It may be one of the most popular approaches to delivering difficult feedback, but in many cases the shit sandwich feedback model is just that – shit.

What is the shit sandwich approach? It’s sandwiching negative feedback between two positive points.

A slice of praise, the real feedback acting as the meat in the middle, and then another slice of positivity to round it out.

Criticism squeezed between compliments. Positive, negative, positive.

The idea behind the sandwich approach is that it softens the blow and protects people’s feelings; that it encourages and highlight’s someone’s strengths, while also suggesting room for improvement. And look, if that’s what you’re genuinely trying to do, then the sandwich method is appropriate. It’s not always shit.

But if the intention of your feedback is to address a serious concern, poor behaviour or negative performance issue, couching your feedback in praise is not your best bet.

Here are two reasons why:

  1. It’s not authentic and feels fake.

The recipient will often see the praise as disingenuous. They know (or think they know) the praise is only there to soften the blow and they resent it. They focus on the negative feedback and discard the positive. They become frustrated and angry you couldn’t just tell them what was on your mind and in future don’t believe the compliments you give, feeling that it’s a lie. Rather than make the feedback more palatable, your sandwich approach damages your relationship and their trust in you is undermined.

  1. It waters down feedback and detracts from your message.

The opposite can be even more problematic. Rather than discard the positives that form either end of your sandwich, some people will hold onto them firmly and ignore the ‘shit’ in the middle – the real feedback you wanted to convey. They gloss over the problem and figure it’s not that serious given you had so many nice things to say as well.

This can lead to the recipient remaining oblivious to the problem or believing it’s simply a minor issue and not something that needs immediate attention.

The alternative…

So if the sandwich approach is on the nose, what is the best way to give feedback?

Well, the first thing to understand is there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Different people have different personalities, preferences and communication styles and this will affect the way they like to receive feedback.

Some people like their feedback direct, others do like a softer approach.

But either way, when it comes to delivering negative or difficult feedback the key is to stay hard on the issue and soft on the person. It’s about delivering your message in a clear, specific and concise way, while also using warmth, empathy and tact.

Here are 10 pointers to help you do it well:

    1. Inoculate first. Tell the person it’s going to be a tough conversation. You might say, “This is going to be a difficult conversation and you may not like what you hear.”
    1. Set the ground rules for how the conversation will take place: “I know you’ll probably have questions, but it’s important that you listen to what I have to say first and then you’ll have an opportunity to explain things from your point of view.”
    1. Tell them why you’re having the conversation (make it genuine; don’t fake it). “The reason we’re having this conversation is because you’re a valued member of this team and I want you to be successful, which is why I need to speak with you about the way you communicate with some of your colleagues because at the moment it’s having a negative impact on your relationships.”
    1. Tell them what it’s really about and be specific. Make it about the behaviour, not the person: “I have had a number of people speak with me recently about your communication style being abrupt and aggressive. This has included others within the team and also managers who have been in meetings with you.”
    1. Provide examples to demonstrate your point. “I have witnessed it myself too. For example, this morning when Katie asked you whether you’d finished the report yet, you snapped back, ‘No. You’ll get it when it’s done,’ without even looking up from your computer. It might not have been your intention, but it was perceived by me and others as aggressive.”
    1. Be empathetic, but firm. “I know you’ve been under a lot of pressure lately and it’s a stressful time of year, but we are a small team and it’s important we are able to work together in a respectful way. It’s also important that people feel they can communicate openly with you, because otherwise it’s going to be difficult for you and them to do their job properly.”
    1. Own your part and take responsibility for your actions. If you should have raised this issue with them weeks ago, tell them that and apologise.
    1. Ask for their feedback and thoughts. Although it doesn’t excuse poor behaviour, giving the recipient the opportunity to explain any reasons why it occurred is important for gaining a full picture of the situation. It’s also important they feel heard.
    1. Tell them what change needs to happen and be clear of the consequences. “What I need is for you to be more mindful about your tone and the way you communicate with others. Take the time to explain your reasons if you haven’t completed a report and if you do snap, own it and apologise. If you are on deadline and can’t talk, let them know that.”
  1. Get their commitment and finish with a clear course of action and shared understanding of the conversation. Make sure you’re both on the same page and there is no ambiguity. If appropriate, schedule a follow up conversation to track progress in a few weeks time.

Next time you deliver difficult feedback, throw the sandwich in the bin and try this instead.


Leah Mether is a communications specialist, trainer, author, professional speaker and director of Methmac Communications.

She helps people get out of their own way and step up for success with the development of soft skills (which are actually really hard).

To find out more about Leah’s work, visit www.methmac.com.au.