In olden times, managers were taught to give employee feedback like so:
- Start with some praise
- Give the criticism (the real point of the conversation).
- End with more praise
The thought was that wrapping bad news in good news would make an employee more receptive to the bad news and more likely to change for the better.
Starting in the 1990s, this approach fell out of favor. Praise-criticism-praise was labeled the “Dirt Sandwich”—or, even more colorfully, the “Mud-Filled Twinkie.” (Okay, the real terms were cruder, but this is a family blog.) Management consultants decried the Mud-Filled Twinkie as, at best, ineffective, at worst, disingenuous and manipulative.
The better way to give employee feedback, they argued, was something like this:
- State your observations of the employee’s problematic behaviors.
- State the impact of those behaviors on team results.
- Conduct a problem-solving discussion with the employee.
Most employee feedback models of the past 25 years are simply variations on the above process. Motivational feedback (praise) is still seen as important, of course. But it must be delivered, experts now say, separately from critical feedback. The Twinkie must be deconstructed, and cake and mud served on separate plates.
It seems like a step forward, but here’s the problem with the new-and-improved method: Recent brain science research suggests that critical feedback—no matter when or how it’s delivered—triggers fear, and fear makes people resistant to change.
In other words, while we’re busy stating our observations (“Quin, I observed that all the questions you asked on that customer call were closed-ended.”)—or perhaps being a bit more sophisticated and asking for the employee’s observations (“Quin, how could you have improved your questioning on that call?”)—Quin’s reptilian brain is sensing an attack and going into fight-or-flight mode. And the chances of Quin asking better questions on the next feedback call are plummeting.
So what do we do?
For answers, allow me to shift from Twinkies to classic literature. My book, The Greats on Leadership, looks to great authors of centuries past for advice on how to be an effective leader. Chapter 21 focuses on G.B. Shaw’s play Saint Joan. It’s the story of Joan of Arc, the teenage peasant girl who in the 15th century led the French armies in a successful bid to raise the siege of Orleans, expel the English, and place the Dauphin on the throne of France.
The play holds plenty of lessons for leaders, and one of them is about the importance of encouragement.
In the opening scene of the play, the steward of Vaucouleurs Castle tells his commander he’s tried to eject Joan, who’s been hanging around the castle exhorting the soldiers to fight the English invaders.
“We cannot make her go,” he says.
The commander says scornfully that they must all be afraid of her.
“No sir,” says the steward. “We are afraid of you; but she puts courage into us.”
Time and again in the play, we see Joan “putting courage” into followers high and low. It’s her encouragement that overcomes their fear and causes them to stretch themselves, to try something new and bold. Were she your manager today, she wouldn’t hesitate to tell you what to do differently, but her directives would be suffused with optimism—her belief that you can do it.
Joan’s story points to a truth captured, albeit clumsily, in the old Mud-Filled Twinkie: Critical feedback, if it is to be heard, must come in a great big wrapper of encouragement. The problem with the Twinkie was that the wrapper was more like a disguise. Everyone knew the real point was the criticism, and the praise was only for show. That sort of employee feedback was, indeed, disingenuous.
But what if we make the encouragement sincere? What if, like Joan of Arc, we truly want our people to be their best selves and truly believe they can be their best selves? Then, criticism and praise both dissolve into a genuine desire to see someone improve. There’s no need to separate motivational from constructive feedback in stilted “feedback conversations.” It’s all coaching, all forward-looking, all about getting better at what we do.
When I was an aspiring young dancer, the best teacher I ever had would deliver instruction in the bluntest terms (sometimes accompanied by whacks on the offending body part). But I was never fearful, because she was so clearly focused on helping her students improve, and she so clearly believed in us. I doubt she ever thought about “feedback.” She simply taught us to dance better.
So forget the Twinkies, whole or deconstructed, and serve up coaching any way you like—as long as it’s with two big scoops of encouragement.
Jocelyn Davis is an international leadership author and consultant. Her book The Greats on Leadership tells how to develop the insight, judgment, and character of a great leader. Visit her website or tweet to @JocelynRDavis.
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