The ‘Feedback Sandwich’: 5 Ways to Identify One and How to Respond

Staff Sgt. Michael Cooper, a Basic Leader Course Facilitator, returns feedback to a BLC Student after observing and grading his performance during the Physical Training Assessment. (U.S. Army/Sgt. Christopher Thompson)

Just when you thought you've heard it all regarding the differences between military and civilian cultures and workstyles, I'd like to introduce you to a common communication technique called the "feedback sandwich."

When someone has advice, input or criticism to share with you, it's a well-loved habit to put the bad news or information between two bits of positive or good feedback. Hence the term "sandwich."

In the military, you learned that feedback is delivered immediately and directly. There's no room for interpretation, ambiguity or nuance as the brevity of the military communication style serves the purpose of relaying clear information quickly and keeping everyone safe.

A feedback sandwich, on the other hand, is often deployed by managers to soften the blow of negative feedback on your performance, behavior, skills or communication. While not ideal to someone unfamiliar with the technique, it is important to understand how it appears and sounds so you truly capture the essence of what's being said.

Here's how a feedback sandwich might sound:

Mike, you're doing a great job. Your team loves working with you, you bring such fresh ideas to meetings, and your willingness to chip in when help is needed is appreciated by me and recognized by senior management.

The challenge I have is with your hesitancy to get on board with this new project. Your reluctance to use the new software is causing me stress. In that meeting where you stood up and said, "Let me play devil's advocate," and then rebuked my logic for the new platform, I was embarrassed in front of the team. That can't happen again.

But I do want you to know that I applaud your confidence, boldness and the way you support your team and their work. They rely heavily on you, look up to you and call you a "leader." This is wonderful.

For Mike, hearing this sounds like a string of positive accolades. He's being told he's well-loved by his team, senior managers recognize his work ethic and he brings great ideas to projects. He's even called a leader, which is a great indication he'll grow his career with the company. If he's not paying attention, Mike could easily miss the behavior his manager is instructing him to correct.

How to Identify a Feedback Sandwich (and How to Respond):

Before jumping to the conclusion that what you're hearing is all good or all negative, consider these steps to identify feedback that should be acted upon:

1. When someone is offering you input, listen with an appreciative, yet critical ear to be sure you understand the entirety of what's being shared.

2. While you don't want to be overly skeptical ("Oh, they're buttering me up for bad news!"), be careful tuning out after the positive accolades are spoken.

3. When they're finished giving you feedback, consider all that was shared. What was the complete message? Were there actions requested of you? Was the feedback something to act on immediately, or was it information for a later time?

4. Acknowledge and honor what was shared. Feedback is hard to receive, but it can also be very hard to share. When someone thinks enough of you to offer input that will help you grow, get better or increase your value, that's a gift.

5. Reflect on how changing this behavior will impact you. Are you being asked to compromise something about yourself and your values that you find truly uncomfortable? This could require a follow-up conversation with the person who shared the feedback, clarifying that what you heard is what they said. And if you aren't willing to make those changes, explain your reasoning.

When someone recognizes a feedback sandwich, they can become more open to feedback, able to clearly hear input that's shared with them and are empowered to grow in ways that support the company's mission and their individual goals for their career and relationships.

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty" (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

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