OK, so yes, it is a good idea to practice moderation and not eat too many cookies, but the sandwich cookie I am talking about is a management tool I discovered early in my career called “Oreo Feedback.” In college, while working as a restaurant training manager, I attended a corporate management seminar where I was introduced to this technique to give employees feedback. The technique compared employee feedback to an Oreo® cookie where, when giving feedback to an employee on what they need to improve, you should provide the feedback in the following order (analogous to an “Oreo” cookie):

  1. Tell the employee something they do well (the top cookie)
  2. Provide the employee with your improvement feedback (the Oreo filling)
  3. Wrap up the conversation with more feedback on what they are doing well (the bottom cookie)

At the seminar, we practiced the technique and at the end of the workshop I walked away believing I had just tapped into to one of the best-kept management secrets of all time.

I started to use the technique while training other restaurant workers and was able to see positive results. The employees appreciated that I was willing to point out what they were doing well in addition to feedback on where they could improve. I soon became an evangelist of the technique.

I continued to use the technique after graduating college when I became a Customer Service Manager for a technology company. While the technique still provided positive results I noticed that at times, when giving employees feedback using the technique, the feedback was not always well received. I started to doubt the Oreo feedback tool and determined that, especially when working with more experienced knowledge workers, too many “sandwich cookies” are not always a great idea.

I discovered that while the technique is good, if overused, the positive feedback can potentially come across insincere and may discredit the entire feedback approach. An experienced knowledge worker can tell when they are being “buttered up” and quite frankly, will often resent it.

Once the “Oreo Feedback” stopped working for me, I discovered other ways to give employees feedback and here is what I have learned about giving feedback to employees:

Strive to be Generous: Never miss an opportunity to give employees positive feedback. When you see good behavior, point it out, let them know and be generous. If an employee receives several positive comments from you for each “improvement opportunity” comment, then the “improvement opportunity” feedback will be better received. Being generous with your positive feedback will also help your employee understand that the “improvement opportunity” feedback is given to them to help them improve, not to criticize their performance. Also, if your positive feedback far outweighs your “improvement opportunity” feedback, then you can be more direct with this feedback and an “Oreo” will not be needed.

Strive to be Specific: Avoid general feedback. Specific feedback is much more effective than general feedback. We tend to be more specific when giving employees feedback on what they need to improve because we feel we must justify the comments. Challenge yourself always to be just as specific when providing the positive feedback as well. If you tell an employee “you do a good job” it may make them feel good, but they also need to know more specifically what they do well. Consider positive feedback like: “I really admire how you handled the customer on the phone yesterday during our conference call; the customer was upset but you were very patient and I was amazed at how well the customer responded to your explanation of the situation.”

Strive to be Sincere: Following on to being specific, sincerity in your feedback will go a long way. I think this is why the Oreo feedback method can be ineffective. The positive feedback can become forced because it becomes just a step you “must” complete to give the “improvement opportunity” feedback. When you are specific and sincere with your positive comments, employees on your team will know that you are paying attention to the details and that you deeply appreciate their contributions. When you are sincere with your “improvement opportunity” feedback, the employee will have a better tendency to take the feedback as help (not criticism) and should be more receptive to the feedback.

Strive to be Consistent: Feedback given to an employee during the formal performance review process should never be a surprise. One year, during our formal annual review, at the end of each employee review session, I specifically asked each employee if any of the feedback given in the performance review was a surprise. My hope was that each employee would say that none of the feedback came as a surprise but to my dismay, not all employees responded as I hoped. I took this feedback as a reflection on my management effectiveness, and since then I have tried to deliver feedback more consistently so that the performance review becomes just a formality and all feedback in the review has already been consistently provided to the employee throughout the year.

In my opinion, management is a privilege, and for the record, I know I have not always been a model for using these practices and ideas.  To all the employees I have managed where you do not feel I consistently practiced these ideas, I apologize. I am still on my path of learning and discovery. To any employee I yet to manage in the future, please hold me accountable. These standards define the type of manager I hope to have and the manager I hope to be.

In summary, Oreo and sandwich cookies are not bad, but they should be used in moderation, and you should also consider leveraging additional management techniques to deliver effective feedback to the employees on your team.