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Mike Figliuolo


Managerial Miscues: ‘The But(t) Sandwich’

Frank feedback doesn’t need any sweeteners

Published: Wednesday, October 11, 2023 - 11:03

Some people advocate giving good feedback before and after bad feedback. Doing so is actually harmful. Instead, good leaders deliver tough feedback directly.

Every once in a while history repeats itself—and those who fail to learn from it are doomed to repeat it. This post is in the spirit of that truism. Today, I heard about someone receiving the infamous “but” sandwich form of feedback. Given that, I can’t help but post some thoughts I shared way back in January 2008. I’m also posting it for the benefit of the thousands of new folks who read this blog nowadays vs. the 11 or so who read it back then. So here’s a good wayback post that’s just as true today as it was back then.

A really cool thing happened today—I had a referral come to this blog from a prestigious newspaper’s website forum on career and management styles. At first I was like, “Wow! I’ve been noticed by a leading periodical.” Then I read the content of one of the posts on the site and lost my mind. No—the post wasn’t something bad about me or my blog. It was offering advice that made me cringe as a professional manager.

The advice was about how to give critical feedback to your team members. It suggested:

“Use the ‘sandwich technique.’ When delivering a critique, it’s important to censure the behavior, not the individual. One of the easiest ways to encourage receptivity is to preface your criticism with a positive statement about the person’s job performance or character. Once you’ve fortified his ego, deliver the bad news. Ensure that he received the message and knows how to correct the situation. Then close the conversation with an affirmation.”

Pardon me. I just had an embolism.

Save the sandwiches for Friday’s Blue Plate Special.

Sorry. I don’t subscribe to this particular way of doing business. Where I come from, we call the above “the But(t) Sandwich.” You’re offering kind words at the beginning and end (the bread) and the criticism in the middle (the meat). The word “but” typically separates the bread from the meat and the meat from the bread. Unfortunately, while it looks appetizing on the menu, it goes down like a butt (deliberately spelled with two Ts) sandwich. Allow me to elaborate:

“Gee, Mike. Have you lost weight? You look really great lately and have been working very hard but the last presentation you did for the leadership team was terrible. But I still think you’re a great guy and together we can lick your performance difficulties in a jiffy! It will all be swell!”

Kill me.

The approach looks logical enough on paper, but executing it successfully is nigh impossible. I could see trying this approach with a date:

“Gee, Sally! You’re so pleasant to be around but you’re always cackling with that annoying laugh, and I wish you’d stop. But I still think you’re swell and would love to take you to the sock hop on Friday night. Whaddya think?” I’m thinking she’d say no....

Name one of your team members who wouldn’t see the bad feedback coming after the disingenuous setup they’re apt to sniff out like month-old Roquefort. You can’t, can you? Here’s why: They’re all smart and perceptive. They’re self-aware. They know when they’ve performed poorly. When you stroll in flinging daisies around the room, they know something is up. Don’t disrespect them and pander to their fragile little egos. It’s demeaning and offensive. And please don’t serve up a butt sandwich.

“Well, then what should I do when I have bad news to deliver?”

Fair question. Try this:

1. Ask the feedback recipient if they’d have some time to chat in the near future (like that day). Don’t set the session out too far. Bad news ages poorly, and you’ll drive them insane wondering what you want to speak with them about. Ask for the meeting and have it the same day.

2. When the two of you sit down (in private), clearly state, “I’d like to speak with you about your performance in the meeting the other day. I wasn’t happy with the way things went.” Get it out on the table. If you’re wasting time “fortifying their ego,” they’ll simply be wondering whether they’re about to get hit with an uppercut or a left hook. Get to the issue at hand. Spare them a nauseating fortification ceremony.

3. Ask for their perspective on how things went before you offer your view. The majority of the time they know it didn’t go well and why. They’ll self-diagnose pretty quickly because most folks are smart and self-aware. If they do a good diagnosis, you can then spend the balance of the conversation on how to improve things going forward. If they miss the diagnosis, you’ll need to bridge the disconnect for them and help them on the self-awareness front.

4. After both of you agree on what went wrong and why (which is easy if they self-diagnose), ask what they need from you to help them—coaching, training, resources. Offer your suggestions on what they can do differently going forward to prevent a recurrence.

5. Thank them. A simple “thank you” for your hard work goes a long way. Genuinely appreciating them as people goes much further than some transparent “affirmations” sprinkled over a butt sandwich.

Is this approach direct? Absolutely. Does it work? Obviously, I believe so. We all know when we’ve messed up. The faster both of you acknowledge the error and move into problem-solving mode, the better off you are. Save the butt sandwiches for the office cafeteria to serve as Friday’s Blue Plate Special.

Published Aug. 30, 2023, in the thoughtLEADERS blog on LinkedIn.


About The Author

Mike Figliuolo’s picture

Mike Figliuolo

Mike Figliuolo is the author of The Elegant Pitch (Weiser, 2016) and One Piece of Paper (Jossey-Bass, 2011), and co-author of Lead Inside the Box (Weiser, 2015). He’s also the managing director of thoughtLEADERS LLC, a leadership development training firm. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog.