Real Leaders

F*ck the Feedback Sandwich

If you make a sandwich out of anything, make it a clarification of your goals and your belief in the other person.

Fuck the feedback sandwich.

That’s right. I said it. I may not be the first to say it, but I’m taking a bold stance against the feedback sandwich even though it didn’t really do anything bad to me at all. I just think it’s a bunch of bologna.

What is a feedback sandwich? For those who don’t know, it’s a communication technique used in business settings in which you share something good, followed by the hard thing that is the whole point of the conversation anyway, followed by another positive thing about that person. You are sandwiching the negative feedback fixings of the sandwich between two slices of positivity bread. It softens the blow. It makes it easier to deliver. And it confuses the crap out of the person you’re delivering the message to.

“Did he really just feedback sandwich me?”

“Did I even do something bad?”

“Maybe I’m actually crushing it.”

As anyone who has eaten a real sandwich knows, while the bread is what officially makes a pile of ingredients a sandwich, it’s the inner contents that give that sandwich its unique essence. And the real point of the feedback sandwich is the meat, veggies and/or cheese—not the bread. 

The squishy positivity bread is added as a way to soften the impact of what needs to be said. The feedback sandwich is used as a way to comfort the vast majority of us who are conflict-averse. But I am going to suggest that softening the blow is counterproductive because it undermines your ability to work your way out of the conflict or to help your team improve. It sabotages the whole purpose of the conversation.

Saying the Hard Thing 

In the highest levels of business, saying hard things is a necessary task. That is a big part of what separates good teams from great teams. 

I’m currently writing a book on the most iconic entrepreneurs of our time (Musk, Jobs, Bezos, and Gates) and how their dark sides drive innovation. In my research, I have come across a grand total of zero feedback sandwiches deployed by these men. They say the hard thing all day long, loud and clear. They are vocal when the work isn’t up to their standards. Actually, to be more precise, they are often emotionally volatile when work doesn’t meet their standards. They seem to want the pain to be felt when good work is not done. It’s almost like giving out a ‘lashing’ when team members don’t get it right. I’m not saying this is admirable, but it’s the way they get things done. 

Fearlessly relaying negative/constructive feedback is an important part of these men’s leadership strategy. Accountability comes in the form of pain and difficulty when you don’t do what you say you will do. At times this can skew abusive—which I absolutely do not condone—but there is a hidden wisdom here that helps drive performance. The message is that if you don’t do a good job, there will be consequences. When you are off-track in my organization, you will feel tension, and the only way to resolve the tension is to do great work. To be clear, this strategy doesn’t work for the majority of teams. Most normal, well-adjusted people will have a challenging time in these environments. And for each of these four founders, there is a long line of people who have been traumatized by working under them. But for certain hardcore folks, extreme tactics can actually drive them to do great work.

I recognize that we’re venturing into tricky territory here. I would never advise someone to be more emotionally volatile, nor would I ever advise them to unleash their anger on their employees or say harmful things when good work isn’t done. I would never condone that.

But I do think there’s value in understanding how and why unapologetic feedback drives innovation. 

Don’t Hold Back the Emotional Impact 

A hallmark of good feedback is the ability to communicate the emotional impact of the person’s work or behavior. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you know that I am a huge fan of Nonviolent Communication. Definitely check out my post on the topic if you haven’t or aren’t already familiar with NVC. In NVC, a big part of the process is to share how the person’s behavior impacted you emotionally. For example: When you were 10 minutes late to the meeting, I felt angry and disappointed. Or, When you send emails to clients with typos, I feel embarrassed. There is wisdom in sharing the emotional impact. Emotions have the power to inspire change. Emotions have the power to motivate. Emotions get people to do things differently. When we speak with our emotions, our words hit on a deeper level. 

The whole purpose of sharing feedback is to bring awareness to another person in order to drive change. When the impact is shared, it can really jolt the recipient into change. It can inspire or motivate them to really shift counterproductive behavior.

Musk, Jobs, Bezos, and Gates do this at the far extreme end of the spectrum. It can be abusive. It can be cruel. It can be bullying. It’s not a pretty picture. But it does really inspire their team to do great work. Again, I’m not condoning this. But sometimes looking at the most extreme examples can help us to find the wisdom to apply in a more balanced or moderate way. 

I believe the sweet spot is to be able to share the emotional impact directly and compassionately, but without sugar-coating it. Share the anger, the concern, the disappointment. Let it be felt fully. Don’t hide this part. This person did something and it had a negative impact. But the key is to share this in a way that is respectful and considerate of the other person. We can totally share our anger in a way that is kind and respectful, and that is the magic of NVC.

To recap: the major problem with the feedback sandwich is that it minimizes the emotional impact of the counterproductive behavior. It keeps us from truly addressing the thing that needs to change. If we were going to upgrade the sandwich, if we decide to bring in any ‘bread’ at all, what kind of bread might you bring in?

I think the first worthy slice of bread is a clarification and reiteration of the person’s goals. This ensures accountability and a mutual same-page-ness of what they are working towards with you. It reinforces a sense of shared aspiration. 

The second worthy slice is a statement of your belief in this person. You can wrap up the conversation by stating your trust and faith in their ability to do better. You believe that they can achieve their goals.

Those are the only two slices of bread that I would recommend in a feedback sandwich.

Beyond that, it’s all about honesty. Be clear, be straightforward, and don’t water it down. You are taking the time to have a difficult conversation with someone. Do not try to spin this into a positive conversation. Just say the hard thing.

It’s not supposed to feel great. It’s supposed to be potentially painful. It’s supposed to be awkward. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable. Being a leader is all of those things. Your ability and willingness to sit in the discomfort of tough conversations are directly correlated to your ability to succeed as a leader and founder. It’s also a prime motivator for your team to continue to improve.

Next time you have something difficult to say, just say it and leave the rest of the bologna behind.

If you want to hear more from Matt, subscribe to his newsletter The Unlock. It’s an email sent out every other week where bold leadership insights meet unfiltered wisdom.

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