Food for Thought, But No Sandwiches

Food metaphors are everywhere. When someone is busy, we say, “Her plate is full.” Our competitors are going to “Eat our lunch.” When we have to cut back, our boss says we have to, “Eat our peas.” If we spend too much we are told, “You have Champagne tastes.” If we complain about being passed over for a promotion, we hear, “That’s just sour grapes.” I suppose that truth lurks in metaphors and that these colorful phrases make ideas more memorable or “palatable.”

But, the one that drives me crazy and, I believe, does considerable damage in corporate America is the sandwich metaphor. It goes like this. When a leader must confront a team member about unacceptable behavior, or provide any sort of unpleasant feedback, he or she should start by saying something nice, something positive. Then, give them the criticism or negative feedback. Conclude with some praise. The idea being that surrounded by the upbeat, constructive phrases, the team member will be more receptive to the bad news. Thus a “sandwich.” A little bread, the real meat, then a little more bread. Then hope that the team member will “swallow” the whole thing. “That was a great presentation. There’s just this one itty-bitty thing that I think you could do better. Just a tad too many long, wordy Power Point charts. You’re such a great team player, I’m sure your next presentation will be terrific. I know I can count on you. I’m really glad we had this little talk.” Translation – “That was the most boring presentation I have heard in the last twenty years. What were you thinking?”

In my leadership training workshops, I try very hard to stay away from absolutes. I seldom say, “Always do this.” Or, “never do that.” But, the sandwich is an exception. Although the team leader’s intention is often good, “Keep the tone positive. Make sure the employee knows that he or she is valued even though you have some valid criticism,” the potential for harm is very great. These kinds of messages have a way of backfiring. Don’t use this technique! There are some who agree that this is not a useful management tool. In Management Science, the authors say, “When you notice someone doing something you do like, tell them about it. When you notice them doing something you don’t like, tell them about it. Whether it’s good news or bad, the same rules apply.”

leadership training advice hard at workWe know that most of the meaning in any communication event is carried through nonverbal channels: body language, eye contact, tone, pitch, rate, pauses, and so forth.

Any message coming from the team leader that is ambiguous, tends to set off alarms in the team member. “What is going on? Why is she talking about my great presentation but also mentioning the wordy slides? Am I in trouble?” No matter what the intention of the team leader, the team member is likely to interpret the message in a negative way. Even though the word “but” is not in the sentence, the employee is likely to hear it that way. Their interpretation may even be exaggerated. “My presentation was so bad that she had to invent something good to make me feel better. Wow! What a loser I must be!” So, the intended message is not communicated clearly and it may even be interpreted as a complete contradiction to what you wanted to say.

The team member may see you as weak. “Why can’t she just come out and say what she means? Am I so vindictive or irrational that she believes she must soften any criticism? Am I that temperamental? If she is that scared of me, what must happen when she has to talk to her bosses?” Most team members appreciate frank, honest, well-intended feedback. It gives them an opportunity to respond intelligently, like an adult.

The team member may be suspicious of your motives. He or she may feel manipulated. “Is my team leader just trying to get me to accept some criticism that is not valid? Is there some political motive? Why bury the truth in all that sugar-coating?” This fear can be especially potent if the “sandwiches” start coming right after a leadership training workshop. “She went to one of those classes where they teach you how to manipulate your employees. Not me!” Team members may dig in their heels even deeper and be more skeptical of everything you say.

If all of these risks were not enough, the most damaging of all is that the team leader is teaching his or her team members to not hear the positive feedback. This is most noticeable in environments where the team leader does this all the time. What happens is that team members learn that any compliment, positive feedback, or praise is merely a prelude to criticism, judgment, or blame. During team building sessions, I often hear this complaint. “I never hear from my boss at all unless I do something wrong.” When I hear this from several team members, I will present the finding to the team leader who almost always says something like, “That’s not true. I give plenty of positive feedback. In fact, every time, I have some criticism or negative feedback, I always make sure I give them some positive feedback at the same time.” Well, no wonder! What the team leader has done is train her team members to hear praise as meaningless fluff that paves the way for the hit. That is a sure way to create a culture of fear and negativity. Little chance of innovation, creativity, high-energy performance in that team!

One of the ironies is that this is actually taught in many leadership training workshops as a viable technique to giving negative feedback. Dr. Lyle Becourtney, a psychologist, advocates the “compliment sandwich” as one means of managing anger. He says, “By opening and closing with positive feedback, a friendly tone was set and an important message was able to be conveyed. Rather than aggressively attack the other person and risk making matters worse or bottle things up and become potentially explosive, this type of communication allows one to get things off his or her chest without putting the other person on the defensive.”

The problem with this is the assumption that direct, frank negative feedback is the same as “aggressively attacking” the other person. The only other alternative he notes is “bottling it up.” That is, I believe a false dichotomy.

By all means, if you want your team members to improve their performance, give them direct, clear, constructive feedback.

Treat them like adults who want to learn from their mistakes. When I hear a supervisor or manager say, “My people act like children,” my first reaction is to think, “That’s probably because you treat them like children.” Team leaders will sometimes argue that they are trying to create a more positive work environment. Absolutely! When your people do things well, tell them so. Just don’t mix it up with some sort of “stew” that doesn’t accomplish anything but confusion.

When they do something that you appreciate, say so. When they do something that causes you a problem, say so. Do it consistently and often. Good leadership training will help you learn the best ways to deliver both the positive and negative messages. It is seldom effective to communicate with messages that contain a lot of blame, labels, judgment, and so forth. It is typically much more effective to describe clearly, the behavior that you observed, its impact on you or your objectives, and its importance to you.

The same is true for feedback about helpful or unhelpful behaviors. The clearer you can be, the better. If your team members are not accustomed to this kind of communication from you, it may take a while for you and them to get used to the idea that they can really understand what you are telling them and that they can count on you to be straight with them. But, it is worth it. And whatever you do, avoid the temptation to put whipped cream on the broccoli.

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