The sandwich technique: how to deliver criticism in an assertive way

01/03/2024 | Santander Universidades

Ensuring worker engagement through feedback is crucial. Surprisingly, 40% of workers become disengaged when they aren't receiving feedback, while 43% of highly engaged workers receive weekly feedback. However, many managers find it challenging to deliver constructive criticism. It is common to feel anxious or apprehensive about giving feedback that might upset the recipient. Nevertheless, this can be made a lot easier if you learn one of the negative feedback strategies such as the sandwich technique. 

Communication skills are now one of the most sought-after soft skills in organisations at all levels and are particularly valuable in C-suite positions. Want to know how to give negative feedback in an assertive way? Try delivering the good with the bad using the sandwich technique.

What is the sandwich technique?

The sandwich technique is a feedback method that consists of wrapping a negative criticism between two positive aspects. Hence its name, for the bread represents the praise and the filling, the reproval.

Although it was originally conceived as a tool for managers to provide employee feedback, over time its use has spread beyond the professional sphere to include other disciplines such as sales, psychology, education, etc. As a result, many people now use the sandwich technique in different areas of their lives, in both professional and personal settings.

How to use the sandwich technique when giving feedback?

It is very easy to put into practice. The sandwich technique consists of just three basic steps: 

  • Start with some praise. Begin the conversation by highlighting something positive about the person’s performance.

  • Present the criticism in a constructive manner. Explain the concern or area for improvement in a clear and specific way. At this point, you can use concrete examples to support your assessment.

  • Close with some more praise. End the feedback by reaffirming the person’s value and strengths and your confidence in their future improvement, in line with the feedforward strategy. 

Still not sure how to put this technique into practice? Take a look at the following example:

“I want to highlight how much I appreciate your commitment to your tasks and the quality of your work. You have proven yourself to be a valuable member of this team”.

“Nevertheless, over the past few weeks, I have noticed that you have regularly been arriving late to work. As this can negatively impact the timings of the team as well as the efficiency of our operations, you must try your best to ensure that this does not become the norm”.

“I am positive that this is just a temporary occurrence and that you will be more punctual from now on, since you have always shown yourself to be a responsible and dedicated employee, which we appreciate very much”.

sandwich technique

Pros and cons of this feedback method

As you can see, one of the main advantages of the sandwich technique lies in its simplicity, making it a great methodology to use in any company to foster open and positive communication.

By starting the conversation with a compliment, the other person will adopt a more receptive attitude and will be less resistant towards the oncoming criticism. In fact, the Incentive Theory proclaims that: “people are pulled toward behaviors that lead to outside rewards and pushed away from actions that lead to negative consequences.” Ending with another compliment serves to boost confidence and avoid discouragement or discontent in the employee which could be brought on by the negative feedback. 

Nevertheless, it is important to be subtle and to use the sandwich technique sparingly. Otherwise, the person on the receiving end might pick up on your strategy and feel manipulated, leading to a greater rejection of the feedback. Likewise, some studies point to the fact that verbal rewards can lose their effectiveness over time.

There is also the possibility that it could backfire, with the employee only retaining the positive feedback, disregarding or not taking the important criticism on board. Another drawback to the sandwich technique is that it is difficult to implement in situations that require urgent feedback.

sandwich technique

How to deliver criticism effectively using the sandwich technique?

There are several guidelines you can follow to avoid the shortcomings of the sandwich technique and give effective feedback: 

  • Be specific. Don’t confuse the employee with long-winded speeches. Be clear about the negative and positive aspects you want to convey.

  • Stick to the facts. Make sure the message focuses on the employee’s behaviour that you liked or disliked, but avoid singling them out.

  • Maintain a respectful tone. Try to keep the conversation friendly so that the employee does not feel ‘attacked’. 

  • Facilitate the interaction. When using the sandwich technique, giving the other person time to share their point of view is also important. 

  • Think of ways to help them improve. Do not use empty words. Try to find out what is causing the employee’s poor performance and identify actions that can help them improve or resolve the conflict

  • Follow up. Finally, evaluate how the negative feedback given through the sandwich technique has affected the employee’s performance.  

In a context where information is constantly flowing back and forth, mastering the ability to give effective feedback has become an essential skill for leaders, managers and employees alike. Continuous and constructive feedback, such as that provided by the sandwich technique, is therefore essential for growth and adaptability.

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