Delivering Constructive Feedback: The Perils of the Sh!t Sandwich

Now and again, as leaders, we all need to deliver some "constructive" feedback to someone. This is not a job that anyone relishes.

Quite a nice sandwich. Definitely not a sh!t one anyway...
Photo by Mae Mu / Unsplash

Now and again, as leaders, we all need to deliver some "constructive" feedback to someone. This is not a job that anyone relishes. In fact, it's interesting that we call it constructive feedback rather than negative feedback - an attempt to put a more positive spin on it, perhaps?

Anyway, one of the most commonly recommended methods for delivering a negative message to someone is to use the Shit Sandwich™️. It's a pretty simple recipe:

  1. Point out some positives
  2. Talk about the negative
  3. Give some more positive news

The idea of this is that the negative news is easier to take when sandwiched between some more positive news. Having both delivered and received my fair share of Shit Sandwiches, I can certainly say that it works. It's one of those strange psychological tricks, like the placebo effect, that works even though you know it's happening to you.

Prescription drugs on an orange background with a pill bottle. Orange pills.
Photo by Christina Victoria Craft / Unsplash

It certainly makes it easier to deliver bad news, which is perhaps one reason why it is such a popular method.

However, as with all the tools we have, I do think that there is a correct time and place for using this technique.

In my opinion, the Shit Sandwich is best used when negative or constructive feedback is not the main focus. For example, if you are having a one-to-one with a team member and generally everything is going well, but there is a relatively minor area for improvement, this method is really useful. It will enable you to pass on the feedback without the risk of them focussing on the negative and becoming demotivated or downbeat.

If, on the other hand, the main focus of the conversation is on improvement, it is important to ensure that this focus is not lost, which can happen if surrounded by positive messages. In this case, the Shit Sandwich will lessen the impact and even actively prevent the team member from fully appreciating the importance of the message. Go for the Carb Free Shit Sandwich™️.

It's certainly harder to deliver feedback in this way, but if you want to ensure comprehension and give the person the best possible chance to register the message, it is by far the best way.

Make sure the feedback is specific and actionable. It can be helpful to use the following steps as a guide to the conversation:

  1. Outline your observation of the behaviour
  2. Outline the impact it is having
  3. Ask if they accept the feedback and think it is fair and reasonable
  4. Make a direct request for change, or preferably ask them what corrective action they could take

Once this is done, be sure to follow up after a short while and offer further guidance or praise for a job well done.