The Feedback Sandwich

‘Flavour-of-the-month’ techniques at work

One of the things that I’ve noticed in delivering management development trainings over the past couple of decades is the widespread cynicism about… management techniques.

This isn’t surprising when you consider the number of too-short technique workshops, with methods which often contradict one another, that many managers have to attend.13098020_s

Their cynicism is sad and it’s great!

  • It’s great that so many people now recognise that management and leadership is about how you engage with people – and not just about having a bag of tricks to get your own way.
  • It’s sad because the baby is often thrown out with the bathwater, as they say. If  you want to effectively engage with people there are some excellent tools available for doing this. But… unless these are based on a principle-led attitude towards people they are likely to not work or to backfire.

The Appraisals Workshop

Take the idea of ‘How to make staff appraisals positive and encouraging”’ Many managers have learned to do this in a mechanical manner and using techniques in which they have little or no belief.

Take new manager Sarah, for example. Sarah has been to her organisation’s latest quickie workshop – this one was on how to do magnificent appraisals and she has learned the 5, 10 or 20 ‘essential tools’ for managing appraisals.

She has probably learned a technique for

  • putting people at ease
  • making good eye contact
  • having ‘good’ body language i.e. not folding her arms or crossing her legs
  • looking sincere, saying ‘Umm..hmmm…’ and nodding a lot when listening
  • setting SMART objectives and establishing milestones
  • eliciting ‘commitment’
  • etc, etc.


…she has probably also learned The Feedback Sandwich! – that much-derided technique for coating the bitter pill of criticism with a little sugar to make it easier to digest!

The Feedback Sandwich

This is actually a great way to blend both pleasant and not-so-welcome messages in an appraisal. In it’s simplest form you tell the person:

  1. Something you like
  2. Something you don’t like
  3. Something else you like.

So the ‘not like’ bit is sandwiched between the ‘liked’ bits and the person leaves the session feeling good because things ended on a high note.

If it is used with skill and with sincerity it works very well in

  • managing people
  • appraisals
  • being an effective parent
  • coaching

Unfortunately it is rarely used effectively – because it is rarely used sincerely.

Which is why it is better known as the Bullshit Sandwich.

The Bull**** Sandwich

Sarah, fresh from her sheep-dip workshop in appraisal techniques, decides to try her new techniques out in her appraisal with Mike and it goes something like this:

  1. “I liked how you handled Project A – that was quite successful and saved us a lot of money…but…” (Time taken 3 minutes)
  2. “… we need to address your time-keeping… and the untidy state of your desk…and, and and….” (Time taken 20 minutes)
  3. “Oh, and before we wrap up, I liked that email you sent me last week – well designed and clear. Nice work!” (time taken 30 seconds)

Sarah’s experience of the appraisal: “I think that went excellently. I used that technique to get my point across and wrap up the appraisal in less that 25 minutes. Excellent. Definitely an efficient management tool!”

Mike’s experience of the appraisal: “I got no appreciation of my work on the Project A – instead I had a twenty minute grilling about trivia – with a couple of insincere platitudes thrown in. I’m off to look for a job where my skills will be appreciated”

And yet….

… used skilfully, the Feedback Sandwich is both effective and powerful. This is why we use our own version of it in some of our NLP management workshops: it provides a simple-yet-powerful framework for managing formal appraisals and coaching sessions.

Yet the success of this framework or technique is dependent on how it is used. And to make it work optimally the manager must:

  1. Genuinely want to make the other person appreciate their own successes and strong points
  2. Use it as a series of questions rather than verdicts e.g. ‘what are your 3 best achievements in the past 3 months?’
  3. Devote, at the very least, as much time and attention to the opening and closing ‘likes’ as to the performance improvement bit in the middle
  4. Be quite sincere in emphasising the appreciative points (Surprisingly, a lot of managers are unable to give genuine praise.)
  5. In dealing with performance improvement aspects, focus on how improvements can be achieved rather than on why things didn’t go to plan
  6. Treat the appraisal as a process where both parties are constructively appraising the performance and seeking to make it even better – rather than one blaming and the other defending.

And it helps if the manager or mentor or coach actually likes the other person, too. The Feedback Sandwich works best if it comes from the heart.


  1. Martyn on 14th June 2012 at 6:52 PM

    Good posting Reg. The mechanics of the method inevitably rely on the delivery as you state. The feedback sandwich also tastes worse when cold – leaving it a while before feeding back the issues/praise. If delivered when the second layer is still warm it is often more palletable and can help the person understand that you are acting constructively. Delivering in a way that is sincere can make the ‘deliverer’ feel good also. I guess this is all supported with a foundation of the 4R’s.

  2. Sharon P on 14th June 2012 at 9:42 PM

    Great reminder Reg. Thank you !

    And what I really really liked is your last sentence:-

    ‘ The Feedback Sandwich works best if it comes from the heart’

    If we are insincere, it will show through in both our verbal and non verbal communications. Going through the motions will benefit neither person.

  3. Tudor Barker on 14th June 2012 at 9:38 PM

    Another missing word here is “honesty” by both parties.

    I’ve never had an appraisal where the manager was able to take on board that their input or lack of input might have an affect on the situation.

    The appraisals that I “suffered” were always about:

    You did this wrong, you need to change, you didn’t do exactly as I said, you need to toe the line ie. my line etc.


  4. suzy bolt on 18th June 2012 at 8:30 AM

    Great posting indeed – I am about to run some exercises with some very disenchanted management level folk who work in local government – my challenge is to help them find their hearts (before they deliver their tray of sandwiches). It seems finding the desire to care can be the biggest issue of all.

  5. Tara Finn on 20th June 2012 at 12:54 PM

    Is it just me that finds it sad that people can’t give postive feedback? For me it is one of the best parts about being a manager. There hasn’t been anyone I have managed that there haven’t been good things about.

    From the other side of the experience, I know that if someone lets me know that they believe in me, I actively seek developmental feedback so I can perform better. If I feel that everything I do will be criticised or negatively viewed, my performance (and motivation) sinks accordingly.


  6. Reg on 25th June 2012 at 11:01 AM

    Hi Martyn: yes, you’re spot on, there. If it’s delivered as a sort of formula that would definitely detract from its value.

    But using it as a structure which, can be interwoven into the meeting, ensures that the three points are covered – and in a genuine manner.

    Good reminder, thanks


  7. Reg on 25th June 2012 at 11:08 AM

    Hi Tudor

    sadly this is the case with many “old school” managers who need to have what they consider to be higher status than their direct reports…

    A more enlightened approach recognises that the responsibility for how someone performs will definitely include the input or lack of it from their manager i.e. the approach recognises the systemic nature of all communication

    One company that I worked with strongly supported the principle that appraisals are merely touch points in the calendar – and that the activity of appraising should be ongoing. This is because, for it to be most effective, feedback needs to be received very quickly after the performance.


  8. Reg on 25th June 2012 at 11:12 AM

    Hi Sharon

    Yes the non-verbals (tonality, body language, eye contact pattern, etc) have the most enduring impact
    In the actual appraisal we can hear the words – and sometimes miss the meaning. Nevertheless we are subliminally registering the signals as to what the appraiser actually means – and we often recognise this sometime later…

    Those manager who do not sincerely want their direct reports or team member to improve their performance are often the very ones who complain about their staff having no “ownership” – and I wonder why…:-)


  9. Reg on 25th June 2012 at 11:17 AM

    Hi Suzy

    Often the level of management that we get to work with as consultants is at least one level too low in the hierarchy!

    When I hear “disenchanted managers” I immediately wonder how their own managers have been responsible for their being disenchanted.

    “Ownership” occurs when people feel motivated. A major part of the manager’s role is to engage motivation in her or his people.

    Good luck with the team!


  10. Reg on 25th June 2012 at 11:27 AM

    Hi Tara

    I don’t think it’s just you. It’s pretty widespread – it is indeed that so many people are unable to be encouraging.

    It’s usually a reflection of their own self-esteem. And it is, like you say, going to be reflected in the quality of work and commitment shown by their team.

    It’s also a reflection of their belief that the stick works better than the carrot.

    And, yes, motivation through pressure and criticism definitely works! But, sadly, it’s an activity of management rather than leadership – and certainly doesn’t get buy in.

    And it only works when people can’t find a better job. And once they can find one… they’re gone!


  11. suzy bolt on 26th June 2012 at 9:07 AM

    Hi Reg

    Only just read the comment thread – funnily enough, we postponed the workshop and are taking senior mgmt out to lunch to talk about all of our concerns! (we interviewed the 100 strong team and discovered Pandora’s box – fabulous).

    It’s true that the disenchantment has been born out of the constant restructure that local government is having to make. Its tricky to point the finger in this economy but the Public Sector is not the ‘easy’ place to work that it was any more – pro’s and con’s on both sides here I think.

    Luckily, the (new) director really, truly cares about this team (or at least is very keen to make a good impression) so fingers crossed his passion and commitment begins to infect the 99 others before he too is worn down from pressure above.

    There is something here about motivating long term staff members who are not looking for change, simply good levels of support, guidance and appreciation as these are often the folk who are doing the appraisals and with the most on their plates. How to build a healthy culture amidst what is essentially an earthquake zone (elections next year!) is such a challenge.

    I could talk for hours!!!

  12. Reg on 26th June 2012 at 3:42 PM

    Hi Suzy: Great strategy to assess the management feelings in advance – congrats.

    Yes Public Sector, and especially the NHS, is a tough place to be nowadays. And having a new director is a big asset. Let’s hope he has strong self belief and vision – like you say, before the system brings him into line. (Seen that occur all too many times).

    I’d say such a cultural change needs somewhere around 2-4 years to become accepted and established, though.


  13. Tim A on 10th July 2012 at 8:52 AM

    Hi Reg,

    Fantastic post! I wish my managers/team leaders would use these techniques in our appraisals.

    Our appraisals are once a year and you fill out a form, hand it in before you have a “meeting”. Very un-proactive or productive. Appraisals are seen as a boring part of the job by the managers. It is to them and I quote “If I must… is it that time already”.

    It’s hard to suggest different ways of utilising appraisals for the team member to the management.

    I remember you said to me once that they should be no surprises in appraisals (I think it was you Reg). That is so true.

    All the best.

    Tim Atyeo