I can walk into any organisation around the globe and the same fallacy exists.  Organisations, and leaders within these organisations, have built up the myth that when we give feedback we need to either give feedback using the feedback sandwich or we need to focus on the positive feedback.

This feedback fallacy is even more evident in schools and observed in parents, where we over use positive feedback and then either do not provide negative feedback or we soften it so much that it has zero impact. 

We have this faulty belief that if I provide positive feedback and encouragement I will be able to shift this person to high performance.  Further, we believe that if we do need to give negative feedback, that we need to sandwich the negative feedback between two sets of positive feedback i.e. the feedback sandwich.

Lastly, we believe that if we provide negative feedback that we will reduce motivation and cause poorer performance. 

We have got feedback completely wrong.  Our beliefs couldn’t be more incorrect.

The Truth

We can look at any high performing individual, team or organisation in any sector, business or sport, and it is crystal clear, high performance is unattainable without negative feedback.  More specifically, without accurate self-awareness and critical analysis of weaknesses one cannot develop the weakness. Our weaknesses ultimately slow us down and inhibit our realisation of high performance. Negative feedback is essential for the awareness of weaknesses.

Most of you reading this will be thinking to yourself: “Well, I know this”.  Yet, despite knowing this we still don’t provide the accurate negative feedback to our work colleagues, our direct reports, our friends and family, and our children. We continue to tell our children how fantastic they are (when they aren’t) and that they are winners (when they are not), too afraid to give them the negative feedback.  We continue to provide positive encouraging feedback to our direct reports, even though the work performance is not up to standard.

We live in a society that is fearful of giving negative feedback, and therefore avoid any negative feedback or soften the feedback so much that it loses all impact.

An Example – what would you do?

My daughter (5yrs old) is drawing a picture.  I ask her what she is drawing.  She replies that she is drawing a cheetah.  Once she is done she walks over and shows me the picture she has drawn and asks me what I think of her drawing.  I reality it doesn’t look anything like a cheetah.


I reply: “That doesn’t look like a cheetah to me, rather like a frog”.  My daughter looks back at the picture, nods her head and agrees with me.  Returns to her table and has another go.  She returns a second time, this time with an improved picture.  I tell her that it is definitely improved and I can now see the four legs and the long tail, which is more like a cheetah.  She goes back to the table for a third time and re does the drawing again.  The third time her drawing now actually looks like a cheetah.  I can now genuinely say that her picture is a great picture of a cheetah.

Many of you reading this are probably thinking that this is way to harsh.  You might be thinking that you would never have such a reaction to your daughter or son.  I will explain shortly why the above approach is so critical for your child’s future development.

Let me describe one more example: My wife and I are out shopping with my mother-in-law looking for dresses for my wife.  We go into one shop and my wife tries out a couple of dresses.  As she comes out of the dressing room she asks me and my mother-in-law what we think of the dress that she has tried on.  I don’t think that it looks that great.  My mother-in-law replies: “It looks lovely”.


I reply: “I don’t think it looks great”.  My wife turns around and returns into the change room to try on the next dress.  My mother-in-law turns to me with an astounded look on her face.  She says that she cannot believe that I had said such a horrible thing to my wife.  Late that day I was driving back home with my wife and I explained my mother-in-law’s reaction to my comment.  I said that I was concerned that maybe I had been a little harsh.  My wife replied: “I would never ask my mother what she thought if I really wanted an honest answer.  However, if I wanted an honest answer I know that I can trust you for that honest response”.


The Evidence

We can all agree that trust is fundamental in any relationship, whether it be in the workplace or in our personal lives with our partners, friends and children.  And no doubt, we all want the people around us to trust our positive feedback. 

However, if we cannot be honest about our negative feedback, then how will anyone ever trust our positive feedback.

When we provide honest negative feedback, we set the foundation for trust, because when we then provide positive feedback the person is far more likely to believe and trust the positive feedback.  If we either do not give negative feedback or only give positive feedback we reduce the impact and trust in the positive feedback.



Perhaps more importantly, we need to understand our true motive when using the feedback sandwich.  I recall eighteen years ago been given some feedback by my Director at the time that shook me to the core and changed my approach to feedback from that point forward.  At the time I was using the feedback sandwich, which felt like the right thing to do.  My Director said that by using the feedback sandwich I was leading in a ‘Selfish’ way.  In other words, the only reason I was using the feedback sandwich was to make me more comfortable providing the negative feedback, which was based on my own needs rather than the needs of the individual I was providing feedback to.  He was absolutely correct. 

Using the feedback sandwich is a selfish way to lead.  If we truly have the intention of assisting our people to grow and develop, then we would be able to give them negative feedback without fluffing it up with positive on each side.


If we want to enhance trust in our teams, workplaces or in our relationships, we need to start having the courage to provide negative feedback.  Negative feedback is the foundation of trust.

I have never observed or experienced a sustained high performance environment that does not cultivate a culture of giving negative feedback.  I have however observed many low-performing teams and organisations that lack a culture of giving negative feedback.

This is not to say that positive feedback has no place, it certainly does, when someone has done a good job.  We absolutely need to providing recognition of great effort and hard work that leads to success.  However, we should not exaggerate positive feedback nor only provide positive feedback. It needs to be balanced with negative feedback where someone has not delivered to expectations.

I recommend the following actions for you to make some changes in the way you give feedback:

  1. Seek for opportunities to give positive feedback on process or how someone is completing a task.
  2. Provide the positive feedback in an honest, clear and frank manner (with no exaggerations)
  3. At the first opportunity for negative feedback i.e. sub-standard work or error, use the opportunity to provide negative feedback that is specific, clear, unambiguous, respectful, and completely honest.


If your organisation and the leaders in your organisation would benefit from further development around feedback and performance conversations then contact us for more information.



About the author

Gregory Bayne is one of the Directors of Total Leader and Coach Solutions Australia.  Greg works with senior and executive leaders assisting them to make shifts in the way they work, the way they think and the way they live their lives to become better leaders, colleagues and team members. Greg has a particular focus on assisting leaders create a culture or accountability and high performance. His expertise and knowledge is around building and developing a culture of accountability, leading high performing teams, and getting the most out of people to deliver the highest standards of work. We cultivate sustainable behavioural change in individuals, teams and organisations to drive a performance culture.

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