Merchant Advance Blog

Blog Article: Sandwiches and Other Meals: A Guide to Workplace Feedback


In the small business world, feedback can be an extraordinarily powerful force. Customer feedback is one of the most important forms of information a small business owner can collect about how to improve their business model, and, as the blog has previously discussed, efficient delivery of two way communication between businesses and their customers is easier than it has ever been thanks to advances made by social media. Poor handling of criticism can leave an indelible mark on a business’ reputation in its community. Giving and receiving feedback are skills that need to be developed just like any other small business practice. The need to do either of these things may present itself between employees and/or their supervisors, or between outside forces (like customers, websites, external reviewers, other businesses etc.) and the owners of a business. Here are a few thoughts on the process of giving (and getting) feedback and how to do it most efffectively.

  • The Sandwich Principle

I am sure that many readers of this blog, savvy communicators that you are, have heard of the idea of a “sandwich” structure for feedback delivery. It was something that I was taught early on when learning how to manage complex interactions with clients and avoid confrontation, all in the name of fostering productive creative output and goal achievement. If the “sandwich” is new to you, let me explain: your desire to critique someone else may not always be best served on its own. In lieu of directly stating your concerns with someone’s approach, the “sandwich” method dictates that you ought to demonstrate a more holistic understanding of that person’s argument or idea. It paints you as a good listener and keeps the discussion firmly planted in a positively-minded, forward-thinking direction. Quite simply, the idea is to give feedback (or criticism) in three parts: beginning with an affirmation or positive observation, transitioning to a critique, suggestion or concern, and concluding the “sandwich” with a final positive statement related to future goals and developments. Focusing on the future is a key part of the final part of this technique! It allows the delivery of feedback to leave room for growth in the relationship between the advisor and advisee.

  • Beyond the Sandwich: Brain Food

The “sandwich” feedback system, while well-documented and often practiced to great effect, has come under fire from some theorists. Many of these critiques focus on the chemistry of the human brain, and how that incredibly complex organ goes about processing such emotionally charged inputs as “praise” and “criticism.”  Certain research has suggested that the brain reacts more strongly and is imprinted more powerfully by single incidences of criticism than by the same amount of praise: in short, it takes a lot of praise to make up for the impact caused by a single critical comment. The “sandwich” may be seen as neurologically ineffective because the praise becomes meaningless. It occludes the real meaning of your conversation, and the positive aspects are drowned out by the mental reverberations of the criticism nestled in the middle. How can you address this imbalance in your delivery of feedback and criticism? Here are some ways to give advice that will help your advisees’ brains stay happy.

  • Avoid statements using “you,” as in “you didn’t do this correctly” – rather, try to phrase the criticism in terms like “this could have been done better.”
  • Tie these statements in to a set of goals targeted for the future – “this could be improved – next time, I would love to see you meet this goal in the following way.” As previously stated, this is about creating opportunities for growth and optimism. Provide a potential solution rather than a vague or general implication of inadequacy.
  • Address negative feedback directly – don’t skirt it. The brain will manufacture anxiety rapidly if it fears that something harmful is being held just out of its reach. This is the horror-film principle which states that the scariest things are those which are implied to be lurking around the next corner. Start your feedback with a quick summary of any critical items – take time for the listener to digest what has been said, invite questions, and then move on to a detailed dialogue about the advisee’s immediate forward-looking goals and actions. Beginning a dialogue with one or two critical points will put the listener’s brain on heightened alert, and may improve their receptivity toward further constructive and positive commentary.
  • Follow up with lots of positivity.  According to research in the workplace, a minimum ratio of 3:1 in favour of positive or praiseful comments compared to critical ones may be necessary to offset the mental and emotional impact that people feel when receiving feedback. Some indications suggest that this ratio may skew as high as 6:1.
  • Break problems into small pieces. I’ve always a big fan of the White Stripes. This may sound like a digression, but I swear it isn’t: their song “Little Acorns,” besides being a ferocious rock masterwork, is built on the notion that people can manage their goals by dealing with smaller items one at a time. Jack White is not alone in this belief: psychological research supports the assertion that long-term goals benefit from having feedback delivered periodically throughout their lifetime rather than in singular, large or lengthy assessments.

Do you enjoy a good sandwich, or has your menu of options for handling feedback and criticism in your small business expanded? Let us know in the comments or use the buttons below to comment on Twitter or Facebook! 

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David Gens

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