PHD’s People & Development Director: “Stop Serving The Shit Sandwich!”

PHD’s People & Development Director: “Stop Serving The Shit Sandwich!”

In this guest post, PHD Australia’s people and development director, Manon Pietra (main photo), offers valuable tips on how to give staff feedback that is actually constructive…

Most of us, over the course of our professional lives, have had a conversation with a manager that goes something like this: “Jane, you’re great, really. Love working with you…that work you did on the budget was really good, the CEO loved it. By the way, you know this presentation you just gave? It was good… but [insert feedback here about what Jane could have done better]. Anyway, you’re doing a great job. Keep it up. Thanks.”

This, my friends, is what we call a ‘Shit Sandwich’.

Screen shot 2018-10-29 at 8.07.14 AM

You have something to say – however, it’s more on the ‘developmental’ (read negative) side of feedback. So, in an effort not to upset the person (because obviously that’s not your intention), you decide to pad it out.

On either side of that piece of negative feedback, you strategically position two slices of genuine positive feedback. That’s two positives for one negative, therefore you figure the feedback will land impeccably, no one will get upset and you feel pretty good too. However, as I’m sure many of you have noticed from either serving or receiving the Shit Sandwich, that’s not necessarily the case.

Despite every leadership coach out there advising against it, I am constantly amazed at how many people think that the Shit Sandwich is the right way to give feedback. It seems that everywhere you go, people are being taught by their managers Shit Sandwiches are just what people need.

So, let’s set the story straight. What you really meant to land was that bit in the middle, wasn’t it?

And the only reason you’re padding it out is because you hope it won’t hurt as much?

Well, think again…

  • Some people (most, in my experience) will remember the ‘shit’. This means you possibly wasted two bits of good, genuine feedback and your team will start dreading the ‘but’ in every conversation you have with them.
  • Other people will only hear the ‘bun’, i.e. the good bits. This means you’ve basically wasted your time even giving feedback and nothing will change.
  • What’s for certain, is that your team member will leave the conversation feeling slightly confused. What’s more, because you ended on a positive note, you’re skipping through the opportunity to properly discuss the feedback and how they can improve.

Ultimately, the reason the Shit Sandwich feels like a good option is because giving feedback is scary. However, as managers it is our duty to conquer that fear and give feedback in the most appropriate manner so that we can improve and achieve better outcomes, not only for the companies we work for, but also for ourselves.

We all struggle to give feedback without hurting others’ feelings (in all contexts, not just professionally). However, the process does get better with experience and it does get a LOT better when you do it skillfully. In fact, people may even thank you for the constructive feedback you’ve given them, even if its in the long run when they see the value of it and why it was important for them to hear it.

Once we have all acknowledged that we need to stop serving the Shit Sandwich, here are some tips on how we can improve our feedback processes and create honest, constructive dialogue instead:

  1. If you have something to say, recognise you are better off just saying it. Padding it out won’t make it easier or more palatable.
  2. Get better at giving feedback by being prepared, empathetic and constructive
  3. Lastly, remember that constructive feedback (which includes negative, at times) is needed to grow. It is true we have a negative bias, but as long and you have more positive interactions than negative (research points to a 5:1 ratio), you will be able to foster a stable and positive relationship with people.

After all, it’s only once we stop serving the Shit Sandwich, that we can start to expect better results from our feedback.

I look forward to hearing your clear, unpadded, yet nuanced feedback.

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Manon Pietra PHD

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