“Let me tell you about your great strengths and how much I appreciate them….”
“And here’s what you need to focus on to improve….”
“And in summary, you are seen as a really valuable player, with just a few things to work on to take you to the next level.”
If you were on the receiving end of this conversation, what is the only thing you heard? Of course – the places you were ‘failing’. Our brains are wired to search for threats, and because the typical performance conversations of the work world have been patterned in this ‘sandwich’ format, we know that the hammer comes down after the recitation of our strengths. No matter how much soft bread is on either side of that sandwich, we are focused on the crappy baloney we know is going to come in the middle. And in our minds, that slice of baloney takes on epic proportions.
The sad fact is that these ‘sandwich’ conversation are poor on both counts – giving kudos, and giving developmental direction. Because they are married in a discussion of performance, the developmental direction is implicitly assumed to be a performance failure, rather than a path toward future success. And even in the case of poor performance, the message is blunted when surrounded by good news. Many leaders – and even entire organizations – are moving away from the ‘performance review’ mentality that spawned these types of conversations.
As a leader, how can you give helpful feedback to your employees and avoid creating a ‘baloney sandwich’?
- Act in the moment. You’ve heard this advice before. Give immediate feedback when you see strengths exhibited, pointing out exactly what those strengths elicited for the organization. Or give feedback if you see a miss – something that caused a problem or was a missed opportunity. But here is what you may not have heard before: resist the tendency to do both at the same time, or you will just have a little baloney slider instead of a big baloney sandwich.
- Separate performance feedback and developmental feedback. Remember that performance feedback is a look backward and developmental feedback is a look forward. If you want to give performance feedback that is good, stick to that and don’t offer what is needed to advance further; set up another conversation for that. If you want to give performance feedback that is not so good, make it clear that what you are asking for is corrective action, and stick with the story; don’t sugar-coat it with niceties about what is fine and dandy.
- Make developmental feedback all about opportunity. If you have a solid performer who just needs to keep growing, by all means have a developmental conversation – separate and apart from a performance conversation. In talking about development, the emphasis is on what doors can open if some changes or enhancements are enabled. As soon as you bring up examples of what your employee failed to do in the past, you invite anxiety about performance. Instead, identify areas that would be good developmental options, and ask the employee which he sees as valuable for himself and why. Most people, if they possess the key skill of self-awareness, are able to identify for themselves their own needs for improvement.
So get out of the habit of making sandwiches. If you want to feed your employees, think of it as offering cake (positive feedback and encouragement) and co-creating recipes (developmental feedback). And for the few that need corrective action, just offer the cod liver oil with a clothespin for the nose.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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