Feedback Strategies: The Pros and Cons of the Sandwich Approach

Sandwich approach to communication

​Giving employees effective feedback is a crucial component of any manager’s job. It’s also difficult. Many business professionals tout the “sandwich approach” or “hamburger method” as a valuable technique for tackling challenging conversations. In this tactic, a manager offers a piece of negative feedback “sandwiched” between two positive ones, thus easing the blow of the critique. Although some tout the technique as effective, others see it as a hindrance to getting the most out of their workforce.

The Pros for the “Compliment Sandwich”

Those in favor of the sandwich approach often speak to the technique’s ability to soften harsh criticisms. The method:

  • May ease the sting of hearing difficult comments
  • Encourages specificity in the feedback process
  • Allows employees to increase their receptiveness to criticism
  • Enables meetings to end on a positive note
  • Can be useful for managers who find it difficult to engage in criticism

Alternative methods of the sandwich approach may also prove helpful. Lyuba Konopasek, MD, and Miriam Bar-on, MD, describe a method used within the medical field called “Ask-Tell-Ask,” where supervisors ask their subordinates to evaluate their own work practices and methods of improvement. In doing so, they encourage self-reflection while simultaneously providing guidance.

The Cons of the “Hamburger Method”

Those who disagree with the sandwich approach generally state that the method brings with it a host of negative consequences. In an evaluation done by the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business, researchers found that the method can be damaging for several reasons:

  • Including positives may undermine the criticism involved, thus rendering that criticism ineffective
  • The method trains employees to distrust praise, as they will begin to anticipate the criticism that comes along with it
  • The method detracts from praise when it is truly due
  • The method may serve more as a crutch for managers who struggle with giving feedback rather than as a tool for helping employees improve
  • It may give employees a diluted or inaccurate understanding of their work performance and what changes are required of them

Furthermore, the sandwich approach can be wildly inappropriate for certain situations, such as major breaches of trust or safety concerns. These situations require a far blunter approach, rendering the sandwich method moot.

While the merits of the sandwich approach are debatable, all managers should know the differences between constructive and destructive criticism.

Constructive Criticism vs. Destructive Criticism

Constructive criticism and destructive criticism are two very different ways of identifying shortfalls to employees. Using constructive criticism is ideal. Psychology Today explains the distinction between these two concepts.

Constructive criticism:

  • Provides tangible information that helps employees improve their behavior
  • Emphasizes results
  • Discusses specific problem areas that require change rather than attacking the whole person
  • Doesn’t indulge feelings; sticks to facts
  • Only discusses behaviors that are changeable
  • Is offered in calm, unthreatening vocal tones
  • Makes room for discussion with employees about the benefits of changed behavior

On the other hand, destructive criticism:

  • Often makes judgments, accusations, and exaggerations
  • Makes negative assumptions about employees or their intent
  • Tends to be general rather than specific
  • Can be unrestrained
  • May discuss things that aren’t changeable, such as an employee’s essential personality
  • Can involve yelling, condescension or threats
  • Diminishes room for discussion with employees, relying instead on giving advice or commands

Ultimately, constructive criticism is more likely to lead to self-reflection, while destructive criticism is more likely to lead to unhelpful blaming. Whether understanding criticism styles or evaluating the sandwich method, business leaders should consider this information as important tools for their wheelhouse.

Your Future as a Leader

Managers who understand the nuances of employee feedback can be sure to serve more effectively as leaders. For individuals seeking to improve their understanding of advanced business knowledge, the onlin​e MBA program at the University of Findlay can help them gain the skills they need an advance in their careers. The program is offered fully online, allowing working professionals to attend school while still accommodating their busy lives. ​​