It’s time to break our addiction to metrics — starting with employee engagement.
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
I think this statement is bullshit.
While I have utmost respect for Peter Drucker, whom I believe the quote is attributed to, I take issue with this statement’s over-the-top, rampant usage in the business world.
Whether it’s net promoter scores for customers, A/B tests for prospects, or KPIs for employee performance, we’re addicted to measuring whatever we can in our businesses. Sometimes, it’s helpful (say most notably, when measuring revenue and expenses!). But other times, it’s not.
The more I find myself trying to measure everything in our company, the more I find myself asking… Why?
We default to measuring things because it give us some semblance of control. When we can plot a line graph that says where we were yesterday versus today, a small sense of comfort is gained. That blip in the line is progress, right? Self-worth now validated! We think to ourselves: “Phew, I guess we’re kinda doing okay now.”
Our addiction to measuring things in our business is perhaps most apparent when it comes to employee engagement. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me if our software, Know Your Team, measures employee engagement. Each time, I tell them resoundingly, “No.”
We do not measure employee engagement, and we never will.
Why? I don’t believe employee engagement is something that can be measured. How engaged, motivated, and fulfilled a person is cannot be defined by a number. Think about it. What does a 6 really mean on a 10 point scale? Can you really tell how engaged that person is off that one arbitrary indicator?
Employee engagement is ultimately qualitative. So instead of trying to turn something that’s qualitative into something that’s quantitative, just stop trying to quantify it at all.
Consider: Why are you trying to measure employee engagement in the first place? Is it because you want to better understand how people are feeling in your company so you can improve your company’s work environment? If so, that’s great! But trying to assign a numerical value to the way employees feel is not going to solve the underlying problem of employees not feeling heard, valued or respected.
You want insights, not numbers. You want truth, not graphs.
If you notice employees suffering from low morale or a lack of motivation in your company, that’s not a problem caused by a lack of metrics or charts. That’s a communication problem. That’s a relationship problem. That’s a people problem.
If you want to know if people are unhappy, ask them. If you want to know what they think about the company’s direction, ask them. If you want to know if people are getting along with their manager, ask them.
Instead of wasting your time trying to quantify, triangulate, and score your company culture’s health or employee engagement over time… simply talk to your employees.
Ask them relevant, insightful questions. Listen carefully. Thank them for their input. Take action on what makes sense. I promise you’ll make more progress improving employee engagement in your company by doing those things than by trying to measure it.
Break free of the addiction to measure employee engagement. Your time will be better spent.
I’ve always believed that getting to know your company better requires more than using a piece of software alone. Yes, Know Your Company has been helpful to thousands of people all over the world…
But if you want to foster a sustainable culture of feedback within your team, you have to change how you do things day in, day out. You have to shift your mindset. You have to practice a methodology.
We’ve spent the past three years developing that methodology. And finally, we created a resource to share it with you.
Today, we’re launching our brand new Knowledge Center — a place for every employee, manager and CEO to learn our methodology on how to cultivate open, honest workplace environments.
Based on insights and data we’ve collected from over 15,000 employees at hundreds of companies in 25 countries, we’ve distilled all our learnings into 21 chapters I’ve written for our Knowledge Center.
These chapters are organized into six different topic areas…
Blindspots: How to uncover common leadership pitfalls.
Asking for feedback: How to get employees talking about how they actually feel (and not just what they think you want to hear).
Receiving feedback: How to receive feedback in the right way to encourage employees to open up more.
Acting on feedback: How to handle feedback once you receive it.
Creating a culture of feedback: How to build a sustainable culture of feedback within your team.
Most of the chapters are a quick 2–3 minute read. A few take around 5–7 minutes to get through. So you can read just one if you’re short on time. Or you can take a deep dive and immerse yourself in an entire guide, while you’re on the train etc.
To me, this Knowledge Center gets us one step closer to creating a world where everyone can communicate openly and honestly at work. We hope reading and subscribing to the Knowledge Center helps you get one step closer to feeling that way at work, too.
I’m an introvert. Most people don’t believe me when I tell them this (I do a lot of public speaking for an introvert 😳), but I am an introvert through-and-through. When I need to recharge, I seek alone time as opposed to being around a group people.
As an introvert, I also tend to avoid questions that seem overly personal or require long, drawn-out answers. Honestly, it can feel draining to divulge so much of myself and talk all the time.
Early in my career, I remember how this played out at work: My boss at the time would ask me for feedback about the company… And I struggled to answer his questions candidly. As introvert, I never felt comfortable being 100% transparent with him about what I thought could be better in the company.
I’m embarrassed thinking back on what was probably viewed as avoidant, disengaged behavior. It’s not that I didn’t want to be honest — I just didn’t know how.
Little did I know that, on the other end as a manager, it’s possible to create a work environment where introverts like me can feel comfortable giving their feedback. Having studied this issue and gathered insights from thousands of employees we work with through Know Your Team, I now know how to build a workplace where quieter employees feel comfortable speaking up.
Here are 11 things you can do and say today to encourage even your most introverted employee to be more forthcoming with you…
1. Set up a time to talk in advance.
My former boss used to walk up to an employee’s desk and ask her, “How are things going?” or “Wanna go grab coffee in like 10 minutes and have a quick one-on-one?” While these seem like positive, well-intentioned gestures on the surface, I remember these “surprise” requests for feedback feeling abrupt and off-putting to me as an employee. As introverts, we prefer having time to reflect, process, and prepare what we might want to share. So asking for feedback on-the-spot without a heads up doesn’t jive. Instead, set up time to ask for feedback in advance. For example you might say: “Hey ____, I would love an opportunity to grab some time with you, and simply listen to what you think could be better in the company. Do you have any time later this week or next?”
2. Be clear on the “why.”
Are you asking for feedback to “check a box” because it’s something leaders are “supposed to do”? Or do you genuinely believe that your employees’ feedback is paramount to the business as a whole? If it’s the latter, make that clear. (And if it’s the former, here’s a bit of data to understand why employee feedback matters). Oftentimes, introverts like myself don’t speak up because it’s unclear why our feedback is being asked for and if it will be valued. If I don’t hear the “why,” then I’m not going to put in the extra energy to share feedback that already feels unnatural for me to share in the first place.
As a manager, you must reveal the “why” behind you asking for feedback and show your employees why their feedback matters to you. For instance, you can say something like: “The reason I’m asking for your input is because I truly believe your suggestions will help the company get to where it needs to be in the long run.”
3. Ask “what” instead of “any.”
When you’re asking your quieter employees for feedback, pay attention to the exact words in the questions you’re asking. Using the word “what” instead of “any” invites a greater response to a question. For example, when you ask, “Do you have any feedback on how the last client meeting went?” it’s very easy for the person to default and say “no.” But when you ask, “What could have been better in that last client meeting?” that question assumes that there are things that could be better. Asking “what” instead of “any” opens the opportunity for someone to provide a more honest answer.
4. “Time box” your question.
Give your employees a specific timeframe to contextualize their feedback the next time you ask them a question. This helps more introverted employees in particular think of feedback that is more concrete to share with you. I call this “time boxing.” For example, rather than asking, “What could we do better?” which usually leads to generic, vague responses, I’ll ask, “What’s something in the past 2 weeks that we could’ve done better? ” When you narrow that frame of reference to “the past two weeks,” it’s much easier for the other person to respond. She or he is now reflecting on just the past two weeks, instead of having to jog their memory for the past year or more.
5. Ask about “one thing.”
Not only do I try to contextualize questions to specific timeframe, but I try to ask about one thing, instead of leaving a question open-ended. For example, instead of asking, “What could we have improved on in that last project?” you should ask, “What one thing in the last project could we have improved on?” By asking for “one thing,” you make the question much less overwhelming for an introverted employee to answer. And the less overwhelming the question is, the more likely it is that you’ll get a candid, in-depth answer.
6. Ask: “I feel X didn’t go well. Would you agree or disagree?”
Another way to create a safe environment for your quieter employees to open up is to admit something you’re struggling with yourself. This is particularly helpful when you’re noticing radio silence from an employee. For example, let’s say you ask her or him, “What’s one thing about the last project we could have improved on?” And the other person is clamming up and can’t seem to think of anything (even though you asked about “one thing”). Try sharing something you think didn’t go well, and say: “I feel like I personally didn’t do the best job at X. Would you agree or disagree?” This vulnerability gives permission to the other person to be critical about something they might not otherwise be.
7. Look to the future.
People tend to be more honest when you ask them about the future versus the past. This is because giving feedback about the past can feel like a negative critique about what went wrong, while giving feedback about the future is seen as a forward-looking, creative opportunity to make things better. Use this to your advantage when looking to get honest feedback from a quieter employee. For example, you can ask: “Going forward, what’s one thing you think we should try doing as a company to improve our marketing?” instead of “What should we have done to prevent the marketing initiative from failing in the past?” See how the first question about the future seems much more positive and inviting compared to the second question about the past.
8. Bring a notebook.
Whether or not you consider yourself an avid notetaker, bring a notebook to your next one-on-one with your employee. When you have a notebook in front of you and a pen in hand, you’re indicating that you’re ready to listen, absorb, and take notes on the feedback the other person is giving you. It also demonstrates that you’re not entering the conversation with an already fixed agenda of what you want to get out of it. For an introverted employee, this is especially important, as it reassures her or him that the energy it will take to open up and give honest feedback will be worth it.
9. Say thank you.
Showing gratitude to an employee who shares a dissenting point-of-view is one of the most effective ways to encourage her or him to be honest with you… Yet it’s something we often forget to do. Get into the habit of regularly saying, “I appreciate that viewpoint” or “It means a lot to hear that” or simply “Thank you” every time an employee gives you feedback. When you do, you prove that candid feedback is welcome — even if it’s an opinion you might not outright agree with. Your quieter employees will be more willing to open up again the next time around, if you show gratitude for their input.
10. Be quiet.
Perhaps the best way to show someone who is more introverted that you want to listen to their feedback is to do that: Just listen. Be quiet. Don’t rebut. Don’t talk. Don’t think about what you’re going to say next. Just listen. Why? Typically, when you respond right away, you come across as defensive. And when you come across as defensive, it means you didn’t really want to hear the feedback. This will discourage an employee from sharing their honest feedback with you in the future.
If you do feel like you need respond, you can say something like: “I’m grateful to you for sharing that. Let me take some time to digest what you’re saying and get back to you.” Introverts in particular recognize silence not as an absence of thought, but as a space for deep thinking. They’ll respect that you’re not trying to counter every point or talk over them.
11. Let her or him know WHEN you’ll follow up — and stick to it.
The biggest reason why quieter employees tend to not be as forthcoming with feedback is because of the sense of futility: It feels futile to give feedback because no action will be taken. In fact, studies have shown that futility is the #1 reason employees don’t speak up at work. This means in order to overcome the sense of futility and get honest feedback from your employees, you must communicate how you’re going to close the loop about a piece of feedback that’s been given to you.
To do this, the next time an employee shares some salient feedback with you, try saying: “This is a helpful piece of feedback. I’m going to chew on it and get back to you by next Friday on how we’ll more forward.” Or if it’s something you can take action on immediately, you can say: “Because you shared this, I’m going to change X for our next project.” If it’s something that requires some time to think through, you can say: “Can we follow-up 2 weeks from now, and I’ll have an update on where I think we should go from here?” Notice in each of these examples, I’m very specific about when I will follow up with the employee. Make sure you do the same to show you’re serious about acting on their feedback or resolving their issue in some way.
These tactics are helpful not only in asking for feedback from introverted employees, per se. As managers, founders, and CEOs, we all have at least one employee who we wish we heard from more regularly: An employee in our company who we might not see all the time, an employee who we haven’t developed a strong personal rapport with yet, or an employee who we’re dying to know what she or he really thinks.
The next time you’re wanting to get honest feedback from one of these employees, try a few of these 11 suggestions. It’s as simple as setting up a time to talk in advance or bringing a notebook (or both!).
You’ll hear more honest feedback from your employee than ever before.
Listen closely for the word “fine.” It’s never the whole story.
Growing up, my family and I moved around quite a bit. From Georgia to Washington to Ohio to Minnesota… People assumed we were a military family because of how often we moved. But that wasn’t the case.
Each time, we moved because of my dad’s job.
My dad has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. His first job coming out of his doctorate program was building robots to clear nuclear waste (nuts, right?). He did that for a few years, but then wanted to get into teaching. So we moved to where he could go teach at a university. After teaching for a handful of years, he wanted to work in business. So we moved again.
With each move, it was clear: There was something more he desired from his job. More growth opportunities, more autonomy, more ways to improve the environment around him.
As a kid, these moves began to wear on me. I had to change schools, make new friends, and be “The New Kid” all over again. It was exhausting. I became perpetually curious: Are we going to have to move again soon? How much is he enjoying his current job?
To get to the bottom of this, I asked my dad one question every day when he would come home from work:
“How’s work going?”
He’d often say the same thing:
That’s what he’d say… But soon enough we would pack up and move yet again. Clearly, things were not “fine.”
This was the first time I observed the disconnect between what we say and how we actually feel — especially in regards to how we feel about our work. This observation stuck with me for a long time.
Years later, after starting my first company when I was 22, I decided to take some time off and go work for someone else. I landed at an early stage e-commerce company right outside Chicago.
I’d been at this e-commerce company for about a year-and-a-half as an employee. One day, I was coming home on the train and I started to reflect on if I was liking my job.
I remember asking myself:
“How’s work going?”
And at the time, I recall thinking to myself:
I laughed. What a familiar situation I’d found myself in. Here I was saying the word “fine” the same way my dad said it to me years earlier.
Just like my dad, things at my job weren’t “fine” at all. I was frustrated with feeling like I couldn’t speak up at work. I felt stifled as an employee, even in such a small company. I was deeply unsatisfied with my job.
Things were not “fine” even though I was saying they were.
I ended up quitting that job to start my own consulting practice helping other employees not feel “fine” about their work. This journey eventually led me to become the CEO of Know Your Team in January 2014.
Now I pay close attention when people use the word, “fine.” Whether I’m asking an employee questions during a one-on-one, or I’m asking a client how things are going, I keenly listen for the word “fine” in her or his response.
To me, “fine” is the ultimate indicator of apathy and discontent. “Fine” means a standard is barely being met. “Fine” means there’s the potential for something to be better. “Fine” means there’s more to learn and dig into.
I’m sharing three years-worth of findings, based on data from 15,000 employees in 15+ countries through Know Your Team…
When’s the last time you had a one-on-one or performance review with an employee… and you learned something completely new?
Don’t think too hard 🙂 If you’re like most CEOs and managers, getting new, surprising insights from employees doesn’t happen very often. Oftentimes, when we’re asking for honest feedback, we simply receive a confirmation of what we want to hear.
We learn, “Oh okay, it seems like everything is fine” or “I already knew that was an issue, so it’s all good there.”
But what about the stuff you don’t know? How do you discern if an employee has an idea to improve the company that she hasn’t brought up yet? How do you figure out if an employee is frustrated with her manager? Or, how can you tell if she’s thinking about leaving?
That’s where we at Know Your Team come in. We’ve spent the past three years researching, writing and refining hundreds of questions across almost 300 companies with 15,000 employees in 15+ countries.
From our 312+Know Your Team questions, below are the best nine that we’ve found to yield the most interesting insights for companies…
#1: “Are you afraid of anything at work?”
Our findings: 67% of employees said, “Yes, I’m afraid of something at work” (753 employees answered this across 89 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. This result caught me off guard (almost 70% of employees are afraid of something at work!) but it goes to show the importance of showing vulnerability as a leader and digging deep to uncover the areas of the company (or people in the company) that employees may feel intimidated by.
#2: “Have you seen something recently and thought to yourself ‘I wish we’d done that’?”
Our findings: 75% of employees said, “Yes, I’ve seen something recently, and thought to myself, ‘I wish we’d done that’” (1,338 employees answered this across 221 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. Clearly, employees are noticing what competitors are doing and may have ideas for you to improve the business. Asking this question helps bring to light what those ideas are.
#3: “Is there something we should measure in the company that we currently don’t?”
Our findings: 78% of employees said, “Yes, there’s something we should measure in the company that we currently don’t” (286 employees answered this across 78 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. This reveals a need to more closely examine the metrics we use to run our businesses, and ask employees if there’s anything not being measured that should be.
#4: “Is there any part of the company you wish you were able to interact with more?”
Our findings: 81% of employees said, “Yes, there’s a part of the company I wish I were able to interact with more” (507 employees answered this across 72 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. An overwhelming majority of the employees we surveyed feel silo-ed. By asking this question, you’ll learn exactly which parts of the company they’d like more interaction with, be it a specific department or office.
#5: “Are there any benefits we don’t offer that you’d like to see us offer?”
Our findings: 76% said “Yes, there are benefits we don’t offer that I’d like to see us offer” (1,807 employees answered this across 179 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. You may be thinking, “Ugh, of course most of my employees want more benefits”… However, what’s most revealing with this question is which benefits your employees are looking for. Many of the companies who asked this specific question have added key benefits that have helped retain employees, or even gotten rid of benefits no one is using. You never know unless you ask.
#6: “Is there an area outside your current role where you feel you could be contributing?”
Our findings: 76% of employees said, “Yes, there’s an area outside my current role where I feel I could be contributing” (814 employees answered this across 135 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. This result is surprising, considering that most managers feel their employees are slammed and are already at capacity. Thus, this question all the more important to ask: You’ll learn very tactically where your employees want to contribute more to help push your business even further.
#7: “Is there anyone at the company you wish you could apprentice under for a few weeks?”
Our findings: 92% of employees said, “Yes, there’s someone at the company I wish I could apprentice under for a few weeks” (2,217 employees answered across 190 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. This shows how much employees crave learning and developing their skills — especially from others within the company. Asking this question will expose to you if this is similarly the case within your own company.
#8: “Have you seen someone here do great work that’s gone unnoticed?”
Our findings: 76% of employees said, “Yes, I’ve seen someone here do great work that’s gone unnoticed” (1,485 employees answered across 209 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. Based off this data, it’s highly-likely that employees in your company may feel under-appreciated. The answers to this question can help you discover which exact projects or areas of the company that employees would like more gratitude and recognition shown in.
#9: “Are there things you don’t know about the company that you feel you should know?”
Our findings: 55% of employees said “Yes, there are things I don’t know about in my company that I feel like I should know” (3,197 employees answered this across 702 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. Employees want to know more about the company —the company’s vision, people’s roles, why certain policies exist, etc. When you ask this question, you quickly get to the core of what those things are.
How many of these 9 questions are you asking in your own company? The next time you go grab coffee with an employee or have a quarterly one-on-one, consider asking one (or all!) of these questions. I guarantee you’ll learn at least one insight that is completely new and surprising.
I was in Hawaii last week walking along the Manoa Falls Trail, when our guide who was taking us through stopped us.
We all shook our heads, “no.”
“Okay, well that’s good,” he said. “If we had, it would have been the sound of the albizia tree limb cracking. You have to be careful if you hear that noise, The albizia tree limb could be cracking above your head… and onto your head.”
Our guide went on to explain that albizias are one of the largest, fastest growing trees in the world. Yet the albizia tree has one big problem: Their wood is weak and brittle.
As a result, albizia trees often topple and split, causing damage to other plant life around them — and to people. In Hawaii, albizia trees have become such a hazard, there are active efforts to preemptively remove them before they get too big and dangerous.
Tall and fast on the outside, weak and brittle on the inside. Looking at these trees, it made me think of businesses too. How the companies I’ve seen that seem big, tall and fast-growing cripple and implode internally. Preoccupied with raising as much money as they can and spending as much money as they can, these companies operate without regard to profitability, how well they’re solving a real problem, and if their team’s culture is healthy. Without strong insides, they don’t last long. And like albizia trees, they leave a wake of damage for others to clean up when they fall.
Even in nature, the things that grow too fast don’t survive.
to give power to (someone); to make (someone) stronger and more confident.
The key words here are “give” and “make.” Empowerment means you’re transferring power to someone else. You think someone else needs you — your permission, your influence, your talents — to do something. And I don’t ever believe that’s the case.
Our employees don’t need me to do anything.
When it comes to motivation, everything people need they already have inside them. Each person has something unique, special and important to offer the world. And as a leader, it’s my job to merely create the best environment that allows them to come into that themselves.
As Frederick Herzberg, a well-known American psychologist, once wrote:
“It’s the job of the manager not to light the fire of motivation, but to create an environment to let each person’s personal spark of motivation blaze.”
Instead of thinking about how you can empower people, here’s what you should consider:
How can I get out of our employees’ way?
How can I better understand what our employees really want?
How can I make it clear why what they do matters?
How can I uncover what makes meaningful, interesting work for that person?
How can I illustrate what “good enough” looks like?
How can I show what trade-offs we value as a company?
How can I consistently treat each person with respect, patience, and kindness?
How can I seek out dissenting viewpoints, and be open to new ideas?
How can I be clear and inclusive about the vision we’re all working toward?
How can I create opportunities for connection and a sense of belonging at our company?
You don’t need to empower anybody. Focus on creating an environment for people to be their best selves.
No, I didn’t get surgery. No, I was not mauled by a bear.
I went snowboarding for the very first time over New Year’s.
The experience was brutal, needless to say. I fell probably a hundred times. Over and over and over. For those of you who’ve learned to snowboard before, you know what I’m talking about 🙂
Surprisingly, the most painful part of the experience was not the physical aching of my knees or my wrists or my butt.
Rather, the greatest pain I felt was a sinking sensation I had in the pit of my stomach: I was reallybad at snowboarding. I wasn’t picking it up “as fast as I thought I was supposed to.” I was frustrated and embarrassed.
I recall thinking to myself, “Maybe snowboarding just isn’t meant for me…”
Then, I tried to remember the last time I felt this way. When was the last time I was this bad at something?
I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember the last time I was this outside my comfort zone. I hadn’t dared to suck at something — to allow myself to be vulnerable, to look a little “dumb” to my friends — in a very, very long time.
As adults, we gravitate toward the things that we initially have the least resistance to. The new hobbies I’ve tried to pick up as an adult — whether it’s screen printing or yin yoga — are all things I’ve already had a predisposition for. I’ve already been painting and doing yoga for quite a while. It wasn’t a stretch to try those new mediums and related activities.
But with snowboarding, I was in foreign territory. I wasn’t predisposed to snowboarding. And I’d forgotten the importance of doing the things you’re not predisposed to.
When you let yourself be bad at something, you regain your humility. Sucking at something humbles you. As adults, we protect our egos by not allowing ourselves to be bad at things.
You also remember what the point of learning is: to learn. When you learn, you mess around and you mess up. You’re not supposed to be proficient from the get-go.
And, you rediscover that persistence leads to progress. Day 3 of snowboarding was 10X better than Day 1. I got better. In fact, I got back from my second snowboarding trip just yesterday… and I did a few runs without falling once!
I couldn’t be more grateful that I was so bad at snowboarding. It was the reminder I needed to push myself outside my comfort zone more often. To fight the instinct to expect excellence when I learn something new.
Consider using this one word in your next one on one meeting…
A few years ago, a CEO told me how she was struggling to get honest feedback from her board.
No one seemed willing to be critical or give her pointers on things she could improve. After every board meeting, she would turn to them and ask directly:
“What feedback does anyone have for me?”
She’d hear crickets. Every single time.
No one would speak up. Even though they were board members — people who are supposed to hold her accountable as the CEO of the company — they shied away from offering their honest input.
This was so perplexing to the CEO. She felt like she was being very clear with what she wanted… Why weren’t they just giving her the feedback she was asking for?
One day, she decided to try something different.
Instead of asking, “What feedback does anyone have for me?”… she asked this:
“What advice does anyone have for me?”
All of sudden, everyone started weighing in. “Well I might try this…” and “The way you brought up this point could’ve been better…” and “You could try structuring the meeting like this…”
The word “advice” unlocked all the honest feedback that CEO needed.
Why? The word “feedback’” carries a lot of baggage. To some, they automatically associate it with a “critique” or something negative. It can seem scary and formal.
But “advice” is a much more welcoming word. Advice is about lending someone a hand. When someone gives you advice, they’re just looking out for you.
And when you ask for advice, it’s an invitation. You’re signaling that another person has expertise or knowledge that you find interesting and valuable. That person is often flattered you even asked for advice in the first place.
Who doesn’t love to give advice? 🙂
The next time you’d like to get honest feedback, try asking for advice instead. Notice how much more people open up to you. See how swapping that one word makes a difference.
One of the most popular methods of delivering feedback is, well, shit. Here’s why and what you should do instead…
I recently ran into a friend who mentioned how she uses the Shit Sandwich to deliver feedback.
If you’re not familiar with it, the Shit Sandwich is a technique for delivering feedback popularized by the classic management read, The One Minute Manager. It’s when you layer your feedback “good-bad-good.” You say one complimentary thing to your coworker (one slice of bread), then offer the critique or piece of feedback (the “shit” filling in the middle), and then bookend it with another complimentary comment (the other slice of bread).
My friend and I went back and forth about it. We disagreed. I don’t think the Shit Sandwich works at all.
On the surface, it seems like a solid tactic. You help the person know what they’re doing well, which is great. It’s always good to give positive reinforcement. And it’s nice to know there’s a handy framework when you’re in an uncomfortable situation. Telling someone what they might not want to hear is never fun.
However, the Shit Sandwich can easily backfire. Here’s why…
Most people have been fed the Shit Sandwich before — so they know what’s coming. You’re not doing anyone any favors by trying to add cushioning before and after the bad news.
It feels disingenuous.
Because it’s predictable and feels formulaic, it can come across as fake. As a result, the good things you said will be labeled as “not true” because, to the recipient, it’ll feel like you were obligated to say these “good things.”
People tune out the good, and zoom in on the bad.
Oftentimes, even if what you point out as the “good things” will be cast aside entirely. People tend to have heightened sensitivity about what’s being critiqued when they know what’s coming, and when the “good stuff” feels fake.
The reality is that the Shit Sandwich doesn’t make the other person feel comfortable — it only makes you feel comfortable. No one likes to be seen as “the bad guy” or a heartless leader. So you pepper in the “good stuff” around the “bad stuff” to make you feel more comfortable in delivering the news.
You layer the feedback “good-bad-good” for your own benefit. Not theirs. Seems pretty shitty, to me.
If anything, the Shit Sandwich should be called what it is because you’re simply feeding the other person shit.
So what should you do instead? Instead of layering your feedback “good-bad-good,” try this…
Come from a place of care.
You’re giving feedback because you care. You deeply care about this person’s personal and career growth. You deeply care about the project’s success. You want both the person and the company to thrive. Communicate these things. Ask yourself: “What can I say to let this person know that this feedback is coming from a place of care and helpfulness? How do I let this person know I have good intentions, and that I’m not trying to spite them or be rude?” As you deliver the piece of critical feedback, make this clear.
For example, you could say something like: “I’m saying this because I believe in you and I want you to succeed…” or “This is important to me because I care about the company’s direction as a whole…” or “This matters to me because I only want to ensure that we perform well as a team…”
Come from a place of observation.
We’re often worried that the person is going to take any negative feedback personally. This is big reason why we layer our feedback with the Shit Sandwich of good-bad-good. It’s to say, “Hey look, I don’t think you’re a bad person… see these things I like about you!” Instead, look to communicate your feedback more objectively. Come from a place of observation. Focus on the actions and the situation of what happened — what you observed — and not the personal attributes or characteristics of the person.
For example, if you think a coworker wrote a sloppy email to the client, instead of saying: “I think you’re careless and sloppy”… you could say, “I noticed that in the email you wrote, there were a few careless mistakes that seemed sloppy.” See the difference? The former makes it about the person, while the latter makes it about your observations on what has happened.
Come from a place of fallibility.
Your feedback is not infallible. Don’t forget that your feedback is only an interpretation of what you observed, and your own perspective of how things can improve going forward. Your perspective is not a universal truth. You could be wrong. Be willing to admit that your feedback, while it’s something you strongly believe in, is colored by your own personal lens. Ask yourself: “How can I remind this person that this feedback is only my opinion ? That this isn’t the word of God, that mistakes happen, that there may be information I’m missing?”
A few examples of how you can do this is to say directly: “I might be wrong…” or “I might be off…” or to ask, “Is there any information that you think I might be missing?”
Come from a place of curiosity.
When you give feedback, it should feel like a conversation. No one likes being talked at. Your time to give feedback also as a time to listen to what the other person thinks, as well. Be curious. Consider: “How does this person feel about my feedback? Was there anything I might have misinterpreted or overlooked? Is there anything that I can be doing better to help support the other person?” You want to invite the person to give their side of their story.
To do this, simply ask after sharing your feedback: “What do you think?”
When you’re curious, you’re signaling that you value hearing their perspective on what happened. You’re not mad, upset, or resentful. You see the moment of giving feedback as an opportunity to learn and get better as a leader, yourself.
Sure, all the tactics I’m describing are a little more complex than the catchy “Shit Sandwich” moniker. And yes, they require a bit more nuance and effort to do well.
But when you come from a place of care, observation, fallibility, and curiosity — it makes for a much more honest and productive conversation. You’re going to get a better result.
The person on the other side is going to feel like you’re really trying to help them… which is the whole point of giving feedback, after all. They’re going to feel like you’re giving them a real, meaningful critique.