Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

difficult conversations

Bad News Sandwiches

Ibad news once had an employee who was not doing well. She just didn’t seem to understand the nature and objectives of her role. Her work was sloppy and often had to be re-done by others. She often missed deadlines. Other employees resented her because they felt she wasn’t pulling her weight.

We needed to motivate her and get her on a new path. Or, failing that, we needed to cut our losses and terminate her. I consulted with HR about the best ways to have a “difficult conversation” with her.

HR advised me to use a “bad news sandwich”. Delivering bad news can deflate a person and de-motivate them. So you create a “sandwich” of good news/bad news/good news. In theory, that delivers the bad news without discouraging the person.

The conversation went reasonably well. I thought I delivered both the good news and the bad news effectively. I spent roughly 60% of the time on the bad news. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. She had been called in by the “big boss” and two of the three messages she heard were positive. She concluded that she was doing better than she had previously thought. Her work did not improve.

I realized that I should have paid more attention to Greek rhetoric. The Greeks taught a system of message prioritization. If you have three messages to deliver in a speech, put the strongest message first. Put the second strongest message last. Put the weakest message in the middle. Why? Because the middle message is the one your audience is most likely to forget. This is sometimes called the “primacy and latency effect” – the first and last ideas are remembered.

I was reminded of this incident when I spotted an article, “You’ve Been Doing a Fantastic Job, Just One Thing …” in a recent edition of the New York Times. The article also notes that the bad news sandwich doesn’t work (though they call it a “praise sandwich” which is analogous to calling a chicken sandwich a “bread sandwich”).

The article notes that feedback serves different purposes for people at different points in a learning cycle. Novices often lack confidence and need encouragement. Negative feedback can discourage them. On the other hand, more experienced people see feedback as a way to improve their performance. As always, it’s important to know who your audience is.

The article also questions whether it’s useful to label feedback positive or negative. Let’s say I see you riding a bicycle and say, “You’d be more efficient if you raised your saddle by two inches or so.” Is that positive feedback or negative? Sometimes feedback is just feedback.

What have I learned in all this? I’m now more likely to give “negative” feedback without the positive wrapper. I try not to be harsh but I do try to be specific. I also learned that defining a decision as “either/or” can be self-defeating. It turns out that the woman in my little story wasn’t a particularly good marketer. But she was very good at inter-personal communication and very intuitive about other people’s needs. We found her a role in the HR department and she blossomed. I thought that the decision was binary: either she improved or she would be fired. It turns out that there was another option, as there often is. The good news? No more bad news sandwiches for her.

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