A recent Harvard Business Review article warned of the challenges with using the “feedback sandwich” method. The authors wrote that such feedback might irritate the recipient, cause them to ignore the feedback or confuse them. The authors also stated that positive reinforcement should be given independently so that its impacts on morale or performance are not lost. They go on to advocate a more direct approach of describing the behavior which needs to be corrected, explaining the impacts of the current behavior and either telling them or asking them what should be done different in the future.
We are still missing one step.
Telling or asking someone what you’d like to see changed is task-oriented. For behaviors which are easy to change such as remembering to wear safety boots before going to a job site, such an approach is likely to work well. The recipient could remember to do this for themselves by putting their safety boots in front of the door before going to bed or by leaving themselves a Post-it® note reminder on their steering wheel.
But when it comes to behaviors which are subtle or deeply ingrained, just telling someone what they should change rarely helps them figure out how to do it regardless of how direct we were in providing the feedback.
Think about public speaking. Most of us have at least one chronic flaw when giving presentations such as saying “you know” or “um” unnecessarily, keeping our arms crossed or avoiding eye contact with audience members. It is quite possible that someone may have informed you about this behavior in the past, but that doesn’t help you to correct it. When preparing to give a presentation, you might remind yourself explicitly of the feedback but you may be unable to act on it in the moment.
If you agree with Daniel Kahneman’s categorization from Thinking, Fast and Slow , such behaviors fall under System 1 processing as they are performed unconsciously. To change, you might need to shift into System 2 thinking until the new behavior becomes second nature.
If the person who provides feedback also offers to help the recipient implement the change, it is more likely to stick. Not only does this external support move into System 2 thinking by directing more attention to the behavior, but it also shifts the nature of the feedback from task-oriented to relationship-oriented which will reduce the likelihood of a defensive response.
So how might this be applied in our public speaking example? The feedback provider might offer to sit in the front row of the audience at a few presentations given by the recipient and perform a mutually agreed upon subtle action such as rubbing their nose every time the behavior occurs. This external stimulus should help the recipient become more aware of the behavior and, over time, they are more likely to avoid it.
If you want someone to change, be committed to helping them change.