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.
Join our Email List for Weekly Updates
And join this amazing community of makers and doers. You know you wanna...