As a software engineer, one of my main struggles used to be whenever I had to give feedback to someone or hold a difficult conversation; e.g., in our retrospectives, I would find myself expressing what was on my mind, and this leading to unproductive arguments that let my feedback receivers to getting upset and the original message I wanted to deliver getting ignored or taken the wrong way.
I figured that I had to use different words to express my feedback, then I got into what I called a great idea! Giving feedback through a specific structure: saying a good thing about the person, then giving critical feedback and finishing with a good thing about this person again; this way, no one would get upset with me because, ultimately, I was saying more positive things about them than negative ones. I still had issues with my feedback being well received; sometimes, my message wasn’t well understood, or people were more focused on the good things I said and ignored the critical feedback. Little did I know about this form of feedback strategy and its popularity; it actually has a name: Feedback Sandwich, and its use is discouraged. I’ll speak more about this in the next section.
Then, I became an Engineering Manager, and giving feedback became one of the essential parts of my job. People want to know what their X, Y, and Z coordinates are, how well they are performing, what their areas of growth are, what their strengths are, etc., and without a proper feedback strategy, things were going to be a little bit problematic.
Enter the SAID framework and why “Feedback Sandwich” is a bad idea
Through some training at the company, I learned the concept of Feedback Sandwich and immediately had some flashbacks of my past life as a software engineer.
But what’s wrong with Feedback Sandwich? I hear you say, in the end, it’s an excellent way of giving feedback without being too focused on the negative side of what we want to express. Though feedback sandwich might have a few positive things, the negative ones make them a not-so-good framework. Let me list some of the aspects of this strategy:
Positive things of Feedback Sandwich:
- The feedback session could end with a positive and engaging attitude.
- In some cases, the impact on the feedback receiver would be softened.
- It’s easier to deliver feedback using this framework; you don’t have to overthink it.
The Dark Side of Feedback Sandwich
- In most cases, the message you want to deliver in your critical feedback won’t be clearly understood. “Was that a positive or negative feedback?” — people wouldn’t know!
- The positive things you say wouldn’t be taken as honest feedback; hearing things like “Hey, I think you are a talented Engineer, but…” would make people more focused on what you are about to say after the “but…” part, and ignore that you just said they were a sound Engineer. Thoughts like “Ugh, what did I do wrong now?” Are the ones that will take over your feedback receiver’s mind at the moment.
- What’s the impact of the feedback I’m receiving? Expressing the implications of why I must change whatever behavior you want me to change could help me embrace your input more engagingly than doing it just because “my manager said so.”
An alternative approach: SAID framework
It is unknown to me who came up with this framework. It was taught to me by one of my former managers at Skillshare: Mike Sherov. (Hi Mike!).
Upon further investigation, I found similar frameworks like Lara Hogan’s feedback equation. I still stuck with SAID, as it’s more familiar to me.
SAID stands for Specific, Ask, Impact, and Decision. Let’s look at them in detail!
Specific: You need to be clear about the behavior you have observed in the other person; being specific is highly important, otherwise, your feedback will be received as too broad and generic, which the person can respond to with defensiveness or counterarguments.
Ask: Once you deliver your message as to what’s the specific behavior you have observed in the other person, ask an open question so the other person can express the source of their conduct; that way, you can have more context and this turn into a two-sided conversation where both parties understand each other’s perspectives on the situation.
A note about open questions: whenever you ask while giving feedback, make sure the response to your question is not a “Yes” or “No”; those are closed questions. Open questions usually start with “What…”, “How..” or similar, and the response is an extended explanation that leads to an engaging discussion. Example of open questions:
- “What have you tried so far that isn’t working as expected?”
- “How do you see this incident from your perspective?”
Impact: Once both parties understand the source of the behavior, it’s time to explain how it affects you, the team, the organization, or anyone else. Making the connection between your behavior and the impact this is making in people’s lives helps you be more engaged when making the changes necessary to fix whatever is not working correctly, or if you are receiving positive feedback, reinforce that good behavior through different strategies.
Decision: After delivering the feedback, it’s time to decide on next steps. I was taught that a good way to approach the decision part was to plan on a SMART goal to help you and your teammate agree on a realistic way to measure progress toward improving the behavior in question. However, as I’ve learned through my experience, action items don’t always need to be SMART goals; they can simply be new agreements you are making with the other person, with the commitment that you’ll follow up on these later on (hopefully you discuss the frequency of these follow-ups during the feedback session). It could even be a small change the person can make in handling their day-to-day.
- Feedback sandwich, though it’s usually well intended, it’s deeply flawed as a feedback framework. It leads to confusion and anxiety and blurs the message you want to deliver. You should avoid it and use proper frameworks instead.
- Ask open questions: if the answer to what you’ll ask is either yes or no, rethink it.
- SMART goals are an excellent way to plan action items but use whatever works in your context.