In the workplace, there is a clear difference between friend and friendly. No matter what The Office’s Michael Scott insists, the ideal manager is not an employee’s pal. Rather, a good employer knows how to respectfully tell employees what they need to hear, as opposed to what they want to hear. Constructive feedback is an essential instigator of improvement, but only if it is specific, actionable, and most importantly, delivered from a place of goodwill.

The Feedback Sandwich

A popular Toastmasters concept, the feedback sandwich has been used everywhere from elementary school classrooms to executive management. Sometimes referred to as praise-improve-praise, the process begins with an introduction that focuses on the subject’s strengths. This is followed by highlighted areas for improvement. The exchange ends with another positive point, ideally different than the one used to open the conversation.

Some employees respond well to the feedback sandwich, but in recent years, this common method’s efficacy has been questioned. If this approach isn’t executed perfectly, it comes across as hollow; ‘but’ is often the culprit.  Many employees ignore praise that is connected by the word ‘but’ to criticism — and also find criticism less effective if it is attached to obligatory praise. Thus, the feedback sandwich is all about judgment, and knowing when employees require a little additional sensitivity — and when it’s better to tell them straight.   

Actionable Criticism

Whether you sandwich critiques in between praise or get straight to the point, the feedback you offer should always be specific and actionable. In other words, employees should come away knowing exactly what they need to change and how they can do so.

Separate Actions From the Person

When critiquing an employee, you must detach the person from the behavior he or she displays at the workplace. This can be tricky, especially if you have a strong affinity or dissatisfaction for a particular individual. In general, it is best to use a passive voice and to avoid directly addressing employers with anything that can be misconstrued as an accusation. Likewise, absolutes are best avoided, so keep words such as “always” and “never” out of the conversation.

The Importance of Regular Evaluations

Feedback is most effective when it is shared regularly, in private, and when employees aren’t already occupied. Adopt an evaluation schedule and stick to it. Employees should know when to expect evaluations and how long the process will take. However, if you need to reprimand an employee for missing multiple deadlines or making an otherwise time-sensitive mistake, don’t wait until the next scheduled review meeting. Some issues need to be addressed promptly in order to ensure that they have a minimal impact on the rest of the workplace.

Constructive feedback is best received in a culture of affirmation. The more supported your employees feel, the more likely they will be to fix any problems you address. Don’t be afraid to tell employees what they need to hear, but be sure to do so in a positive and respectful manner.