As humans, we are hardwired to spot the negative. The things that are wrong. The red pen on our work. The one mistake we made in our presentation. The critical comment we heard someone make.
This is the negativity bias at play
Have you ever received a lovely feedback “sandwich”? Hailing from the Mary Poppins school of thought, the feedback sandwich approach is based on the belief that if we deliver constructive feedback to others with “a spoonful of sugar” it will help make the “medicine” (i.e., the criticism) go down a little easier. Whilst well intentioned, sugar-coating isn’t as effective as we think it is. This is nicely illustrated in the cartoon above; what do you think the person on the right will remember from this conversation? That the person think’s their “hat and top are nice”? Or that they think their “face is ugly”? When we receive a sandwich, more often than not the ‘nice’ bread is quickly forgotten about, but the filling is what we’ll bitterly remember the most.
Why is this the case? As humans, we are hardwired to spot the negative. The things that are wrong. The red pen on our work. The one mistake we made in our presentation. The critical comment we heard someone make. This is the negativity bias at play. Research has shown that people will experience an automatic threat response when they receive any form of constructive feedback. This is the same threat response that is triggered when a person is being attacked by a shark, is just about to face-off in a highly tense rap battle, or is confronted by anything that gets the heart racing in a not so positive way.
Now, let’s go back to our cartoon; whilst it’s true that the person delivering the feedback has much to learn about content and delivery of their message, that won’t be the main focus of this article. Instead, we’re going to concentrate on how to create an environment that will actually increase a person’s capacity to take on constructive feedback. This is important because giving feedback is an essential part of being a leader and cannot be avoided.
The sandwich approach to feedback has the right intention, but poor execution. Instead of trying to bundle the constructive feedback together with some positive feedback, we should be looking to build a positive motivational climate. A climate in which people feel cared about, and recognised for their strengths, so that their self-esteem and confidence can continue to grow. Cultivating this kind of motivational climate will, in turn, open up the necessary channels for constructive feedback (that needs to be delivered, and delivered well), without the need for unnecessary sugar coating.
Let’s face it - throwing an occasional “good job” at your team after they’ve busted themselves to deliver on a project doesn’t cut it
Increase the amount of specific positive feedback offered: Let’s face it - throwing an occasional “good job” at your team after they’ve busted themselves to deliver on a project doesn’t really cut it. Find more opportunities to genuinely praise good work and talk about the “what” and the “why” of what made it great. This regular positive reinforcement will help staff to recognise what good behaviours they should be repeating in the future.
Focus on helping people to understand and leverage their strengths: A person’s confidence builds when they are able to do tasks that are aligned to their strengths. As a leader, your role is to help people uncover what those individual strengths are and then facilitate opportunities for them to use those strengths as much as possible.
Turn feedback points into a discussion rather than a one-sided statement: Approaching feedback delivery as a discussion, not a statement, will go a long way towards helping people process it in a positive manner. Questions such as, “What do you think?” or “That’s my take, what’s yours”? will show that you are genuinely interested in how the person feels and thinks about the feedback being given. This will help turn feedback delivery into a motivating conversation rather than something which feels more like facing a firing squad.
Surprise and delight as a means of reward and recognition: Making people feel genuinely rewarded and recognised will go a long way towards building a climate where people feel appreciated and valued for their strengths. Rather than adopting a carrot and stick approach to recognition (if you complete this project on time, I’ll give you a nice shiny thing) try to use Surprise and Delight instead (more here). This approach to genuinely rewarding quality work and contribution will help to cultivate a more fulfilling work environment.
Stop trying to always be right: This is a hard one for me to admit, as I love being right (as my wife and sisters will loudly attest to!). But when we start accepting that there are many different ways to do something and that our way isn’t necessarily the best/only way, then this will serve to greatly increase the autonomy and self-worth of others.
Do you love the sandwich or hate it? What tips have you found to be effective for creating a positive motivational climate?