The Shit Sandwich and Other Terrible Ways to Give Feedback

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By I Done This Support

Contrary to common misconception, giving feedback—insightful, useful feedback—is surprisingly difficult. Why? Because, as legendary venture capitalist Ben Horowitz once observed, it’s completely, utterly 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.”

Sometimes it’s tempting to feed our employees a shit sandwich—more on this momentarily—and give vital feedback in other completely awful ways, but it’s crucial to your career as a manager that you resist the urge to do so. As a cautionary tale, here are three uniquely terrible ways that inexperienced managers often give feedback and how you can avoid doing this yourself.

The Shit Sandwich

Few managers will admit it; the shit sandwich is one of the most popular—and useless—ways to give employee feedback. Sometimes more charitably called a “praise sandwich” or a “compliment sandwich,” this technique involves giving workers negative feedback sandwiched neatly between two positive points.

The main idea behind the shit sandwich approach to giving feedback is the misguided idea that negative feedback is easier for employees to stomach if it is preceded by positive reinforcement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this often results in the exact opposite.

In a study conducted by Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, she divided her class into two groups. Half the class was instructed to provide negative feedback to the other half. Incredibly, the group receiving the negative feedback believed “they were [doing] great.”

Why did half a class of behavioral science students think they were doing well despite receiving feedback to the contrary? Because, according to Fishbach, “negative feedback is often buried and not very specific.” Put another way, when you feed someone a shit sandwich, they’re liable to walk away talking about the bread.

Below-the-Line Discourse

One of the biggest obstacles to providing useful, actionable feedback is that this kind of evaluation can get lost in the noise. Oftentimes, feedback can devolve into what Ray Dalio, founder of the largest hedge fund in the world, Bridgewater Associates, describes as “one big pile of information” from which “data points [are chosen] almost at random.” Dalio calls such dialogue “below-the-line” conversations, in which it’s incredibly difficult to identify a coherent idea of what the feedback is, and what specific steps should be taken to improve.

Think of your feedback as an outline. You’ve got your main points sketched out, each of which has one or more subordinate points. Below-the-line conversations often obscure the main points in favor of “drilling down” to the subordinate points without that vital connection to the broader, more generalized aspects of that 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.”

But surely there is some value in these kinds of conversations, right?

Not really.

According to Peter Sims, entrepreneur and author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, brain scans have shown that many people will unconsciously begin withholding vital information when confronted with language that can be interpreted as judgmental or overly critical.

Consciously or otherwise, below-the-line conversations can have this impeding effect precisely because a valid, legitimate critique of an employee’s performance can be perceived as disapproving or detracting when they aren’t directly connected to that employee’s purpose within an organization.

One-Size Fits All Feedback

No two employees are exactly alike, even if they’re similar in personality and job function. This might seem profoundly obvious, but it’s amazing how many managers acknowledge this without tailoring employee feedback to the individual.

One of the biggest mistakes made by managers of all experience levels is adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to delivering employee feedback. This isn’t usually a serious error of judgment, but rather the well-intentioned but incorrect assumption that feedback is a vehicle for the manager to express herself instead of a chance to identify opportunities for employee growth.

Horowitz — who also hosts a useful podcast called A16z — said it best: “Stylistically, your tone should match your employee’s personality, not your mood.”

According to research published in volume 29 of The Journal of Consumer Research, feedback should be tailored not only to an employee’s personality but also their seniority. Researchers discovered that the type of feedback people preferred to receive varies between experts and novices. Broadly speaking, experts tend to seek out negative feedback in order to shore up weaknesses, whereas beginners tend to prefer more constructive feedback and positive reinforcement to gain greater confidence in their work.

Create an Environment of Positive Feedback

It turns out that negative feedback isn’t always effective at improving employee performance.

In a recent Harvard study, it was found that not only did employees not respond well to negative feedback, they often began to cut ties with the person who gave them critical feedback. The study showed that instead of improving their behavior based on the feedback, they would instead cut social ties with the person and communicate with them less in the workplace.

So, if you’re trying to get your employees or fellow coworkers to come to you with suggestions, problems, and just generally keep the lines of communication open, negative feedback can clip those lines.

Instead, it’s been shown that positive feedback has a far greater impact on performance. Instead of pointing out someone’s weaknesses, try praising them when they do something good. Highlight their strengths, and they’ll feel valued. Employees who feel valued will work harder and longer, and they won’t be afraid to come to you with suggestions on how to improve things.

As with most things in the workplace, giving useful feedback is a skill that improves with time and practice. Approaching employee feedback as an actual conversation between two individuals, as opposed to an awkward, uncomfortable event, can make the entire process much more insightful, actionable, and, most importantly, natural.

Give and receive feedback the same way you approach the rest of your work—with empathy, purpose, and tact—and you’ll start to see the difference.


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