The Shit Sandwich and Other Terrible Ways to Give Feedback

Giving feedback well is one of the manager’s most difficult skills to master, because, as famed tech founder and investor Ben Horowitz points out, it’s incredibly unnatural.

If your buddy tells you a funny story, it would feel quite weird to evaluate her performance. It would be totally unnatural to say: “Gee, I thought that story really sucked. It had potential, but you were underwhelming on the build up then you totally flubbed the punch line. I suggest that you go back, rework it and present it to me again tomorrow.” Doing so would be quite bizarre, but evaluating people’s performances and constantly giving feedback is precisely what a CEO must do.

Here are three fundamentally flawed approaches that inexperienced managers take in trying to perform the dark art of giving feedback, and how to avoid them.

The Shit Sandwich

The shit sandwich, or the praise sandwich, as some ironically call it, is a technique for giving feedback that involves sandwiching critical, truthful feedback (the shit) in between two slices of praise.

The idea behind the shit sandwich is that it’s a way to ease people into harsh feedback by starting off the conversation with complimentary praise. This surprisingly results in the exact opposite of what’s intended.

In a study at the University of Chicago, behavioral science professor Ayelet Fishbach conducted a simulation in which she divided a class in half and instructed one half to give negative feedback to the other. Amazingly enough, the half receiving feedback thought “they [were] doing great.”

Why did they walk away with a positive impression of their performance when the students giving feedback set out to let their them know that their performance was unsatisfactory? “Negative feedback is often buried and not very specific,” according to Fishbach. In other words, when you feed someone a shit sandwich, they’re liable to walk away licking their lips.

Below-the-Line Discourse

Feedback conversations can often devolve into “one big pile of information” from which “data points [are chosen] almost at random,” according to Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world. Dalio calls these “below the line” conversations, where it’s difficult to derive a coherent sense of what the feedback is to begin with and what steps can be made to improve.

Imagine your feedback organized in outline-form, with main points and then subordinate points organized beneath them. Below-the-line conversations focus on the subordinate points without connecting to the broader, fundamental points about an employee’s performance.

[S]uppose your major point is: “Sally can do that job well.” In an above-the-line conversation, the discussion of her qualities would target the question of Sally’s capacity to do her job. As soon as agreement was reached on whether she could perform competently, you would pass to the next major point—such as what qualities are required for that job. In contrast, a below-the-line discussion would focus on Sally’s qualities for their own sake, without relating them to whether she can do her job well. The discussion might cover qualities that are irrelevant to the job. While both levels of discussion touch on minor points, “above the line” discourse will always move coherently from one major point to the next in much the same way as you can read an outline in order to fully understand the whole concept and reach a conclusion.

According to Peter Sims, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, brain scans have shown how people start holding back when they encounter judgmental language. Below-the-line feedback can have this inhibiting effect, as unfocused, disjunctive statements are bound to come off as overcritical and disapproving when they’re not tied to purpose.

One-Size Fits All Feedback

One of the biggest mistakes by managers is to take a singular approach to giving feedback. This usually originates from the misconception of the person giving feedback that it’s all about his emotional need to express himself, not the usefulness of feedback to the recipient in helping her adjust and improve.

In Horowitz’s words, “[s]tylistically, your tone should match the employee’s personality not your mood.”

A recent research paper published in The Journal of Consumer Research showed a specific type of tailoring that’s required for giving impactful feedback. The researchers found that the type of feedback that people prefer to receive is dependent on whether they’re an expert or novice. Experts are more likely to seek out negative feedback, while beginners need positive feedback and encouragement to gain confidence in their new endeavor.

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As with language, mastering the art of giving feedback is a skill that gets better with practice. And when feedback is approached as a more frequent, real conversation rather than an event that becomes stilted, anxiety-filled, and unproductive, it then becomes a sharp, valuable tool for improvement and growth. Approach giving feedback the way tackle your  work overall — with purpose, directness, and empathy — and you’ll start getting through.


Images: [1] Mike Licht [2] Amorette Dye.

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