Is the feedback sandwich passé? How managers can ease performance review anxiety

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Joyce Yang
Aug 17, 2022

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Joyce Yang
Joyce has always been in the business of storytelling. By day, she’s a content marketer, copywriter, and journalist rolled in one. By night, she’s training to be a therapist so she might someday help others edit and rewrite their own narratives.

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The feedback sandwich has become a staple in many management practices. Strategically placing negative feedback between two compliments is said to soften the impact of the criticism and reduce performance review anxiety. It makes it easier for the manager to deliver feedback and conclude the meeting on a positive note.

For example: “I liked that you took time to understand the client’s priorities. That said, keep in mind not to cut the client off – let them finish their question even if you already know their answer so they feel heard. Otherwise, you did great and will ace these pitches in no time.”

In theory, the method should serve annual performance reviews. But in practice, the corporate world has been finding an increasing number of drawbacks.

When the feedback sandwich might not work

While it was designed to cushion the blow, the nested feedback often makes the desired next steps and requests unclear, increasing tension and confusion between managers and their reports. An increasingly globalized workforce also means more cultural differences. For some, the inability to decipher can create distrust and lower psychological safety.

Without due consideration, the sandwich method might also promote distorted listening habits where employees only focus on compliments or criticism. In either case, the point of the conversation is lost. This may take a team member by surprise, cause them distress down the road, or make them lose confidence in their contribution to the company. 

With offices becoming both more globalized and more virtual than ever, the way we conduct performance reviews has to evolve too. But first, it is important to recognise that performance review anxiety can start snowballing way before the meeting and last long after. After all, these sessions often determine promotions and increments. 

Curbing performance review anxiety 

performance review anxiety

Ambiguity and lack of context are at the root of performance review anxiety. Will team members be praised or criticized? Will they miss out on an increment or promotion? Will a mistake they don’t even remember making months ago be used against them?

Uncertainty leads to overthinking, where the employee entertains all the possible outcomes and crowds their mind with worry and fear. Many specialists suggest that performance reviews need to start happening more regularly than once a year. Quarterly or monthly appraisals ensure consistent feedback, while informal weekly check-ins allow employees to rectify missteps promptly. Employees are less prone to an information overload or nasty surprises that could put their career progression at risk. 

As a manager, if your organisation ultimately maintains an annual cadence, you can still ease performance review anxiety by preparing them for such meetings mentally:

  • Give heads-ups and reminders: inform your team members as early as possible when the company’s appraisal period is, and remind them again a month before meetings are due to happen.
  • Let them know how it is happening: work with HR and/or superiors to create frameworks that can be shared with team members. This spells out what is expected of them and when performance might be above or below expectations.
  • Make it a discussion, not a judgment: performance reviews should not feel like a courtroom where a judge delivers their verdict. Keep it a dialogue, listen actively, ask questions and encourage them to do the same.

Alternatives to the feedback sandwich

Now that team members have been adequately primed for their performance reviews, what other approaches to performance reviews can managers take?

Radical candour

If you are adopting a culture of regular feedback, Radical Candor has been widely praised for helping managers to show sincere care while being crystal clear in their delivery. That said, radical candour (caring and challenging directly) requires practice. It will not work when managers succumb to their tendencies to be liked and avoid conflict (caring but challenging indirectly), or when they’re so blunt that they come across as obnoxious or aggressive (not caring and challenging directly). This extensive blog post, as well as the Radical Candor website, provides instructions on delivering clear feedback empathetically.

OKRs and MBOs

Used by Google, Objectives & Key Results (OKR) and Management by Objectives (MBO) focus on creating specific objectives and quantifying how far along team members are by a set date. These are commonly supported by SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Sensitive) goals. On top of providing clarity, they make great references for informal catch-ups where both parties have an opportunity to fine-tune their output.

360-degree feedback

Netflix and major companies around the world, on the other hand, adopt a 360-degree feedback method, which gathers input from the different stakeholders an employee works with. Feedback can be sought from peers, direct reports, customers, and vendors. When these perspectives are put together, they form a holistic picture that reflects their progress and helps the organization recognise their place in the grand scheme of things.

These modern methods recognise positive behaviours and acknowledge the accomplishment of goals, whereas traditional ones focus on quantifying desirable traits such as initiative, reliability, and leadership. Here we see eight more companies, from Accenture to Adobe, that changed their appraisal systems, and why.

Performance reviews in a post-pandemic workplace

When evaluating employees in a pandemic-stricken world, Harvard Business Review notes that a manager’s purpose is to align their team with the organization’s culture and values rather than weed out poor performers. If anything, taking into account what team members may have been through outside of work – changes at home, family members that need extra care, financial situations – keeps the tone of the meeting discursive and empathetic

At a departmental or company level, determine if you can do away with quantitative measures of performance and focus on soft skills like attitude, resilience, and time management. To prepare particularly anxious team members, consider sharing a summary before the actual meeting to calm their nerves. This way, they can come prepared with questions too.

Performance reviews are one of the less savoury tasks in a manager’s job scope, but it is not going away anytime soon. The good news is that with some effort, you can ease performance review anxiety and make them as painless as possible for yourself and your direct reports.

About Author

Joyce Yang
Joyce has always been in the business of storytelling. By day, she’s a content marketer, copywriter, and journalist rolled in one. By night, she’s training to be a therapist so she might someday help others edit and rewrite their own narratives.

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