Performance Reviews: Don't Sandwich Negative Feedback

The feedback sandwich is where negative feedback or an area of development is sandwiched between two positive pieces of feedback. We all know about this approach and many of us still use it because, in theory, it makes logical sense. Unfortunately, it has been shown to lead to confusion, with either the positive or negative feedback becoming lost or muddied.

The problem is, team members place different values on performance feedback depending on what rewards are at stake. For example, perhaps the negative feedback means that increased compensation or a promotion will not be realised. This is called extrinsic rewards and for the typical employee, it’s usually the most important outcome of the performance review process. There are other factors too, but if you are a company that strongly links performance to base and variable compensation these likely play a secondary role.

Sandwiches are good, sandwiching feedback is not

So what does one do? The solution is simple actually. Have two separate conversations, one for reviewing pay and one for development. When I say one, I mean many, because the value of continuous back and forth with team members has two real positives: In addition to negative feedback becoming uncoupled with pay/promotion rewards:

  1. Trust between manager and team member improves, and
  2. Development becomes more than professional, it becomes linked to the intrinsic reward of being the best you can be at something

My suggestion: Conduct four short structured development conversations per year with each team member. Why structured? You want to continuously build on each session and informal discussions will invariably lead to things falling through the cracks. Also, informal sessions put too much onus on the team member to advocate for themselves (some are better than others at this). This is not a replacement for constant intervention; real-time coaching on performance has a critical foundational role in my mind.

Finally, you will find that performance reviews can sometimes put stress on the team/manager relationship, it can erode trust. This approach will build a feeling of safety which leads to healthy risk-taking and innovation.

Sturt Carter

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