When to serve (and not to serve) a feedback sandwich (Hint: The bread is often stale.)

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When to serve (and not to serve) a feedback sandwich

Most leaders have heard of the feedback sandwich. It’s a way to soften negative feedback. The idea is that you first share a positive observation, then you give the corrective feedback to help someone improve, then you follow it with more positive feedback.

The feedback sandwich is both celebrated and despised.

The truth is, the feedback sandwich has its place.

The truth is also, the feedback sandwich’s place is rare.

Here’s when it makes sense:

1️⃣ You have only a single opportunity to give feedback. For example, you’re a judge in a competition or the guest professor for a master class.

2️⃣ You’re giving event-based feedback. For example, a team member just gave a presentation and you’re sharing a wide range of specific observations for them to continue doing and to do differently.

But as a general rule, the feedback sandwich has turned stale and rotten in most other scenarios. Too often, the “bread” of positive feedback at the beginning is thin, weak, and tasteless. It often looks something like:

“Good job today. It would have been good to see more data to support your proposal, but overall it was a great presentation.”

In most cases, feedback should be:

✅ Frequent: At least once per week, but more often if possible

✅ Specific: Say specifically what the person did, and what made it effective or ineffective. (“Good job” and “great presentation” don’t accomplish this.)

✅ Singular: Share insights on only one action at a time. (There are exceptions for event-based feedback.)

✅ Mostly Affirming: Share observations about what went well far more often than you share what should be changed.

If the feedback sandwich is your standard approach, then people learn to ignore the bread and hear only the negative center. If you frequently give feedback that’s mostly positive, then you’ll establish the trust needed for them to accept the corrective feedback when you must give it.

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