How to give honest feedback to underperforming employees

The advice is to not use the convoluted ‘Crap Sandwich’ approach, but to use an approach that is clear and direct. PHOTO | BD GRAPHIC
The advice is to not use the convoluted ‘Crap Sandwich’ approach, but to use an approach that is clear and direct. PHOTO | BD GRAPHIC 

Managing underperformance can be a challenge for the best of leaders. Many leaders avoid giving honest and timely feedback to their team, and then wonder why an individual’s performance is not improving.

It takes courage to give feedback: both positive and developmental. However, the benefits of giving authentic, direct feedback are powerful and great. It’s just a question of getting it right.

There are undoubtedly leaders out there who have used the classic ‘Crap Sandwich’. For those of you who have been lucky enough not to have come across the ‘Crap Sandwich’, lets take a moment to explain what it is: It’s basically a framework that has been taught to managers and leaders as a way to give feedback.

It goes like this: Give positive feedback; give negative feedback; give positive feedback again to cushion the blow of the negative feedback

This process was taught many years ago in numerous management programmes.

However, this framework for giving feedback is frankly a pain to use and does not have the desired impact on performance. Lets give you three scenarios to illustrate this point:

Scenario 1 – The overconfident

performer Let’s call this person Alice. She does her job well; you think she is an average performer. However, she thinks she’s the bees-knees! In her world, she rocks and thinks she knows it all.

There are a few things she is not doing well. You need to give her feedback. So you prepare the feedback in line with the ‘Crap Sandwich,’ starting with the positive feedback, then the negative and then the positive. Now, what will be the key message she flits off with?

It is likely that she will walk away with minimising the negative feedback and focusing on the positive feedback, as it reinforces what she already thinks about herself.

Hmmm: not the impact you wanted.

Scenario 2 – The under-confident

performer Let’s call this person Daniel. Daniel is talented and has oodles of potential. However, he is constantly questioning himself, often gets overwhelmed, and he doesn’t feel like he’s doing a ‘good enough’ job. You want to give him feedback and help him build his confidence. You have been told to follow the ‘Crap Sandwich’ framework, so you give him the feedback in that way. What is the key message he walks away with?

He is likely to focus mainly on what he is not doing well; to him, that will stick out like a sore thumb.
Hmmm: this would have the adverse impact to what you had wanted. Oops!

Scenario 3 – The complete duffer

performer Let’s call her Susan. You inherited Susan when you joined the company from your predecessor. She is terrible at her job, and really doesn’t realise this. You have given her feedback many times, and it’s not getting through; you give feedback using the ‘Crap Sandwich’- again! You know what the impact is going to be, right? She completely ignores the ‘Crap’ and continues to stay in her positive bubble.

So the advice is to NOT use the convoluted ‘Crap Sandwich’ approach, but to use an approach that is clear and direct. Provide positive feedback when the performance is positive and offer constructive ‘development’ feedback when it is necessary. A key thing to focus on is the purpose of the feedback.

Positive feedback aims to build confidence. Giving positive feedback helps reinforce positive behaviour; the individual is likely to continue doing this – a bit like Pavlov’s Dogs, where positive reinforcement encourages the repetition of the behaviour.

Development feedback aims to build competence. Giving development feedback helps the individual see where they may be going wrong and provides them with an opportunity to address an issue.

Here is a feedback framework that has been used with thousands of leaders. It is called the AID Model and is simple to use:

Action - What was said, observed or noticed
Impact - The effect it had (how did it make you feel or what did it make you think).
Desire - What do you want to encourage or what would you like to be done differently next time.

Some of the best leaders and mentors have been those that have given honest and direct feedback that has helped others continuously grow. Be a great leader by having the courage to give authentic feedback!

Ms Kent is a consultant and coach with Redstone Consulting