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Smarter change

Giving feedback people hear

Giving feedback so people hear it is not as obvious as it sounds.

Andrew’s been working with Melinda for more than 3 months. She makes consistent reporting errors. She’ll leave the wrong caption under the graph. Fail to spell check. Leave old information in the final report.

The first time it happened, Andrew was clear and direct with her. “You’ll have to pay more attention to detail”, he said, and gave her 7 examples of when she hadn’t. There could be no mistaking what the problems were, and they were all easy to fix. As he spoke to her, her eyes went wide. Her face went white. She looked like she’d shut down.

Within 2 weeks, she’d made similar errors. He gave her the same feedback. And then again she got it wrong. Andrew despaired. Maybe he should just fire her.

What is it that means some people don’t even hear when we give clear feedback like this? If you’ve ever felt like you’re wasting your breath, then read on!

Using the feedback sandwich

Alice repeatedly told her team member George that he needed to be more proactive.

She began very supportively. She used the sandwich technique, made popular by the one minute manager’s one minute reprimands. “George, you’re a clever person, and I value your expertise. You need to be more proactive.

It’s not enough to say “I don’t know” to a client. You have to say “I don’t know, and I’ll find out”.

I understand that you’re very busy, and I know you’ll be able to do this”.

He just didn’t hear her. The next week was development plans week. George thought he was doing very well. He had nothing improve on. It was as if Alice had never mentioned his lack of pro-activity.

The two styles of feedback

My husband loves vegemite sandwiches. My favourite lunch food is sushi. Just as people love different foods, so their need for feedback is different. It’s a horses for courses affair. There are 2 styles of feedback here.

The first style, Andrew’s feedback method – the one he prefers to manage by, and the one he prefers others to use with him. It’s direct. There’s no sugar coating, no pussy footing around the point.

The second, Alice’s feedback method to George – the one she prefers to dish out, and the one she prefers to receive, is the feedback “sandwich”. Say something positive, “Melinda, you’re getting really good at making the clients happy”, then you say what could improve: “but you could work on your attention to detail”; then say something positive again, “And I know, Melinda, that you’re able to do this”.

Horses for courses on the feedback

According to Deborah Tannen’s research, in general men tend to prefer to receive and give straight, direct feedback. Women tend to give and prefer to receive “sandwich” feedback. It encourages them to change.

Men go straight to the filling in the sandwich, “you could work on your detail”.

Women put the bread of positivity around the filling.

When Alice used the sandwich technique with George, according to Deborah Tannen’s research, George hears the sandwich, 3 statements, 1 not so positive, and thinks “2 out of 3 ain’t bad“. Melinda hears the sandwich, and knows she has to work on the middle one, but it’s not all bad news, and she feel encouraged.

It seems too simple, but it works.

Andrew began to use the sandwich technique with Melinda.

Instead of retreating into her shell, she interacted with him. She felt clear on what she needed to do now. Andrew felt a little weird delivering it, but he was pleased that he wasn’t wasting his breath. She did something differently after their conversation. Her attention to detail on her next report was improved.

Meanwhile Alice delivered just the filling. She felt a little mean, but she took a deep breath and said outright “George, you’ll never move forward in this organisation if you don’t become more proactive. You have to work on your pro-activity to get ahead”.

There is no one formula for success. It’s about experimenting with each individual and discovering what works. If you tend to deliver just the filling, and your clients, colleagues or staff aren’t responding, try the sandwich. If you’re a sandwich person, and they’re not paying attention, try just the filling.

You’ll tend to give feedback in the way you want to hear it, but the people you’re working with may not want it the way you’re delivering it. Give them the smorgasbord, and see what types of food they like best!!

Cindy Tonkin helps data science teams work smarter, faster and nicer.

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