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.
Most importantly, you won’t be feeding them shit.