Don’t Use a “Feedback Sandwich” When Giving Criticism

by | Dec 3, 2020

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It can be stressful giving constructive feedback to a co-worker. Most of us don’t want to seem like a jerk or damage our relationship with the receiver of feedback. We often feel like we want to balance the negative feedback with positive feedback. So it’s common to give tough feedback like this:

Positive Feedback –> Negative Feedback –> Positive Feedback

That’s called a feedback sandwich.

My favorite example of this is a parody that of our firm’s head of HR had hanging on her wall:

The Blimp Caretaker’s Feedback Sandwich was Brutal:

You do a good job of turning in your time reports,

I can’t believe you lost the F*&#ing Blimp,

Thank you keeping your office so well organized.

The Problem with Feedback Sandwiches

The reason to avoid the feedback sandwich is that it obscures the message you want to give. You really want to discuss an area of improvement but a feedback sandwich muddles it with two other unrelated pieces of feedback.

Also, the receiver of the feedback may focus on the positive and overlook the negative feedback as the serial position effect means that we often best remember the first and last things in a list.

Negative Feedback is a Gift

Properly delivered constructive feedback is a gift to the receiver. Knowing what we can improve on is an essential element to growth and learning.

For example, I work with amazing editors (Tim and Laurie) for my Forbes articles and for my upcoming book (Nancy). They aren’t shy about giving feedback about my writing and as a result I’ve improved. They are polite with their feedback, but very direct. Their feedback is a gift.

The key to effective feedback is having a relationship of trust with the feedback receiver. They need to trust that you care about them and want to help their career. Feedback should be delivered directly but kindly and in the spirit of helping the receiver of the feedback. If a relationship of trust exists, there is no need to sandwich negative feedback. Rather, give both positive and negative feedback when it’s warranted and on its own.


  1. We call it feedforward. Feedback is about the past, which is out of your control at this point…forward represents the future or “next time”.

  2. Most of us go along ignoring the SMALL signs that something is beginning to go off track (usually in order not to offend or rock the boat). I call it THE WOBBLE. You know, like a shopping cart. You pull the cart out of the shopping cart line and there’s a little skip in one wheel as you do. You ignore it and start shopping. Suddenly the wheel is jamming, spinning, sticking and you have a three-wheeled cart full of groceries that won’t move.

    Relationships and teams are like that. We ignore the little skips and signs something might be wrong until there’s a full-blown issue and we try to resolve it in one meeting, or one session of feedback. What we do then is let the person know the FINAL thing (the straw that broke the project’s back) is bad, but we’ve failed to alert them to the things that led up to the great fail. Instead of waiting and dumping, why not pay attention to the little signs and give incremental feedback?

    That’s why feedback is a DAILY thing. Why?
    * It helps us focus on what is working or not working in time to make small corrections
    * It helps us ensure our team members, or coworker are on the same page
    * It lessens the sting of a meeting where you’re probably angry and your feedback receiver is confused and hurt over your anger which seems to come from nowhere. After all, you haven’t said anything prior to this. Why are you criticizing them now?

    I agree on the feedback sandwich not being the best way to approach feedback—unless you tie the positive to the negative and you end NOT with JUST a positive statement, but with a call-to-action on how THEY/WE are going to FIX the issue. Move past blame to solutions. For instance:

    “Joe, your reports on analyzing the data around the shipping numbers has been extraordinary. I love it. However, I noticed that in your emails and reports to me you didn’t include any of the shipping managers or their comments on your data. They were concerned when I tried to talk with them about the numbers and they hadn’t received copies or requests for their input. I know your work could really help the department, but not unless we can include the entire team. How can we fix this and what procedures can we put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again?”

  3. Great advice and so true!
    Thank you for these. They make my day.


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