with simply sitting someone down and having an honest, respectful, authentic conversation with an employee about an area of their performance you would like to see some improvement in?”

      There’s nothing wrong with that per se, it just doesn’t work very effectively. It is almost impossible to offer feedback without kicking off somebody’s limbic system. Once that happens you are far less likely to get the desired result because it overrides the prefrontal cortex.

      As I said, some people can deal with feedback more effectively than others and avoid that happening, but it has nothing to do with respect or authenticity.

      I use it to an extent with clients if appropriate, but I never used it when I was in management because I didn’t know about it.

      • Dave says:

        We may be saying the same thing Tim, just coming at it from different angles.

        Based on your responses to some of the other comments, I think your process of raising and lowering status as an intro to a difficult conversation, is what I would simply call “respect”. It’s about coming from a place where giving you feedback on an area you are under-performing is conveyed in a positive, constructive way.

        I do manage people and have had these conversations from time to time. Perhaps my employees would disagree if I polled them anonymously, but I felt the conversations were very effective. I think the point is to give the feedback to a PERSON, not an employee. A little care, respect and honesty goes a long way.

        I agree with Maartje, if I’m not doing what you expect of me, then tell me. That’s just me though and other people are more sensitive to comments than others.

  3. Maartje says:

    I’m not sure.

    I agree that people can see the feedback sandwich coming from miles away, and I agree with the two steps of status balancing. (I do the same thing when I edit people’s work – I don’t want to come off like I know everything better, because I don’t, and I want to help people feel MORE confident and accomplished when I’m done with their piece.)

    But the first two of your ‘raise their status’ examples don’t feel status-raising to me.

    I may be paranoid (or rather, I may be more paranoid than strictly necessary), but I’ve only ever encountered the first one as a blatant trap: “So, please tell me what YOU think you’re doing wrong, and I’ll sit there sagely nodding my head and follow that by telling you what else I think you’re doing wrong.” Give ’em just enough rope to hang themselves with. I like the second one better, but it still suggests to me that performance is lacking. (Which of course is usually the case, otherwise you wouldn’t offer feedback in the first place.)

    The third one feels status-raising, but mostly because the origin of the problem isn’t assumed to be ME. :p

    Maybe it’s because I’ve never experienced comments like this with sufficient status-lowering beforehand.

    And maybe, in most cases, there’s no real way to sufficiently lower your status – if you’re my boss and you’re pointing out something I did wrong, your status is miles above mine.

    If we are equals or if there are several ways to skin a cat, and you take it upon yourself to give me feedback (whether I ask for it or you come up with it by yourself) I think this might work. Because then it’s real feedback, and not criticism disguised as feedback. That’s hopefully the case when I’m editing – the whole point is to make YOU sound better.

    If you’re my boss, if there’s only one way to do a certain thing, or if I did something that caused me to miss a deadline or a target, I don’t like this way of offering feedback any more than the sandwich. I especially don’t like that the criticism is only implied. If I failed an experiment, tell me I failed an experiment. If I forgot to call someone I promised to call, tell me I didn’t call them. If I miscounted the cash register, tell me you’re missing $54.89 since yesterday. If you just ask me general questions about how to increase my productivity, I’m more likely to raise 50 concerns that aren’t yours. That’s bad, because then you have to go “No, actually I meant X,” which is a status-quasher if I ever saw one OR go ahead without having your problem addressed. And I probably won’t get support for my 50 extra concerns, which is frustrating in itself.

    Of course, this feedback’ll still sting unless we’re on such good terms that I know you support me even if I do something stupid, but at least it’s honest. And if we THEN switch from discussing the failure to looking for solutions, I’ll get over the sting in no time.

    • Tim Brownson says:

      Maartje – the examples were very general and the post is very general. Sometimes you have to tell people when they get stuff wrong and this method isn’t for every situation.

      It is really aimed at the annual appraisal type of meeting and it is not meant to be used as an into to then tell people what they have done wrong. That is removed from the equation completely because you shift people into defense mode.

  4. steve reid says:

    Good way to handle a situation which inherently has the focus person feeling defensive/uncomfortable.

    Most of the time these people know or expect that the interaction is going to involve some critique of their behaviors or results, and unless you’ve created a culture of providing positive reinforcements without change suggestions. So there is an inherent apprehension in this one on one engagement.

    These suggestions are a good example of ‘servant leadership’ where positioning and engagement are paramount to effecting the desired changes.

    • Tim Brownson says:

      “unless you’ve created a culture of providing positive reinforcements without change suggestions”

      Precisely, and by doing this with every employee that’s exactly what you you build in time.

  5. dave r. says:

    “you’ve been great, but”…oh! the “big but”….people aren’t dumb and you’re right, they have been through this dumb process over and over…it is negative…how about this, “you’re doing great…i love what i am seeing from you and i think you can grow even more…what i would like to see from you is this…etc”…positive comments and growth…this “big but” non-sense is counter productive and negative.

    • diane says:

      @dave r: I’m so glad you mentioned the word “but.” I’d rather say “and …” because what comes after the word “but,” is typically condescending. People deserve better than that.

      I’d much rather treat people as a peer and invite them into a conversation about the situation with respect and curiosity. Who am I to think I have all the answers? Together we might come up with a solution better than either one of us alone could create.

  6. You haven’t touched on one thing I’ve found to be true about the sandwich – is that some people don’t notice the meat, or they think the sandwich is good enough the way it is. You’re so thorough and the work is so great (bread). You were two weeks late and everybody else had to work like crazy people to make up for your lateness (meat). And the big bosses loved the end product! (Bread)

    Some people walk away from that conversation thinking “Wow, I’m so awesome and the team really pulled together to bring it off.” The meat is buried in bread. Also, some people only want to receive good feedback, so that’s all that makes it through their filter.

    I’ve found that a more direct approach about the meat up front is better. As in: You know, being two weeks late with your part of the project was a real problem for me and for the other members of the team. It was great work, but the downside is overshadowing that. Them: But I didn’t get all the information I needed to do the job right until Tuesday, and I thought it was better to do it right than to turn it in on time. You: What could you have done differently? Them: I guess I should have started earlier. Or at least asked you which was a higher priority, the timing or the completeness. You: Those are both good strategies, I’d like to see you use them both in the future! Them: OK.

    At least in this example, they know there was a problem and they come out without too much angst because they have a plan for next time. There’s probably a flaw I’m not seeing, but I’ve used this approach over the years with what seems like good effect.

    • Tim Brownson says:

      I didn’t mention it Karen because in 20 years working in corporate UK and being in hundreds and hundreds of meetings I don’t ever remember seeing it happen!

  7. Wow, this turned out to be so much more than I thought it would be!

    I was imagining a scenario in which a boss or a supervisor takes an underling to lunch and buys them a sandwich to give them feedback over. Huh.

    Excellent guest post, Tim!


  8. cara says:

    I find that the best way to avoid shock and unnecessary drama at review time is to make sure to maintain regular, ongoing open and clear communication year-round. Employees should not find out at year end that they have been doing something “wrong” all year! If feedback on quality of work has been coming casually (and non-threateningly) all year, then the annual review is more a recap of staff development/performance in that particular moment in time. As you note, no one likes to be blindsided, and this goes a long way to building trust and rapport.

  9. Great post, and I’m loving the thorough, thought-full comments!

    Something that it feels like much of this dances around is the FEELINGS that come up when feedback has to be given, however it’s given. It’s like we’re trying to find the best way to keep someone from feeling awful or awkward or worried or scared, but those feelings are already present, especially in an annual review kind of situation.

    So the opportunity I see here falls along the lines of emotional intelligence on the part of the leader giving the feedback…it’s the ability to acknowledge and be with those feelings, while maintaining and supporting that the recipient of the feedback can take it, and will take it responsibly.

    I wonder what would happen if more leaders were able to start a conversation like this with something like, “Thanks for making time for your review today, Renee. I know these conversations can be a bit nerve wracking plus a lot of other stuff. How are you feeling going into our conversation today?”

    What if leaders could just *be* with the emotions of a conversation like this, and in so doing, actually create a very healthy platform for conversation, where the employee feels seen, acknowledged, and supported, all within the context of a conversation that’s full of feedback?

    Thanks for such a thought provoking post, Tim, and for such great comments, all!

  10. nicole gruen says:

    I like the concept – just like I like the concept of sandwich feedback. And both still feel inauthentic to me.

    I feel that neither of those address the real issue here. In my opinion it’s lack of trust and a inability to be with conflict.

    I trust is strong, you’ll be able to give direct criticism without trying to sugar coat it. It there is a lack of trust, I feel it could be even dangerous to be tactical about feedback.

    I favor Laura’s approach: Check in with the person, give your critique and then ‘be’ with what’s showing up.

    And like everything, I know that there is no right answer here. We are all right and all the tools and tactics work.

    • Tim Brownson says:

      We’re not talking about sugar coating – at least I’m not. Far from it.

      I’m talking about what happens inside peoples brains and how you can use that knowledge to communicate more efficiently.

      And as I said before I am generalizing massively as you have to do with t hings like this because there is never a one size fits all approach.

  11. Michael R says:

    Always knew the feedback sandwich as the “kiss, kick, kiss” process. Might be a function of the type of work environments I have been in.

    Watching a film on Bear Bryant, he talked about his feedback process; “This is what you did really well, and this is how you could do better.” That always struck me as a great way to offer feedback (especially the second part) because it tied into people’s desire for mastery.

    • Tim Brownson says:

      Yeh, that is awesome!

    • TomC says:

      Credibility goes a long way in having people receptive to criticism. Great coaches, Like Bryant, will get complete attention and respect from a player, lesser coaches will just get eye rolls.

      I imagine in a management situation there isn’t a lot of credibility, since most employees feel that they could do the job better than their manager.

      I imagine Steve Jobs can talk to a new employee and just say, “I need you to do better work”, and that would be effective, with little hit to the ego.

      I think the ego hit is very interesting. I wonder if it has less to do with starving and more to do with keeping one’s self beliefs in order. Accepting criticism for some people would mean they have to change the story they tell themselves about themselves. Seems like people would prefer to put up a fight than change their beliefs… others would just give up.

      Great post!

      • Tim Brownson says:

        Tom, I think it’s one and the same thing.

        Being forced to change your beliefs is a drop in status because by default you have to accept that the other person belief system is stronger/better/more accurate etc

    • Hi Tom and all,
      This is a great conversation. I’ve been on both sides of the performance management experience, like many of you. What I saw in Tom’s article is the idea of using language that helps an individual stay in a resourceful state. The use of the Bear Bryant example show’s the same thing happening – using language that allows a person to maintain the ability to be resourceful.

      Having been the victim/recipient of the most horrendous feedback sandwich experiences, I know what it is get stuck in a very non-resourceful state and have the internal conversation that ends with “and then I’ll be a bag lady on the street!” Now that never happened AND I had to find my own way back to my resourceful self and out of that limbic brain thing.

      The best part of this article has been the extremely thoughtful comments from everyone here including Tom’s active participation in the process. Thanks to everyone for being so resourceful!

  12. debra says:

    I tried the suggested approach with an employee multiple years ago. I ended up creating a monster. He found himself to be so wonderful that I could not get him to even consider that he needed to improve in any area. At one point his comments to me were “I am outstanding,I have always been outstanding as an employee”. Bottom line: I think the method of delivering the message is best determined by considering the characteristics of the person the message is being delivered to.

    • Tim Brownson says:

      Debra, you can always find examples that contradict any ‘rule’ we’re talking rule of thumb here. I mean it does sound like that guy was a bit buts so I’m not sure any method would have worked with him!

  13. Annie says:

    I’ve been on both sides of the aisle here (giving and receiving feedback), and as the latter, I’ve been handed all kinds of feedback – the “sandwich,” the “blindside,” the “rate yourself” checklist (which I particularly loathe). One thing I have seen repeatedly is how poorly understood the importance of genuine feedback (and status-building) is in a work environment. It’s often looked at as an eye-roll-inducing chore.

    I worked in a public (i.e., government) office for years, run by a very capable guy who’d earned a (somewhat deserved) reputation as “hard” and stern. The nature of the work this office did led inexorably to high degrees of stress and something of an “every man for himself” attitude, especially when the office’s oversight board decided to play a little political football with the office. Feedback went from scarce to nonexistent.

    Had this boss begun to employ any of the techniques suggested in this article, I think morale would have gone way up and some of his problems (he was later fired) might have evaporated. (Though I have to admit, it’s at least possible that the workers underneath him would have become even more suspicious, as people sometimes do when things are bad – any change at all becomes more fuel for the fire.)

  14. Hi All –

    To me there is no one size fits all. Understanding one’s biological responses can be helpful in framing the situation. But as with everything in life, our biology and chemical responses will vary a bit. It’s important to be both present and observant. Observant of physical signals as well as verbal ones.

    The sandwich and others are ideas, thoughts, guidelines to help. There are times it is appropriate and times I think not so much.

    For an individual who is insecure, they may need to “bread” on both sides. Others, may just want the meat and be offended by the bread if they feel it is synthetic.

    What I observe getting lost is this dialog is the intent and the emotional state of the person deliverity the message(s). For some, delivering feedback is extremely stressful. Consequently they may fumble it.

    Add to all of this the culture of the organization and group. Some foster open dialog and constructive criticism while others do not.

    While delivery style and approach impact one’s ability to “hear”, the underlying intent is just as important. Is the person delivering the message truly interested in helping the other improve or are they just “checking the box”.

    With Bear Bryant it wasn’t only the words he chose, but the honest intent to help others improve. With that intent in my mind and in your emotional center the words can matter less as the tone of voice and emotional connection will shine through. After all, nobody’s perfect.

    Cheers all.

  15. This makes a lot of sense. I agree that the positive feedback sandwich doesn’t work that well, but I think a major reason is because too many people have been trained to use it and are now consciously aware of when it is being done to them. Thus it creates the negative association or anchor that you mentioned.

    I think any new technique, once used regularly, will get same result over time. People will start recognizing the pattern and will see through it, so that they start just associating it with criticism.

    I think randomizing and not sticking to any one feedback style will probably work the best, as people will not be able to adapt to it and start seeing the patterns.