Skip to main content

An End to the ‘Feedback Sandwich’: Clarifying Approaches & Responses to Feedback with The Leadership Laboratory

by Sam Sartori, MSLCE Candidate ’20

If you’re anything like me, hearing the words, “can I give you some feedback?” can make you cringe. I’ll be the first to admit that receiving “constructive criticism” has never been one of my strengths. However, it is something I continually strive to be better at as I work through leadership development. So when I found out we had the opportunity to do a dive deep into understanding how to both give and receive feedback, I immediately said: “sign me up!”  

Back in the fall, our cohort attended a session with Jacob Goldstein, founder of The Leadership Laboratory, to learn how we can use the golden rule of improv (saying: “yes, and…”) into our day to day lives. This was one of my favorite career growth sessions from MSLCE, so I was excited to have another opportunity to learn from Jacob about positive behavioral change.  

This session, titled “Thanks for the Feedback,” was all about how to clarify our approaches and responses to feedback. We are constantly receiving feedback, Jacob says we get bits and pieces of feedback more than 500 times a day! Most of the time we can brush it off, but we all know those instances when feedback stings. Sometimes it hits us out of nowhere; it’s a blindspot 

Using reframing to shape our understanding of feedback, Jacob reminded us to see feedback as data. We learn from this data, whether it’s good or bad, and we have the ability to decide what to do with it. 

Our next step to better respond to receiving feedback is to know why we sometimes respond negatively. Jacob calls these “feedback triggers,” and they are the most common reasons people respond negatively to feedback. 

Again, if youre like me, you’re may cringe when you receive feedback on occasion, but it’s because of these triggers. As I learned in our session, being able to put a name to these triggers and understand them is the best way to fight the feedback saboteurs. 

Sometimes when we receive feedback, it feels like a personal attack on ourselves. We each view ourselves a certain way, and when we get feedback opposite of this, we tend to take it very personally. This is the “identity” trigger and was the one that hit home the hardest for me.   

Other triggers come from our differences in perspective — what Jacob calls the “truth trigger” — or are “relationship triggers” and are based on whether or not we have a good relationship with the person giving us feedback in the first place. So just being able to stop and identify why the negativity looms around us is the best step to start seeing feedback simply as data.   

Being able to receive feedback without taking it too personally is only one side; as leaders, we must also be able to effectively give feedback to help others grow. 

So it’s time to end the “constructive criticism sandwiches.” (When you say one nice thing, a piece of criticism, and then another nice thing…it’s all too familiar.) These sandwiches are not the way to go. Jacob shared with us that it ends up confusing the person you are giving the feedback to, and they might not even hear the feedback you are trying to give. 

Instead, try Jacob’s three-step process: 

  1. Start with a specific affirmation related to the feedback. (Yes, you still want to start with something good, otherwise, you could set off a feedback trigger.) 
  2. Proceed to establish a limit grounded in rationality. (This is where you explain your feedback and back it with values and reasoning.)
  3. End it with your proposal for moving forward. (This is where you make a suggestion for growth.) 

Jacob says this is the most effective way to give feedback because you allow the other person to weigh in at the end. Feedback should always be about helping others grow. 

Plus, we cannot undermine the importance of understanding how we personally like to receive feedback and how those around us do too. This helps avoid any feedback triggers upfront. Personally, I know I need specific, concrete examples to best understand feedback. By first understanding my needs and values, and then sharing that knowledge with my supervisors and peers, I know I can set myself and others up for success.  

Read more on our blog and follow Northwestern’s MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program on Facebook and Twitter.