THE SHIT SANDWICH IS A STEAMING PILE OF…SHIT 

/ / Leadership / 2 February 2022

A new approach is turning the stink of feedback into delicious smelling roses

How many people know exactly when their manager is giving them feedback by using the shit sandwich technique? 

To most of us, it’s as clear as day.  Your manager starts off by giving you some rather shallow ‘positive’ feedback, then hastily proceeds to deliver a big steaming turd; finishing the stink fest off with a nicely contrived positive comment at the end. 

‘You want someone to eat the ‘shit’ (negative feedback), you serve it between two lovely slices of bread (positive feedback)…hence ‘shit sandwich’ (said so eloquently by the Urban Dictionary)

The whole approach was originally designed to make the negative feedback you deliver, slightly more palatable and easy to accept by the receiving party as it’s been cushioned by positives (note: it was actually designed for kids!).  There’s a fundamental problem with it though…

People see right through it.  

It’s disingenuous, lacks credibility, authenticity and most importantly, it doesn’t work anymore (did it ever?).  

The good news is the shit sandwich has been losing credibility over the last several years as modern leaders and managers focus on developing a deeper understanding of their team(s) on an individual level, from a place of empathy and emotional intelligence.  See here a piece I recently wrote about this.   

So how are the best leaders delivering feedback?

The first step is to create a culture of feedback where it’s welcomed by everyone regardless of whether it’s positive, constructive or anything and everything in between.  

Establishing such a culture doesn’t mean skirting around real conversations or softening feedback.  It’s quite the opposite actually.  There is a way to be honest and to the point when it comes to feedback, but it first requires the construction of genuine mutual trust and understanding between leaders and individuals on their team(s) [more on this below]. 

Recently, the senior leadership team at The Wired Agency undertook some really insightful leadership training with the incredible Claire Gray from Thriving Culture.  A big focus was on how to give and receive feedback.  

Something Claire said to us really stood out.  She said ‘feedback is a gift’ and if you can nail how to best deliver it, your team will see it like that too.  

So naturally, our burning question for her following this, was how do we deliver feedback in a way that’s well received?

And she introduced us (among lots of other incredibly insightful thoughts/ideas/advice) to the idea of the Emotional Trust Account.

To put it simply, an emotional trust account is about developing a bank of trust with your team, on an individual level.  Trust grows from mutual respect, honesty, and understanding.  So that when you need to deliver feedback, whether good or constructive; the receiver trusts it’s coming from a place of good intentions and sees it as an opportunity for growth.  

As part of the Emotional Trust Account, feedback is given based on the 5:1 ratio.  Which means for every one piece of constructive feedback, deliver five positives.  It can be applied to any relationship in and outside of work – five positive feelings or interactions for every one negative feeling or interaction.  

Is this just shit sandwich 2.0?  

No.  

The 5:1 ratio separates the feedback so they’re not mutually exclusive like the shit sandwich (good-shit-good).  It allows us to provide feedback whenever and wherever in a direct manner without the need to cushion it.  

The origins of this ratio actually date back to the early naughties when American psychologist John Gottman, PhD hypothesized and then proved that the secret to a successful marriage was by using the 5:1 ratio of positive to negative commentary.  

Business leaders caught onto this idea a few years later and started trialing it in the workplace.  Among some of the leading companies around the world, the 5:1 ratio has now become the method of choice in delivering feedback. No more shit sandwich!

The best news is that this technique can be easily adopted and doesn’t need to be a (badly kept) secret (like the shit sandwich).  In fact, when creating a culture of feedback, the best thing you can do is educate the whole team on the 5:1 ratio and position it as honouring the feedback process while understanding the psychology of it from the perspective of the receiver.  

A few other thoughts when giving feedback: 

  1. Ask for permission to give feedback and set time aside 
  2. Come in prepared and draw upon your understanding of the receiver and how they like to be communicated with 
  3. Remind them that feedback is an opportunity for growth and that everyone has room for this
  4. Following delivery of the feedback, ask the receiver for feedback – how do they feel the feedback was delivered, how could you improve for next time

Author, Michelle Hampton, Managing Partner


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