Note: This article was extensively revised and republished on December 4, 2018. Click here to read Five Steps to Frictionless Feedback. I revised it to add new research, reflect fresh experience, and most importantly to share the topic with a wider audience than my necessarily finite list of clients. I hope you find it useful. The key research cited in the article below was included in the revised version.
What if you ordered a deli sandwich and after they thought about it for a moment, carefully made the perfect specimen, handed it to you with pride and suddenly took back the bread? After the initial shock of such odd behavior, I’m guessing you might feel a little unsatisfied and hungry for more. When coaching your staff, feedback is an important tool. However, we often use the same idea as the sandwich. We give useful criticism but sandwich it between two pieces of positive encouragement. Recent research has shown that this approach is surprisingly ineffective. It turns out it’s a bit like handing out a thoughtful criticism sandwich and then taking back the two pieces of bread. It’s more like “foodback” than feedback. Let’s find out why.
This practice was studied by Clifford Nass and described in his book, The Man Who Lied to His Computer. The brain goes into full alert when hearing negative criticism and enters a state called “retroactive interference” which results in nearly total memory loss of anything prior to the criticism. It might take minutes, hours or a couple days for the memory to disappear, but your brain simply forgets those previous words of praise. If asked later if there was any positive feedback in the discussion, one simply can’t remember. Oops! There goes one slice of bread from your sandwich.
But another interesting phenomenon occurs when giving criticism. In that same heightened alert state, one also experiences a new sense of awareness that Nass calls “proactive enhancement.” You’ve got their attention, so now they are ready to listen and absorb whatever you say next. This is where the opportunity is often wasted. Most managers provide what they regard as a soft landing by giving positive-sounding generalities. That’s the bread slice on the other side of the sandwich. Generalities, by their very nature, are hard to remember. So, we soon miss that slice as well. With the bread missing, what remains might leave us a little unsatisfied and hungry for more.
How can we improve on this model? When coaching your sales force, the goal is improving sales effectiveness with honest, useful feedback. Criticism is important if you want to improve a specific behavior. And positive comments are also important to ensure you get more of the behaviors that are already working. When both forms of feedback are delivered in the same conversation and you want both to be remembered, you need a better strategy.
Here are three crucial steps for effective criticism:
- Tone – How you say it is more important than what you say. Your tone provides the signal for how you feel about someone. Is the person the problem or is it just their behaviors? If we stick to the behaviors, then we can still smile at them, be filled with gratitude for them and remain firm that the behavior needs to change. Keep the list of negatives short and specific. Too many criticisms will feel like a barrage which can be depressing rather than instructive. A few helpful points will provide focus.
- Order – Negative first, positive second. Order matters. Tell them the positive comments after the negative ones and make the list of positives long and specific, rather than general. “You’re basically doing a great job.” can be replaced by, “You’ve been growing the front end of your pipeline by making more calls, which is really going to help you in the last quarter.” [Note: This assumes that it's important to deliver negative criticism in the first place. The revised article makes the argument that setting up a culture of coaching, with proper framing, eliminates the need to simply deliver criticism.]
- Actionable – We handle criticism better when given the recipe for improvement. Always provide actionable feedback alongside the criticism so that they understand how to correct the problem. Don’t leave them hanging and wondering what it all means. General negativity makes us anxious and frustrated. Specific criticism, with the steps to make it better, leaves us empowered and provides a sense that someone is looking out for us.
Is coaching an important part of your culture? Do your people regularly come to you for help? Do you look for advice and feedback in your own organization? When it’s time to serve feedback to your staff, what steps do you take to keep all food on their plate?
Photo Credit: Dennis Connelly (Note: I fixed the sandwich before eating it.)