Feedback: Feast, Famine, or… Poop?

Whether in government or elsewhere, useful feedback is critical to your success – without it you don’t know where you stand. But have you ever asked a supervisor or colleague for feedback and gotten a ‘poop sandwich’ in return?

Whether in government or elsewhere, useful feedback is critical to your success – without it you don’t know where you stand. But have you ever asked a supervisor or colleague for feedback and gotten a ‘poop sandwich’ in return?

Because humans across the board struggle with giving and receiving useful feedback, it is one of the topics that most internal leadership development programs spend a lot of time on. And yet, employees consistently state that they get no feedback at all or, the feedback they receive is not useful or helpful. .

One common model of delivering feedback is something we in the trenches call the ‘poop sandwich’. (OK. That’s not exactly what we call it but this is a family-friendly publication!)

This model goes like this:

Tell them something nice, then tell them the part they screwed up or what’s wrong, and then tell them something else nice. The idea is…well…you ease them in, whack them one time, and then ease them back out.

It goes something like this:

“John, you’re doing a really good job with troubleshooting our data management software, but you are rude and disrespectful in the morning meeting. You cut me off, and you called Joe a ‘lazy slug.’ Great job with the software though.”

Yuck! That’s poop sandwiched between two atta-boys!

And people will either hear one message or the other.

They will either hear the “you’re wonderful” bit, and the part that needs to be adjusted never gets heard. Or they never hear the good thing and only focus on the middle part that says “you suck, and you’re an idiot.”

(And just as a note, no matter what words you use, the recipient is going to hear, “you suck and you’re an idiot.” That’s just the way it is.)

Obviously the ‘poop sandwich’ model is a waste of time and energy because neither message can be received. Talk about mixed signals.

To clean this up, let’s back up to the point BEFORE you had a need to deliver feedback. As a caring and intelligent person, you can recognize that giving feedback is an important part of any job. The other party deserves to know how they are doing.

Now here’s the key:  the reason you’re feeling the need to deliver the poop in the middle, the reason the frustration or the unpleasant feeling came along that perhaps you labeled as rude or disrespectful, is because there is something that you needed that you did not experience — there was a need that was not being met.

But the question is: How do you give feedback in a way that allows the other person to actually hear and absorb what you’re saying? How do you actually get what you need?

Reframe the conversation from the mindset of ‘I love you AND I love me.’

(Don’t anybody get wrapped around the axle about the word ‘love’ here and start telling me, “I don’t love the people in my office.”  I didn’t ask you to!)

When I use the word ‘love’ I am talking about love as in “I have love and respect for another soul who is walking the planet the same time I am.” And each of us is trying to give our unique contribution to the world. That’s the kind of love I’m talking about.

So what does the sentence sound like?

It starts out with what you appreciate about the other person – what you genuinely and honestly appreciate about them.

You appreciate their enthusiasm. You can appreciate their excitement. In the example above, you can say “I appreciate your skill around troubleshooting our data management software. You seem to be able to make it work when no one else can.”

So that would be the first part, the ‘I love you part.’

Then there’s the bridge.

No magic here, simply use the word ‘AND’

Followed by the ‘I love me part.’  An easy way to start that part is to use the phrase “I need…”

AND I need everyone, you, me, Joe, and the others in the meeting to have the opportunity to freely and completely share their opinions on the topic at hand.”

This format of feedback is not intended to be a full stop solution. It is in fact intended to be the opening of a conversation that builds partnership. What we are looking for here is a partnership to allow the relationship to be complete and move forward.

And that is what feedback was intended to be in the first place!

About the Author

Martha Wilson is a retired CIA Operations Officer, leadership instructor, transformational coach and the founder of Greatness In Government, a leadership and personal development firm that specializes in re-energizing mid-career government employees. Organizations that are struggling with complaints about bad leaders, discrimination, bullying and other symptoms of employee dissatisfaction hire her when they are ready for a fresh approach to leadership training. She also provides private coaching to high-potential government employees who have decided to assume responsibility for their own personal and professional development.