Entries in Management (15)
How a Command & Control Culture Can Lead to a Crisis: The Cautionary Tale of Samsung and their Exploding Smartphone
What happens when an organization maintains a traditional, old-school, top-down, command and control, management-based culture rather than a more open and transparent, cutting-edge, bottom-up, leadership-based one?
One vivid example is the current crisis at Samsung as detailed in today’s New York Times article, “Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Crisis Signals Problems at Korea Inc.” – although better described by the article’s print edition title: “A Top-Down Breakdown: How a Rigid Culture May Have Helped Lead To a Crisis at Samsung.”
Among the key points mentioned in the article (summarized/paraphrased below) regarding how Samsung’s dysfunctional culture contributed to, if not caused, its current crisis:
- Samsung, like South Korea as a whole, fosters a rigid, top-down, hierarchical, micromanaging, hidebound [i.e., unwilling or unable to change because of tradition or convention] culture that stifles innovation, buries festering problems, and evades accountability;
- Samsung engineers and mid-level managers are seldom allowed to second-guess management goals set by senior-level leaders…and their “no questions asked” corporate culture has grown more inflexible in recent years;
- Managers constantly feel pressured – out of fear of losing their jobs – to prove themselves through the accomplishment of short-term goals at the expense of long-term objectives;
- Supervisors often use harsh and violent language when communicating with their staff, creating a climate of fear and intimidation;
- Racing to accomplish over-ambitious goals in order to get the Galaxy Note 7 to market, extensive product testing and other safety-related measures related to the design and manufacture of the modified batteries were disregarded;
- And in its race to beat Apple, Samsung, rather than innovating new products, pushed its existing technologies beyond their limits to the point of failure;
- South Korean culture encourages and expects top talent to enter and adopt the norms of companies like Samsung, rather than possibly launching their own start-up companies, thereby further inhibiting entrepreneurship and innovation. As the article states, they are trying to identify and appoint the next Steve Jobs, rather than creating a societal culture that would enable and empower the next Steve Jobs to emerge.
In one of my favorite business books, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't (apologies for the language, but that’s the title) by Stanford management professor Robert Sutton, he tells this memorable story based on the research of Harvard’s Amy Edmondson (who coined the term “psychological safety”) regarding the impact a toxic organizational culture has on the behavior of its employees:
The results of a hospital leadership and productivity study determined that nurses who worked for administrators who had been identified as good leaders committed MORE (not less, but more!) mistakes than those who worked for bosses who were identified as jerks (i.e., a-holes). The initial conclusion: Managers who are tough jerks – even if it may be unpleasant to work for them – got the best results from their people.
Although, not quite.
Upon further analysis, what the results actually revealed was that the nurses who worked for good leaders did not MAKE more mistakes – they REPORTED more mistakes when they were made! This way they could be remedied, documented, learned from, and not repeated. They were encouraged to, and rewarded for, bringing mistakes out into the open rather than sweeping them under the rug.
The nurses who worked for the jerks lived in constant fear, and were so terrified of acknowledging or admitting mistakes when they occurred that they did everything possible to ignore them and/or cover them up for fear of the repercussions.
So the question is: What are you measuring and rewarding in your workplace: mistakes COMMITTED, or mistakes REPORTED? And are you creating a culture of openness and accountability and trust where people feel free to speak up and speak out…or are you the next Samsung waiting to happen?
Similar stories have been told about co-pilots who failed to speak up to more senior pilots when they could and should have, resulting in crashes; students not speaking up to teachers if/when the teacher may be wrong; children not feeling empowered to question their parents, etc. When there is hierarchy, when there is an imbalance of power and/or rules against questioning authority, when there is a culture of fear and intimidation, when there are penalties for speaking up, or for speaking out of turn, or for being wrong, you are potentially creating a recipe for failure…and even disaster.
As management guru Peter Drucker wrote: “What gets recognized and rewarded is what gets done.”
There are many lessons we can take from the Samsung story, but as my professional focus tends to be on management, leadership, teams, organizational development, and innovation, the question I’d like to leave you with is this:
What kind of culture and climate is your organization creating, through its norms and practices…and are you creating a culture of ownership, empowerment, accountability, and leadership at every level…or are you in the process of writing the next cautionary tale?
Every new year it’s the same thing. We start out with good intentions, high hopes, and a formidable list of potentially life-changing resolutions. And for an indomitable few, those resolutions get carried through and result in a laundry list of transformational changes and positive outcomes by the end of the year.
But for most us, despite our very best intentions, life tends to get in the way. Before we know it, January is over and February flies by (it’s such a short month!). Then all the spring holidays come along. Then it’s summer, and…well, you know the rest. That pledge to “start tomorrow” just leads to the eventual realization that today is yesterday’s tomorrow and we haven’t even gotten out of bed yet. So, what can we do about it?
We can start today. For real. Right now. What we need to do is go from “resolutions” to “real solutions”! And one real-life solution that really works, is easy to do, and can kick-start us into action, is to start reading!
And my recommendation – if you are really serious about, and dedicated to, improving your life this year – is to start your New Year by reading any one of the following 17 inspirational and impactful books on this list.
My Selection Criteria
There are a million business and self-help books on the shelves, so why these?
Because these are all written for – and about – YOU. Each of these chosen selections is practical, actionable, and even, yes, pleasurable to read. While there is a time and a place for heavy academic research and serious business case studies, these selections are all relatively easy-to-read and intended for the single purpose of helping you to become the best “you” that you can be – in work and in life.
I read (and/or re-read) an average of 5-10 business books a month on topics ranging from management and leadership to teamwork and innovation. But the books on this list are more related to personal and professional productivity, and are intended to help you to discover your passion, figure out what makes you tick, overcome your obstacles, conquer your fears, and spur you to action. They’ll help you to get focused, more effectively manage your time, and provide you with a number of powerful and innovative ways to maximize your Performance, your Productivity, and your Potential (what I call the “Three Ps” of success).
Yes, I know you’re busy working. Or going to school. Or looking for work. Or all three. And you’re exhausted – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. And it’s so much easier and more relaxing and fun to just kick back on the couch and binge watch back-to-back episodes of “Game of Thrones,” “Mr. Robot,” “The Walking Dead,” or “Orange is the New Black.” But if you’re really serious about making a change, and taking your career – and your life – to a whole new level this year, think about the potential ROI (Return on Investment) that making the time, and taking the time, to read just one – ANY ONE – of these books could potentially bring!
My 2017 List
While some of these title are newer releases, others are what I consider either recent and/or timeless classics. Every one of them (listed here in alphabetical order) have had an impact on me both personally and professionally, and are among my regular, go-to favorites that will, hopefully, “Educate, Engage, and Excite” you, as much as they did me. While most of the 50-plus new business books I read each year simply end up on the shelf afterwards, these are among the special few that I keep within arms’ reach for regular, repeated reference all year ‘round:
1) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (Stephen R. Covey): When people ask, “What’s the ONE book I should read to become more effective and productive?” this timeless bestseller is the one. At the very least, even if you don’t choose to read the whole book cover-to-cover, everyone should at least know what those seven habits are. (For your convenience, here they are.)
2) 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done (Peter Bregman): If time management, prioritization, and personal productivity are a challenge, this new book by master storyteller, Peter Bregman, will help you get your life on track and start producing results. (See the Bregman Box on page 118).
3) 100 Tricks to Appear Smart In Meetings (Sarah Cooper): Is it more important to BE smart, or to APPEAR smart? This hilarious and entertaining illustrated book will help you to do both. While in some ways more of a humor book than a business book, there are real work-related observations and insights on every page. Disclaimer: If you don’t have a sense of humor or don’t find anything about work meetings to be in any way funny, you may want to just skip this one.
4) Art of Possibility, The: Transforming Professional and Personal Life (Rosamund & Benjamin Zander): Indescribably brilliant and inspirational storytelling by this husband and wife team. I re-read this book from cover-to-cover once a year. (Watch his famous TED Talks.)
5) Design the Life You Love: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Meaningful Future (Ayse Birsel): A beautiful, thought-provoking, interactive, and inspirational workbook that will take you on a journey of discovery by applying design principles to your own life. And if you ever have a chance to attend one of the author’s wonderful, life-changing workshops, I would highly recommend it!
6) Element, The: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (Dr. Ken Robinson): When who you are and What you do are in alignment and harmony, you are “in your Element.” This book will help you get there. (His RSA animated video is a true classic.)
7) Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (David Allen): If you are simply looking for a straight-forward, no-frills, systems-based approach to getting yourself organized, getting yourself moving, and getting things done, this is the number one book out there on the subject of personal and professional productivity. (Tons of tools on his GTD website.)
8) How to Win Friends & Influence People (Dale Carnegie): This, the first-ever “self-help” book, is the one that started it all. Written in 1936, this book has, literally, changed millions of lives worldwide. Now it’s your turn. The title says it all.
9) Linchpin: Are You Indispensable (Seth Godin): I absolutely LOVE this book by one of my all-time favorite thought-leaders. In today’s working world, we need to consistently find ways to add value and stand out in a crowd. This brilliant book will inspire you to overcome your “lizard brain” and create your own path to success. I’ve read at least 15-20 of Seth’s books; every one an innovation and an inspiration. This is the one that had the biggest impact on me. (For a taste of Seth's work, subscribe to his daily blog which will change the way you see the world on a daily basis.)
10) Mindset: How We Can Learn To Fulfill Our Potential (Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.): This is the book that put the terms “growth mindset vs. fixed mindset” on the map, and shows us how understanding the important distinction can enable us to shift our mindset and unleash our potential…as well as that of others. A powerful and valuable resource for business people, teachers, parents, and everyone else.
11) One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership (Mike Figliuolo): What if you could capture, on a single sheet of paper, in meaningful maxims, your own personal guide to leading yourself, leading the thinking, leading others, and leading a balanced life? This creative and interactive book will help you do just that! (Full/proud disclosure: My “leadership self-awareness” guest post made his Top Ten list in 2012!).
12) Power of Habit, The: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business (Charles Duhigg): Whether trying to break an old habit or start a new one, this book will help you transform yourself into the person you would like to be through gaining a better understanding of how habits work…and what it takes to break the bad ones and start some better ones.
13) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Susan Cain): Finally, someone has given us introverts a voice! This book (targeted both towards introverts AND extroverts) is the definitive work on what introversion is really all about. Also, check out Susan’s inspirational TED talk that put her on the map.
14) ReWork (Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson): Like Godin’s “Linchpin,” this book cuts through the crap and tells it like it is. Written with humor, attitude, and artistry, these guys get you to look at the world of work in a fresh new way.
15) What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Marshall Goldsmith): One of my top ten favorite business books of all-time, this classic work reveals the twenty bad habits we need to break...and how to break them so as to become even more successful. I also highly recommend a number of his other titles including “Mojo,” and “Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts.” Also check out his website for numerous valuable videos and other generous resources.
16) You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader: How Anyone, Anywhere, Can Make a Positive Difference (Mark Sanborn): This quick-and-easy-to-read, 100-page book of simple stories will encourage and inspire you to step up to leadership – regardless of your role, position, or title. I love this powerful little book and re-read and reference it all the time.
17) You Learn By Living: Eleven Keys For a More Fulfilling Life (Eleanor Roosevelt): An inspirational work by an amazing woman who was way ahead of her time. Among the many life lessons she passes along in this powerful memoir is one of her most famous quotes: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face... You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
So that’s it. Again, there are many other great books out there that can help you to increase your effectiveness, but as the wealth of options is seemingly unlimited and somewhat overwhelming, this list of personal favorites is intended to answer one of the most commonly-asked questions I get both from my coaching clients and from my students: Where should I start?
So just pick ONE and dive right in. You might even happen to have a few of the bestselling classics already piled up on your nightstand gathering dust, or sitting on your bookshelf. But remember that BUYING the book with the best of intentions – as so many people do – is not enough; you need to actually READ it to reap the benefits. That’s obvious and common sense. But, as the saying goes, “Common sense is not always common practice,” and industry research tells us that a large majority of business books purchased are never even opened, let alone finished.
As Harry Truman said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” So if you truly want to lead, you probably should start to read.
One Final Important Tip
After you finally sit down and crack the cover, don’t just skim through it: Really read it, devour it, interact with it, engage with it, absorb it, consume it, and make it your own. Business reading should not be a passive, but an active – and even an interactive – experience. Yes, that takes “work”; but you have to do the work if you want to reap the benefits:
- Highlight things you find interesting with a neon highlighter;
- Underline, circle, and/or color-code important points with a marker or pen;
- Make notes and draw pictures in the margins with your own thoughts, ideas, and questions;
- If there's a quiz or fill-in-the-blanks-type activity, actually do it;
- Use post-it notes to mark the pages you want to go back to later;
- Write key points (along with the corresponding page numbers) in the blank pages at the front of the book so you know where to find them later;
- Find a blank page in the back of the book and list your action Items – things you are actually going to DO as a result of reading the book! Think in terms of “Insights, Actions, & Outcomes”: What did you take away from what you read (Insights); What are you going to do now (Actions); and what results do you expect to achieve (Outcomes), if you actually put these new ideas into action.
If you’re really serious about turning your New Year’s “resolutions” into the “real solutions” mentioned earlier, I hope you will take me up on this challenge, pick up any one of these books, and dive right in. And let each book on this list be a spark that ignites your passion and inspires you to set the world on fire in 2017.
For some of my other top book recommendations (as if this list isn’t enough), please see:
Do you wait for things to happen . . . or do you make them happen?
Do you find yourself stalling for the perfect time to take action…or do you make “now” the right time?
Do you always find yourself one or more steps behind and playing catch-up…or do you go about your business feeling confidently and comfortably ahead of the curve?
Whether we’re talking about your personal life or your career, one of the most overlooked keys to success is the level of “proactivity” at which you tend to operate.
Life and work are filled with daily barriers, obstacles, and challenges that stand in the way of our getting things done. For example:
- Ineffective Time Management and Prioritization: With so much on your plate and so little time, you don’t even know where to start.
- Lack of Focus: Trying to juggle so many things at once, you are all over the map.
- Procrastination: Putting aside the things we should be doing, for the things we’d rather be doing.
- Perfectionism: Not knowing when good enough is good enough.
- Fear, Doubt, and/or Lack of Confidence: Feeling paralyzed by indecision or inaction.
- Waiting for Lightning to Strike, or for the Muse to Come: A nice way of saying you’re waiting for a kick in the pants.
There are probably other factors as well. But if you look at this particular list, what all these reasons have in common is that they are all INTERNAL…and, therefore, all within our control.
HOW PROACTIVE ARE YOU?
Here is a simple-yet-powerful model that we call “The 5 Levels of Proactivity.” Let’s explore it from the bottom up to see how we can work our way up from being Inactive, to Reactive, to Active, to Proactive, and, ultimately, to Super-Proactive:
Level 1: INACTIVE. At this level, something is needed from you…and you do nothing. Absolutely nada. Zero. Zilch. For whatever reason, you decide to take no action at all. Maybe the problem or request will just go away by itself. But probably not.
Level 2: REACTIVE. At this level, something is needed, and you respond. This is actually a good thing! So congratulations – you’ve put out the fire. The only problem is if you are constantly in reactive, fire-fighting mode, you are always at least a step behind. After a while, as the speed of needs and expectations increases, you may fall so far behind that you are unable to catch up. And then people are constantly waiting for you, getting frustrated and impatient…until they decide to look elsewhere for what they need.
Level 3: ACTIVE. When you are at this level, you are keeping up with demand, giving people what they want and need, in real-time, when they need it, and meeting expectations. Things are going well, and you are keeping up with the pace. The only problem is that when you are just keeping pace, you are not getting ahead. At this level, there is no time or space for growth. You’re getting things done, but you’re either treading water or standing still. And in an ever-changing world, if you’re standing still, you’re falling behind.
Level 4: PROACTIVE. Now we’re getting somewhere! At this level you are not only keeping up with the pace, but setting the pace and staying a step ahead. You are not just putting out fires, you’re preventing them. You are not just meeting expectations, you’re exceeding them. Anticipating others’ needs and expectations, you are thinking on your feet, doing your homework, looking down the road, putting yourself in the shoes of your customers, fostering an environment of growth and development for yourself and others, and taking control of your destiny. Remember that the root word of “pro-act-ivity” is “act” – and you are ready, willing, and able (and excited) to ACT!
Level 5: SUPER-PROACTIVE. Now you are not just setting the pace…you are leading! With a vision of the future, you are thinking not just one step ahead, but many steps ahead. This is where innovation happens, this is where paradigms shift, this is how you drive change and blow people away. This is where you develop your reputation as a guru of, or the go-to person for, things. The leaders of the future are those who are able to meet the demands of today while consistently anticipating and exceeding the needs of tomorrow. You anticipate what people want and need before they even realize it. You are a visionary. And as management guru Peter Drucker famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
That’s the model in a nutshell. Now let’s bring it to life with a simple, practical, real-life example: Let’s say it’s January 1st and you decide you want to get in shape for the summer.
If you’re INACTIVE, you don’t do anything about it. You procrastinate, you say, “It’s only January. I can wait a few months to get started.” But didn’t you just “decide” you were going to take action? That reminds me of the old riddle: There are five frogs sitting on a log, and one decides to jump in the water. How many frogs are now sitting on the log? The answer: Still five. One “decided” to jump in, but he didn’t actually DO it. It’s not the “deciding,” but the “doing” that counts.
If you’re REACTIVE, you’ll work out if someone else drags you along to the gym, or you’ll eat better if someone else shops for healthier food and places it in front of you. But you are not in control, and you are not taking responsibility, driving the changes, or owning the behavior necessary to achieve your desired outcome.
If you’re ACTIVE, you’ll get off the couch and work out if the mood hits you, and you’ll have an occasional low-calorie fruit juice or water rather than a soda. And you’ll replace that Big Mac with a salad. Your intentions are good, you’re taking baby steps, and you’re trying, but it’s sporadic and undisciplined, and you don’t really have a plan.
When you’re PROACTIVE, you make a plan – a structured, formalized, written plan, and you stick to it. You put a process in place and set a quantifiable goal of working out x days a week – no excuses. Your diet plan includes the sacrifices you’re willing to make...and you keep those commitments without fail. You follow through and you follow up. You make real behavior changes and track the results, with no excuses and no exceptions.
And what would being SUPER-PROACTIVE look like? It’s about having a longer-term time horizon and thinking many steps ahead. It’s about imagining the possibilities and anticipating potential obstacles that may arise down the road. Perhaps thinking and planning beyond the summer, into the fall, winter, spring, and maybe even into following year. Always thinking and acting with the big picture and a long-term vision of the future in mind.
So that’s just one example. How might YOU use this model to be more proactive in your personal life? To be less stressed? More productive? Happier? To take charge of your career? To get more things done? To impress your boss, to better serve your (internal and external) customers, or to be a more effective manager and leader?
How important is proactivity? In Stephen Covey’s classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Be Proactive” is Habit #1. That’s how important it is.
It’s not easy being proactive; it takes time, attention, energy, discipline, and vision. But the good news is that the decision to be more proactive is entirely up to you and completely within your control. And it’s never too late to get started. As Confucius said, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the next best time is today.”
And while being more proactive – and super-proactive – may involve making some radical changes and taking some substantial risks, as the saying goes: sometimes we just have to go out on a limb…because that’s where the fruit is.
I am a HUGE fan of Wharton professor Adam Grant. I love his insightful and entertaining blog posts, greatly enjoyed (and try to live by the philosophy of generosity espoused in) his book "Give And Take," and look forward to reading his most recent work, "Originals." But I have to say that I disagree 1000% with his recent blog post entitled, Stop Serving the Feedback Sandwich.
And here's why:
"The Feedback Sandwich sucks!"
“In regard to the Feedback Sandwich approach, I can see your point regarding its merits. It’s important to note, however, that this method is not appropriate for all situations and, when misused, can often be ineffective and counterproductive, and may actually undermine your intentions. But it’s true that, in many cases, when done appropriately and skillfully, there’s tremendous value in pointing out what someone’s done right, before pointing out what they’ve done wrong (or could have done better) – and then ending on a positive note.”
If you were me, which comment would you prefer to receive from someone who disagreed with this blog post that you're now reading?
Which do you think would be more powerful, impactful, and effective?
And which would give you -- as the deliverer of the feedback -- more credibility?
The first example (basically, "Your post sucks") is what many people, including a lot of bosses (and blog commenters!) do: They just slam you or flame you with their opinion of why you’re wrong and what you should have said or done differently or better.
The second is an example of the Feedback Sandwich.
The Secret Recipe: How to Use the Feedback Sandwich
In brief, it’s referred to, metaphorically, as a “sandwich” because the feedback (the “meat” of the message) is delivered to the recipient in between the use of cushioning (the “buns”) to lead in and soften the blow on one end...and to provide positive reinforcement on the other:
 The top bun represents starting on a positive note, for example: “Nice job on your presentation, I really thought your content and delivery were great.”
 The lettuce represents your transition, for example, a pause, or a phrase like: “One area of improvement might be…”
 The meat represents the main substance of your feedback message: “While I really liked your content and your delivery, I thought that your PowerPoint slides could use some improvement -- and here's how...”
 And the bottom bun represents your close, which might be something like: “Again, overall, I thought you did a really great job...and if you can improve your slides, I think your next presentation is going to be even better!”
The above message can be delivered in a brief 30-second comment, or over the course of a 30-60 minute two-way conversation.
Again, if you were on the receiving end of the feedback (*see David Rock's powerful SCARF model for more on that), wouldn't you rather hear what you did well prior to discussing what you could improve on? Or would you be happy with just the blunt-and-to-the-point criticism that the Feedback Sandwich-bashers seem to be advocating: "Here's what you did wrong...now go fix it."
(Tip: I've found, from personal experience that the best and most effective feedback-givers ASK YOU what you think you did well and what you might have done differently or better (thereby initiating a dialogue) BEFORE revealing what THEY think. But I temporarily digress.)
Why I Feel the Critics are Wrong
Like any tool, technique, or methodology, the Feedback Sandwich is not intended for all occasions. That’s obvious. But when used by a skilled person, with the right recipient, at the right time and place, in the right situation, and in the right way, I strongly believe that it is a tremendously productive and effective way to deliver feedback.
Even something as simple as responding to a waiter who asks how everything was: “The food was delicious, as always. We did want to mention, though, that we thought the music was a little too loud -- which made it hard to talk. But, overall, we enjoyed our dinner and thank you for your great service tonight” – is an example of using the Feedback Sandwich approach to deliver your message in a polite and productive way.
That’s why it’s so mindboggling to me to hear certain experts in the field (like this one and this one) bash the entire model outright. I’ve heard it referred to as a “Compliment Sandwich, a “B.S. Sandwich,” and a “Crap Sandwich.” And, when used improperly, it is indeed! But, in short, I feel that the people who denigrate, discount, and disregard this model in its entirety might want to take a fresh look at it from another perspective.
For example, for those who refer to it as a "Compliment Sandwich" are clearly missing the point. It is not: “Hey I really like your new haircut! By the way, you’re the worst employee I’ve ever had...and here's why. But, again, you look really nice today.”
The “buns” need to be genuine, sincere, productive, and directly relevant to the issue you are providing feedback on. It’s not supposed to be a "compliment," and it's not about flattery or sugar-coating...or making it easier on yourself as the deliverer of the message; it’s about conveying your feedback in a way that is most productive, most effective, and most “digestible” for the recipient. That's a key point to keep in mind: As the feedback-giver, it's about the other person; it's not about YOU.
Therefore, a question to ask yourself before delivering your feedback is: Is the purpose and delivery style and wording of your message intended to beat the person over the head, or to help them to improve their performance? And is the manner in which you are delivering the feedback -- to this person and in this situation -- achieving that objective?
Additionally, regarding the "fluffiness" criticism, the thickness of the buns needs to be proportionate to the person and the situation...while taking into consideration your relationship with this person. Some people need and prefer a lot of cushioning, and some want you to "just give it to me straight." Sometimes a “Great job!” is all that is needed to start and finish with. And other times (in many, if not most, cases), more specific and detailed comments (including specific evidence and examples) are essential if you truly want to make the feedback meaningful and productive.
When the Sandwich DOESN'T Work and You SHOULDN'T use it
So when is the Feedback Sandwich NOT recommended? In MANY situations! Including the ones Adam Grant describes in his post, as well as in the case of some of the scenarios described in the academic study he cites ("The Sandwich Feedback Method: Not Very Tasty").
For example, if someone really screwed up, of course you are NOT going to use the Feedback Sandwich:
“Billy, you’re a good boy and we love you very much. But we’ve asked you numerous times not to play with matches, and now you’ve burnt our entire house down and destroyed everything we own. So again, we love you, but you need to be more careful from now on so you don't burn our house down again in the future.”
“Peter, you’re a good guy and one of my favorite employees. But I’ve noticed that lately you’ve been falsifying pretty much all the data in your TPS reports. So I’m gonna need you to stop doing that, ok?”
When it comes to integrity or policy violations, safety issues, and/or serious or recurring performance problems, of course you are not going to “sandwich” your feedback; you are going to be blunt and serious and direct: “Peter, we have a serious problem here”; or “Billy, sit down...we need to talk.”
In those situations, you would omit both buns and get right to the meat. Cushioning your message here would be completely unnecessary, inappropriate, and entirely ineffective.
Similarly, there are situations wherein you might want to start with the top bun and deliver the meat, but leave off the bottom bun altogether (e.g., "I appreciate your effort and thank you for your hard work; however...this is the third time this mistake has happened and now we have a serious problem that needs to be addressed...").
So, as you can see, there are a variety of different ways to make use of the various elements of the Feedback Sandwich. Though seemingly simple to understand, there's an art and science to mastering it. And just because it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution (what is?), in my opinion critics of the Feedback Sandwich are wrong to suggest that we should do away with this incredibly powerful and effective management/leadership/coaching tool altogether.
I've been on both ends of it, and I've received feedback without it. And all I can say is: Despite the "scientific research" to the contrary, in real life, when done right, it simply works.
Do's and Don’ts
Here’s a simple and common work situation in which it’s clear that the Feedback Sandwich would be a proper and effective approach for a manager to take:
Let’s say you asked one of your people – a relatively new employee – to write a proposal and then show it to you before sending it out to a client. Upon reading it, you find that the person worked hard on it, did their research, and got all the facts right. The problem is that in their haste to get it to you, they didn’t take the time to proofread it, and so it contains a number of small grammatical errors and minor typos. So how do you deliver this feedback message?
You can just bluntly say (as the critics suggest), “I read your proposal and it’s filled with errors. You need to fix it.” Or you can be sarcastic and obnoxious (as many bosses are) and say something like, “Haven't you ever heard of spellcheck?”
Or...you can use the Feedback Sandwich: “Thanks for getting this to me so fast – I really appreciate it. Good job on the research and the writing. However I spotted a few typos and grammatical errors, so I need you to proofread it, correct the mistakes, and get it back to me within the hour so we get it out before the end of the day. When we’re sending something out to a client, speed counts – but it’s equally important to make sure it’s perfect and presentable before it goes out the door. But as this was your first time, overall, you did a nice job.”
Simple and straight-forward, it gets your point across regarding the necessary corrective actions, powerfully delivers your message, keeps the relatively minor mistakes in perspective, and – often overlooked, but equally important – restores the employee’s confidence and morale in spite of the (again, minor and easily-fixable) errors. As the manager, it’s important to ask yourself: Is the purpose of the feedback to slam the person for what they got wrong or to acknowledge what was done well, fix the problem, and help them to improve going forward? The Feedback Sandwich does all that and does it well.
“It Sucked”: A Case Study
Earlier in my career, when I worked for one of the major TV networks, my boss’s boss asked me on a Friday to write up “coverage” (a review and recommendation report) on a new pilot script and get it back to him on Monday. (*He was asking me because my boss was out on vacation). Excited to be given this first-time opportunity and wanting to make a good impression, I spent all weekend on it and had it on his desk first thing Monday morning.
When Tuesday afternoon rolled around and I still hadn’t heard anything back yet (as we know, silence is often the worst kind of feedback), I knocked on his door and said: “Hi Jonathan, I was just wondering if you had a chance to read my coverage.”
Rummaging through a pile of papers, he finally found it, glanced at it, and then frisbeed it across his desk at me, hitting me in the shins: “Yeah, it sucked.”
As he went back to doing what he was doing before I had interrupted him, and with the report I was previously so proud of now resting on my shoe top, I meekly bent down, picked it up, and slithered back to my desk with my tail between my legs, crushed and demoralized. I thought I had done such a good job, but I left work that day wondering if I should start exploring new career possibilities.
The next day, though, I still felt like I needed to get some feedback on what I had done so wrong. And I figured I had nothing to lose. So when 6:00pm rolled around, when most others had gone home, I somehow got up the courage to go to his office and knock on his open door again:
“Jonathan, do you have a minute? I was just wondering what was wrong with the coverage I wrote – I thought I had done a pretty good job.”
His response: “You did a great job! Your writing is terrific – it’s always terrific – and you had some really great insights. I just really hated the script. But, your report, itself, was fine.”
Um...maybe he could have said that the first time? In retrospect, what he gave me the first time was the meat; the second time, the same exact meat…but presented in the form of a sandwich. A Feedback Sandwich. So, although the outcome was the same (he rejected the script I was recommending), the validation of my work made me feel a million times better, and left me eager for the next opportunity to show what I could do.
That’s the power of the Feedback Sandwich in action.
So while there are a lot of different feedback techniques out there, all with their respective pros and cons, the Feedback Sandwich is just one way – a powerful and effective way – to get your message across...when appropriate -- which is much of the time.
Think about it. If you are on the receiving end, would you rather someone take a hot, sizzling, greasy burger off the grill and place it in your bare hands…or would you rather they neatly and gently present it to you between two nice, fluffy buns?
For more on how to be better at RECEIVING feedback, please see my follow-up post:
Why is feedback—whether it’s negative feedback or constructive criticism—so tough for most of us to take?
When we receive feedback that we don’t agree with, the tendency is to get defensive, to explain, to make excuses, to try to invalidate it, to deny it, to be offended by it, and even to resent the person giving it.
Continue reading below to to find out why that is -- and what we can do to be better at -- and make the most of -- the feedback we receive.
My recent post on the Feedback Sandwich technique prompted a few readers to ask questions like this:
Most articles on feedback focus on how to deliver it more effectively, but what about when you’re the one on the receiving end? Do you have any tips on how to be better at receiving feedback?
Ah . . . that’s a good one. And a tough one.
Speaking for myself, I love getting criticism and feedback, and am completely open to receiving it any time, any place…as long as it’s positive and complimentary. When it’s not . . . um . . . let’s just say that I’m not quite as receptive. Nor are most people.
Why is that? Why is feedback—whether it’s negative feedback or constructive criticism—so tough for most people to take? When we receive feedback that we don’t agree with, the tendency is to get defensive, to explain, to make excuses, to try to invalidate it, to deny it, to be offended by it, and even to resent the person giving it.
Your Brain at Work
I just finished reading an amazing book, Your Brain at Work, by David Rock, who explains the neuroscience behind why we react emotionally (and sometimes irrationally) to feedback that we don’t agree with or don’t want to hear.
In brief, our primitive brains are biologically wired to perceive feedback as a threat. Not to get too technical or neurological, but the amygdala—the fear center (referred to often by author Seth Godin as our “lizard brain”)—intuitively senses feedback as a threat and does anything possible to avoid it.
Rock compares the feelings that feedback triggers to that sick-to-the-stomach, hair-standing-up-on the-back-of-your-neck fear you might experience when walking alone down a dark, scary alley and hearing footsteps quickly sneaking up behind you. The sensation that we are about to be attacked. The feeling that our lives are in mortal danger. That’s what feedback can feel like. And when we receive negative feedback, we are, in fact, at risk, especially when we feel our confidence, our self-esteem, and our sense of self are under attack.
It’s the “fight, flight, or freeze” response in action. That’s why, when receiving negative feedback (or sometimes even positive and constructive feedback), we may respond by lashing out in defensiveness, running (or storming) away, or standing there, speechless, in shock and disbelief.
The Five Threats
David Rock created a now-classic acronym, SCARF, that clearly and effectively captures the ways that feedback may threaten us:
Status: Getting feedback may feel as if we are being spoken down to and that our status or position relative to that other person is being threatened. A boss’s saying something as simple as, “I need to see you in my office” can trigger a feeling of heart-stopping terror . . . and make you feel two feet tall.
Certainty: When we receive feedback, especially if it is unexpected, it could create feelings of uncertainty and confusion. You thought you did such a great job on that presentation, but now the feedback has made you doubt your abilities and shaken your self-confidence.
Autonomy: When we receive feedback that puts into question the decisions and choices we’ve made, not only might we start to doubt our own judgment, but we may now fear that our freedom and empowerment might be taken away.
Relatedness: When we receive feedback from someone, it could impact our relationship with that person. “How could you say that? I thought you liked me. I thought you were on my side. Is that what you REALLY think of me?”
Fairness: Have you ever received feedback from someone and felt misjudged, misunderstood, or unfairly evaluated? If you’ve had the reaction “That’s just not fair. That’s not true. You’ve got me all wrong!” then you know how it feels to have your sense of fairness threatened.
So, now that we know WHY feedback might be perceived as a threat to our personal well-being, and that it’s a completely natural, neurological, biological response, what can we do about it?
Making Feedback Work for You
1. Try to keep an open mind, consider the source and the intention, and keep things in perspective. Don’t react or overreact; just take the feedback in. With the self-awareness you now have about WHY feedback feels like an attack, it might be a little easier (over time, with practice!) to be more open to receiving the feedback objectively.
2. Though it’s natural to react emotionally (especially when under stress), try not to get defensive. Even though it may feel like you are being attacked when the feedback’s coming from multiple people simultaneously, be open to the feedback, let it settle in, and then decide what you want to do with it.
3. Feedback is a source of knowledge. Though some things may be difficult to hear or to admit, keep in mind the value of knowing. If you were about to go on stage to deliver a presentation, and you had a “Kick Me” sign on your back, toilet paper stuck to your shoe, and your fly was open, wouldn’t you be better off knowing than not knowing? At least now you can do something about it.
4. When you get vague, general, ambiguous feedback (e.g., “You need to do much better next time”), seek out specifics. Ask for suggestions on how you might improve. Confusing feedback is worse than no feedback at all. You could even request that the person start with something positive before getting to the constructive criticism. Encourage them to use the Feedback Sandwich with you!
5. Change your mindset about feedback. Reframe it as a developmental opportunity rather than a criticism of you personally. Recognize that while the tendency (basic human nature) is to focus on the negative, it is equally important to validate your strengths and leverage what you’ve done well.
6. After receiving feedback, take some time to let it sink in, and think strategically on what to do with it and where to go from here. Remember: Unless something is a real emergency that is causing serious, immediate problems, you don’t have to change or fix everything—or anything—overnight! In fact, it’s almost impossible. Continuous improvement is an on-going process and a lifelong journey. And feedback is a mechanism that will help you to stay on course and moving ever-forward. Without it, how will you know how well you’re doing?
There’s an old saying that “Feedback is a gift.” And like any gift we receive, we can choose to toss it in the trash, or we can appreciate the thought behind it. Perhaps when we unwrap that gift, when we have a chance to sit alone with it and ponder it, we’ll find a nugget of truth hidden somewhere inside that box; one that we need to seriously consider.
And, if that is the case, that feedback is, indeed, a gift, very often the best, and the only, response necessary, is these two simple words: “Thank you.”