Jodi is waiting for Marco to come to her office. Today is feedback day and she has the Feedback Sandwich formula open on her desk.

Marco arrives and plunks himself down in the chair opposite Jodi, submitting himself reluctantly to what is about to occur. “I’m glad you’re here,” says Jodi, getting the ball rolling on an upbeat note. “Let’s talk about your presentation to the team yesterday. You were very enthusiastic about the project’s progress, and I also thought that….” Jodi stops as she notices Marco slumping in his chair, eyes cast downwards. “What’s wrong?” she asks. Sighing out loud, Marco says, “Do we have to go through this crap? Just tell me what I did wrong and let’s get it over with.”

What happened to a meeting that was supposed to accentuate the positive? Why didn’t Marco even want to hear the positive feedback?

As many managers know, a feedback sandwich consists of criticism “sandwiched” between two positive comments, as follows:

  1. Make a specific positive comment.
  2. Critique and/or suggestion for improvement.
  3. Overall positive comment.

It is intended to make criticism both easier to give and receive. But here’s the problem: employees aren’t stupid. After a few examples where the boss ties criticism to compliments, the formula is easily recognized by anyone who has heard it more than once. So now everyone knows that as soon as you hear praise, you know that you will be criticized.

This has effectively changed the meaning of praise. Now it signifies that you have done something wrong. Is it any wonder Marco sat cringing in his chair waiting for the axe to fall?

Management theory has recognized for quite some time that creating and maintaining a positive emotional state is key to performance. Ask any athlete. Ask anyone who has to make a presentation. Ask a student about writing an exam. Ask anyone who makes a living curing others of performance anxiety.

And then let’s take the context of learning. Many people had stressful experiences at school or other environments that they describe as traumatic. When I was first hired in a French management training company, a well-known author and my senior consultant, conducted what he called “sales training” for myself and another newcomer to the firm. This consisted of video taping role plays between us and colleagues playing potential customers. During the playback he pointed out everything we did wrong. For me this created a huge “Incompetency Attack” where I became convinced I would never be able to sell and therefore would never ‘make it’ in this industry. This dreadful feeling lasted well over 6 months.

I run an annual 2 week Consultant/Trainer Certification Program in the Words That Change Minds model that I teach. Each year a few people freak out and have Incompetency Attacks. Over the years, my coaching team and I have developed many strategies to help our participants manage their emotional states. We used the Feedback Sandwich which only made matters worse.

We invited people to use NLP anchoring techniques to create positive states. We had them label the experience as an ‘Incompetency Attack’ and realize it had nothing to do with their real level of competency. We developed a facilitation approach that the coaches could use to help people get through the emotions to get back to a positive emotional state. I even created a new technique, based on many NLP protocols to help people recapture their success strategies and transform their experience as learners.

But it still bothered me that some people experience these devastating negative emotional states when they are learning a subject matter about which they are passionate. I knew there had to be another way.

Last summer we had a smaller group than usual. I decided that we would change the way we gave feedback to see if we could reduce the number of people who had Incompetency Attacks and increase the number of people who meet the certification standards.

Here is the formula we used when we wanted a participant to change something that he or she was doing:

  1. Make a suggestion.
  2. Give 2 reasons why we think it is a good idea: one reason states what the suggestion would accomplish (Words That Change Minds Pattern: Toward), and one reason would state what problem the suggestion would prevent or solve (Words That Change Minds Pattern Away From)
  3. Make an overall positive comment about the person, his/her abilities, etc.

To learn more about these patterns, click here.

We decided to forbid any criticism, either direct or implied. If anyone noticed something wrong, before speaking they were to think of what they wanted instead and express it in the above format.

Here’s an example:

“I was thinking that when you are asking a client about his needs, consider repeating back his key words. This would allow you to make sure that your client knows you got what was important and also avoid any misunderstandings on the deliverables. You already acknowledge what is important to people by nodding so this should be do-able.”

This straight-forward formula is harder than you might think. It took the team of coaches a couple of days to be doing it fluently without any critique. We taught our participants also to use this formula when giving each other feedback instead of critiquing. And we threw out the traditional feedback sandwich altogether.

What were the results? For the first time, all eligible participants met the certification standards. While there were a couple of people who had some difficulty with some of the exercises, no one freaked out! Not one Incompetency Attack. And all we had done was shift the environment slightly!

This was a one-time experiment with a small group of people. Not the stuff of scientific inquiry. Wouldn’t it be great if you tried this out with your colleagues, participants, family and friends? You could find out if it does work and possibly avoid having people become defensive when you want to make a suggestion. It takes a bit of practice for it to become natural but after a couple of tries it is much easier.

I would love to know what you discover. Please email me at [email protected]

Incompetency Attack is a term invented by my good friend Gillian Keefe. It refers to an extremely negative emotional state wherein one believes one is utterly incompetent. The state however has no bearing on one’s real level of competence.
Traditional Feedback Sandwich: What I liked. Points of Improvement (typically phrased as what I didn’t like), Overall positive comment. Most people agreed that this has become so familiar that as soon as someone gives them a compliment they brace themselves to hear the criticism that inevitably comes next and therefore cannot take in the compliment.

Click here to see other thought-provoking articles by Shelle.

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