Avoiding the “Feedback Sandwich”: Advice from Sarah Biggerstaff

June 22, 2016

When Sarah Biggerstaff, Lecturer in the Practice of Management at Yale School of Management, addressed the Yale Women Innovators Breakfast Series last Tuesday, she shared a telling statistic: in research that looked at 200 performance reviews from a large tech firm, 57% of women received vague praise in performance reviews versus 43% of men, and vague feedback was tied to lower review ratings overall, but only for women. Biggerstaff told the assembled women from various parts of Yale—including students, staff, faculty and alumni—that it was critical to practice strategies for giving and receiving feedback that generates better outcomes for the giver and the receiver. She defined feedback as information about a reaction to a person’s performance that creates deeper self-awareness.

“When we can share something with someone that they may not be aware of, that’s incredibly valuable,” Biggerstaff said.

Barriers to feedback include an unwillingness to offend, feeling intimidated or being in an environment where feedback is not the norm. It can also be hard to ask for feedback, or to insist on more specific feedback. “Sometimes you have to guide people through,” Biggerstaff said. “Ask: Can you be a little more specific? What would it look like if I were doing that?”

She avoids the terms positive and negative feedback, as the former is too often dismissed and the latter creates tension. Instead, she advised the group to consider the two poles as appreciative and developmental feedback. Developmental describes feedback that is growth-oriented. “Ask yourself if the feedback you are giving is in service to the person or project and will help them grow,” she said.

In order for feedback to be most effective, she noted the importance of culture. There has to be safety, trust and balance—with 3-5 times the number of appreciative comments as developmental (as we tend to internalize our shortcomings much more readily than our acknowledged strengths).  

Also important: feedback can’t happen just once a year. “Think of it as a conversation,” Biggerstaff said, “not just a one-time back and forth.”

5 Tips When Asking for Feedback:

  1. Be open, curious and in “listening mode.”
  2. Repeat what you are hearing.
  3. Ask for clarification.
  4. Observe your behavior and how you feel.
  5. Say “Thank you.”

5 Tips When Giving Feedback:

  1. Use “I” not “we.”
  2. Be specific.
  3. Focus on behaviors.
  4. Keep it fact-based.
  5. Avoid “feedback sandwiches” (i.e., praise, followed by an observation about an area in need of improvement, followed by praise).   

CONTACT: Brita Belli, Communications Officer, Yale Entrepreneurial Institute & Office of Cooperative Research, (203) 804-1911, brita.belli@yale.edu.