We’ve all heard about the “feedback sandwich” where it’s recommended that critical feedback should be sandwiched by positive feedback on both sides. This practice has us starting with positive feedback followed by the constructive yet critical feedback that you really wanted to address in the first place. Then the interaction is ended with another dose of positive feedback. The notion is that we protect the ego of the receiver by making them feel good at the beginning of the conversation, then, after we have to bring them down, we build them back up at the end. 

Mental whiplash

I’ve always felt that this method was a bit contrived, transparent, and confusing — putting the receiver at risk for mental whiplash and leaving them wondering what the whole point was. 

Regardless, those of us who study and teach behavioral science often are asked the best way to give feedback. It’s a good question because one of the most powerful behavioral tools is feedback. It is also one of the most studied techniques in behavioral science as we apply it to organizations.                                    

A unique tool

Feedback is one of those unique tools that serves as both a consequence and an antecedent to behavior. As a consequence, feedback occurs after the behavior and can reinforce and shape behavior. As an antecedent, feedback helps direct changes in the quality or quantity of subsequent behavior because performance can be compared to a goal, standard, or prior performance. The resulting “gap” may guide changes in behavior that are then reinforced by subsequent feedback and so forth. In clearer terms, feedback tells you how you did and gives you the means to try and do better next time.

Feedback works, it’s cheap, and people are curious how it can be best applied for maximum benefit. My own research has shown the efficacy of feedback alone, with goals of different sorts, within competition, delivered in teams or individually, given publicly or privately, or delivered normatively allowing you to compare your performance with others. 

Behavioral safety has feedback at its heart. 

Numbers don’t motivate

The recently retired Anne French (safety trainer extraordinare during a 20-year career with Safety Performance Solutions) used to say:

“It ain’t an observation without communication.” 

She was right. The data gathered through observations in behavioral safety don’t motivate.  It is the feedback that peers provide peers directly after the observation that has the biggest impact on behavior. In that conversation, and it is a conversation not a lecture, the observer works through the observation card noting at-risk and safe behaviors and the co-workers discuss the work and safe alternatives.

So is there a sequence to best deliver person-to-person feedback?

Experimenting with feedback

Amy Henley, a student of Dr. Florence DiGennaro Reed at the Department of Applied Behavioral Science at the University of Kansas was curious. Amy warns me to be tentative about her study because more research is needed to confirm what she found. However, I thought our readers would like a sneak peek.

Amy and Dr. DiGennaro Reed gave participants feedback using the “feedback sandwich” of Positive, Critical, Positive (PCP) on some occasions. On other occasions they manipulated the sequence using Critical, Positive, Positive (CPP) or Positive, Positive, Critical (PPC) feedback sequences. 

Guess which one provided the highest rate of performance?

What people want

I’ll call it “The Feedback Pizza.”  Sessions when participants got the critical feedback first, followed by positive feedback, were associated with the highest level of performance. 

The Pizza beat the Sandwich!

And both beat the Pie that started with positive feedback and ended with criticism (PPC).  Further, when participants were asked which type of feedback they liked the best, they preferred the Pizza over the Sandwich!

So don’t beat around the bush… get to the point of your corrective feedback first. Afterward, acknowledge the desirable behaviors being executed with positive feedback… because they are indeed abundant and need reinforcement.

Be a Pizza Deliverer …