I got an email from a colleague the other day at the place I volunteer. We have parallel roles — she heads up one organization, and I head up another. The first paragraph was filled with praise about how she admired my work and my parenting (really). As I read this, I knew what was coming next: a criticism.

I was not disappointed. The second paragraph was about what I was doing wrong, and how she would change it if she were me.

In true feedback sandwich style, paragraph three was glowing praise for me again.

Now, in theory, this feedback sandwich — bad news sandwiched between the Wonder Bread of praise — is how you are supposed to do it. It’s supposed to soften the blow of the bad news. Instead it made me cringe. Now, if this woman had regularly sent me emails praising my parenting, it would have been fine, but she doesn’t.

Positive feedback and praise are essential to a good working relationship. The problem is saving the good feedback only to balance the bad news.

This is the problem with the feedback sandwich: People only give you praise when they are trying to butter you up so you don’t get angry at their negative feedback. It feels false and forced — mainly because it is false and forced. I can imagine my colleague sitting in front of her computer saying, “I really need to tell Suzanne that she needs to change A, B and C, but what can I say that’s positive? I know! She’s a great mom!” (Natch.) What would I have preferred to receive? Honestly, an email that said, “Hey Suzanne, I was thinking that perhaps your organization would run more smoothly if you changed the following things. What do you think?” That would have felt natural and not forced.

This is not to say that you should only give criticism. On the contrary — positive feedback and praise are essential to a good working relationship. The problem is saving the good feedback only to balance the bad news. Here’s what you should be doing instead:

Give feedback — good and bad — when warranted. Yep, it’s that simple.

When your employee handles a difficult client gracefully and solves a major problem say, “Wow, Jane, that was awesome how you handled that client!” Don’t hang onto that information to use when you want to tell her that she screwed up the invoicing. Instead, when she makes a mistake with invoicing say, “Hey Jane, these invoices aren’t correct. Can you fix it?”

Unless your employee is a complete failure (in which case she should be on a performance improvement plan), she will be receiving a lot more positive feedback than negative feedback. The feedback is still sandwiched, but it’s not forced. There can be days between positive and negative feedback, and that’s fine. Your employee knows that you’ll not only tell her when she makes mistakes, but will tell her when she does it right.

Sometimes negative and positive feedback belong together. For instance, if Joe does a great job with a repair but communicates poorly with the customer, it’s OK to praise the repair and criticize the communication at the same time because both are sincere.

And that’s the key to great feedback — it’s sincere and timely. No more Wonder Bread feedback sandwiches. They don’t provide the nourishment your employees need.

About Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne LucasSuzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. She now writes about Human Resources and Business for a number of different publications.

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