Gluttony stained glass window by aesdanae at

Trading in the Sandwich

I moved into management almost as soon as I left law school.  Those two facts aren’t causally related, they just are.  In the past 15 years or so of managing, I have heard a lot of recommendations on how to be a better one.  Some are really useful and then there are those that just don’t pass the smell test.  One of the latter is the feedback sandwich.

The premise is that, if you have something to impart that can be perceived as negative, that you lead-in with something positive, shift to the negative, then shift back to a positive close.  It is not that it can’t work, it is that it doesn’t sound authentic and you tend to be able to say, “Oh, right, they’re giving me/someone else a feedback sandwich”.  It is a bit like watching a movie with poor special effects.  When you are aware of the technique, you almost miss what is being said because you are focusing on the technique being used.

I read a book recently (I am pretty sure it was Tim Harford’s Adapt but I am not 100% sure without having a copy in front of me) that suggested that the feedback sandwich fails because the negative information can be so overwhelming to the listener’s concentration (it is the negativity more than the content) that the subsequent positive end note is lost.  So you get an open face sandwich, which is probably not better than skipping the whole sandwich in the first place.

All of which was passing through my head in the past two weeks as we prepared for the annual performance reviews.  I have 7 direct reports from my 3 departments (about 25 total people) to review and, like many organizations, we have a relatively rigid process that follows all the HR best practices.  Yet it’s a relatively unhelpful process because – if you have adhered to the truism that (a) there should be regular communication and (b) no surprises at review time – they create a capstone out of something relatively meaningless.

Rather, it creates a relatively high stress time, whether in having formal as opposed to informal processes and meetings or having substantial paper pushing (whether it is paper or not) and bureaucracy in high gear.  This was the first year I veered wholly away from any pretense of the style of feedback that includes any semblance of a sandwich, which I have never cared for any way.  As with so many aspects of communication, I ended up going with a more direct style that I think was more authentic and still communicated both the solid areas and the ones that needed improvement.

You might have noted how early in the year our reviews take place!  I think it is a hallmark of bureaucratic organizations that they have longer time windows to complete administrative activities (for example, we start our budgeting process in May, 7 months before the budget goes into place, and with only 5 months of actuals in hand) that happen more expeditiously in nimbler organizations.  It is a challenge to measure staff based on goals prepared in mid/late January with a review in late October that purports to represent a year.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.