We’ve all heard about the “feedback sandwich” where it’s recommended that critical feedback should be sandwiched by positive feedback on both sides. This practice has us starting with positive feedback followed by the constructive yet critical feedback that you really wanted to address in the first place. Then the interaction is ended with another dose of positive feedback. The notion is that we protect the ego of the receiver by making them feel good at the beginning of the conversation, then, after we have to bring them down, we build them back up at the end.
I’ve always felt that this method was a bit contrived, transparent, and confusing putting the receiver at risk for mental whiplash and leaving them wondering what the whole point was.
Regardless, those of us who study and teach behavioral science often are asked the best way to give feedback. It's a good question because one of the most powerful behavioral tools is feedback. It is also one of the most studied techniques in behavioral science as we apply it to organizations.
Feedback is one of those unique tools that serves as both a consequence and an antecedent to behavior. As a consequence, feedback occurs after the behavior and can reinforce and shape behavior. As an antecedent, feedback helps direct changes in the quality or quantity of subsequent behavior because performance can be compared to a goal, standard, or prior performance. The resulting “gap” may guide changes in behavior that are then reinforced by subsequent feedback and so forth. In clearer terms, feedback tells you how you did and gives you the means to try and do better next time.
Feedback works, its cheap, and people are curious how it can be best applied for maximum benefit. My own research has shown the efficacy of feedback alone, with goals of different sorts, within competition, delivered in teams or individually, given publicly or privately, or delivered normatively allowing you to compare your performance with others.
Behavioral Safety has feedback at its heart.
The recently retired Anne French (safety trainer extraordinare over a 20 year career with Safety Performance Solutions) used to say
“It ain’t an observation without communication.”
She was right, the data gathered through observations in behavioral safety don’t motivate. It is the feedback that peers provide peers directly after the observation that has the biggest impact on behavior. In that conversation, and it is a conversation not a lecture, the observer works through the observation card noting at-risk and safe behaviors and the co-workers discuss the work and safe alternatives.
So is there a sequence to best deliver person-to-person feedback?
Amy Henley, a student of Dr. Florence DiGennaro Reed at the Department of Applied Behavioral Science at the University of Kansas was curious. Amy warns me to be tentative about her study because more research is needed to confirm what she found. However, I thought our readers would like a sneak peek.
Amy and Dr. DiGennaro Reed gave participants feedback using the “feedback sandwich” of Positive, Critical, Positive (PCP) on some occasions. On other occasions they manipulated the sequence using Critical, Positive, Positive (CPP) or Positive, Positive, Critical (PPC) feedback sequences.
Guess which one provided the highest rate of performance?
I’ll call it “The Feedback Pizza”. Sessions when participants got the critical feedback first, followed by positive feedback were associated with the highest level of performance.
The Pizza beat the Sandwich! And both beat the Pie that started with positive feedback and ended with criticism (PPC). Further, when participants were asked which type of feedback they liked the best they preferred the Pizza over the Sandwich!
So don’t beat around the bush… get to the point of your corrective feedback first. Afterward, acknowledge the desirable behaviors being executed with positive feedback…because they are indeed abundant and need reinforcement.
Be a Pizza Deliverer ; )
Timothy Ludwig’s website is Safety-Doc.com where you can read more safety culture stories and contribute your own. Dr. Ludwig is a partner in Praxis2 and serves as a commissioner for Behavioral Safety Accreditation at the non-profit Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (CCBS: behavior.org) and teaches behavioral psychology at Appalachian State University, in Boone, NC. If you want Tim to share his stories at your next safety event you can contact him at TimLudwig@Safety-Doc.com.
While reading your safety blog “The Feedback Sandwich should be a Pizza” it reminded me of my father giving me a spanking for misbehaving.
He would spend me to my room and before spanking me ask if I agreed that I misbehaved. After the spanking, he would leave the room and I would be left holding my rear end. However, after a few minutes he would return and tell me he finds it hard to understand why I did (want ever it was I did) because of all the good, I have done over the past few days and he would mention them.
By the time he left, I would have forgotten the spanking and just want to prove I am the good son he expected.
Keep the blogs coming?
For the last 15 years or so my mantra has been to avoid mixed signals. Give the feedback (positive or negative) respectfully, but directly. My line of thinking has always been that consequences are a form of reinforcement. Reinforcement that works best from my perspective seems to be direct and unambiguous.
From an evolutionary standpoint of fitness (not necessarily from a social standpoint) it seems that direct consequences are the easiest to understand and have the most profound effect. I.e., you eat that plant and get violently sick… you don’t eat that plant anymore. You eat this critter and it tastes great, so you spend a lot of effort domesticating it and now you eat it all the time (moo).
Anyway, I really enjoyed this entry and found the research coming out of Kansas to be very interesting.
Thanks for sharing it.