Everyone likes to deliver good news but, on the flipside, managers often find it harder to deliver negative feedback to their staff.
To soften the blow, some managers like to adopt ‘the sandwich approach’: by inserting negative feedback between two slices of positive feedback as a way of delivering otherwise unpalatable criticism. Management experts have queried if this really works.
A very real example of the impact of delivering negative feedback wrongly can be seen in the former Deputy Prime Minister’s actions.
Instead of adopting the sandwiching approach, Dominic Raab MP appears to have offered no bread at all when he criticised the work of civil servants which on occasion, he found slow and woefully inadequate. His approach was in his own words ‘inquisitorial, direct, impatient and fastidious’.
Mr Raab resigned following the publication of Adam Tolley KC’s investigation report into allegations of bullying against him, which upheld two out of the eight of the formal complaints. He is now leaving politics altogether. In his resignation letter, he complained that the bar for bullying behaviour had been set too low. In his view he was simply holding civil servants to his own high standards.
44 percent of managers agreed that delivering negative feedback is stressful.
LAUREN LAUNDRY, HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
What can managers learn from this?
There is no accepted legal definition of bullying. Mr Tolley adopted the definition used in a reported case involving the civil service which said :
‘Conduct would fall within the description of ‘bullying’ if it can be characterised as:
(1) Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour; or
Abuse or misuse of power in ways that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.
Critically, conduct can fall within the first limb of the definition, whether or not the perpetrator is aware or intends that the conduct is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting.
Bullying is distinct from discriminatory harassment, statutory concept defined in the Equality Act 2010 (although bullying can, and often does, overlap with it). Discriminatory harassment is premised on the affected individual having one or more ‘protected characteristics’ (age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation). As with bullying, any assessment of whether a person has been harassed involves a focus on how the behaviour is felt and perceived by the victim, not the intentions of the perpetrator.
Approaches for relaying negative feedback
Delivering feedback to what the manager regards as an underperforming employee is an activity that falls squarely in the zone in in which one person’s perception of the exchange may not match that of the other. It is therefore fertile territory for allegations of harassment. What advice do management experts have for managers who have found that the sandwich approach is not enough to create effective delivery of difficult messages?
Executive Coach and Lecturer at Stanford University, Ed Batista, points out that when a manager asks an employee whether they can give them some feedback, this will almost certainly cause the employee’s heart rate and blood pressure to increase. Leading to a ‘cascade of neurological and physiological events that impair the ability to process complex information.’ 
According to Holly Weeks , Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School it is thus critical when delivering feedback to an underperforming employee to use ‘clear content, neutral tone and temperate phrasing’.
Lauren Landry, Coach and Director of Harvard Business School Online , notes that 44 percent of managers find that delivering negative feedback is stressful, while 21 percent admitted to avoiding the act altogether. Her top tips include:
At the beginning of the conversation, it can be helpful to ask for feedback from recipients about how things are going and their perspective on the situation. In particular ‘make it known that you’re providing feedback because you want to see them succeed.’
Take time to prepare
Rehearse difficult conversations with another colleague. If the employee is a serial under performer, you will need to be more direct.
Speak in specifics
Put forward clear examples to illustrate areas of development with clear examples. Explain the impact of poor performance and connect it to the consequences both on the team and the employee’s career.
Save time for inquiry
At the end of the conversation, check the employee understands the feedback.
Focus on the future
Once the message has been received, move on and focus on the future and how you will work together.
And what of the sandwich approach? According to the experts, it still has its place but should be used with caution. Used in a formulaic way, it can undermine the value of positive feedback, confuse messaging and lead to a lack of transparency in managers’ relationships with their direct reports.
For further information, please contact:
Meriel Schindler, Partner, Withersworldwide
 R (FDA) v Prime Minister and Minister for the Civil Service  EWHC 3279 (Admin),  4
 HBR Guide to Delivering Effective Feedback by Harvard Business Review, chapter 3
 HBR Guide to Delivering Effective Feedback by Harvard Business Review, chapter 15