Yesterday somebody shared Basecamp’s “How we communicate” guide in our corporate workplace. At the time of this post, it is half a year old and I have seen it a couple of times during quarantine. However, this time around something caught my attention, something that made me think about writing this entry.

Great news delivered on the heels of bad news makes both bits worse. The bad news feels like it’s being buried, the good news feels like it’s being injected to change the mood. Be honest with each by giving them adequate space.

Article 25 at Basecamp's "How we communicate"

Why did this statement trigger something in my head?

I am Spanish. Mediterranean, but I’ve worked in Netherlands, France, Bulgaria, San Francisco… I’ve caught glimpses of other cultures. One of the soft skills I was able to improve while working in the US was giving and receiving feedback.

As part of a team-building exercise to build trust, we made confessions to coworkers. One of the techniques shared by the trainer was the sandwich. I’ve learned that it is a classic in American culture, and once aware of it I was able to identify the sandwich :hamburger: early on during conversations:

Hey Juan! Can I say something personal to you? I’ve always appreciated you and your family! You need to lose some weight because your health is important, and it’s a wonderful daughter you need to take care of!

That happened (not literally but almost!) during lunch with an American friend that visited a year ago (I’m improving my health, I promise :muscle: ). I saw the pattern immediately and let my friend know that I caught him in the sandwich (we always laugh at our cultural differences) and he confirmed that it is in his DNA.

What’s funny about it is, as Basecamp code says, everything is wrong with that technique. The first slice of bread seems artificial, and the wonderful daughter seems to be there just to change the mood, burying the important thing, that is to lose weight or get healthier.

Feedback Canvas

When giving feedback, you should be constructive, specific and always assume good intent. That goes in both directions: when you receive feedback, assume that the person who is giving you the feedback is going beyond his comfort zone and is pro-actively trying to help you to grow further.

When you give feedback to someone else, please keep in mind that you don’t know the full picture: assume that your colleague was acting and performing to the best of his skills and knowledge and with good intent.

All feedback must be specific. That is, you should name specific examples.

Sometimes feedback is just one way conversation, and the receiving part will just receive and think about it. Other times it spawns a two-way conversation, creating actionable take-aways. In this latter case, it is ok to recommend steps that your colleague can act upon. Otherwise, let them come himself with actions and be ready to give him your opinion on them if applicable.

This is my canvas for feedback conversations, and it is the one I use in my 1:1s when nobody provides a different framework.

After the intro, I have some questions to help drive the conversation:

  • What are some things that you see me doing well and should continue doing?
  • Is there anything I am not doing yet that you would want to see me start doing?
  • Is there anything I am doing that you would want to see me stop doing?

The goal of the first question is to see if my efforts are aligned with what people perceive, while the second one is to see what might be in my blind spot but is obvious to others.

Usually, the most difficult question is the last one, but it’s not sandwiched between the other ones. It’s left at the end on purpose; it is what pushes people outside their comfort zone.

In my experience, people still use sandwiches to avoid bringing negative stuff into a conversation, and that is ok. I am often told that I go too fast or that I intimidate people because I come across as self-confident, which makes them feel insecure or worried about their own skills or capabilities (impostor syndrome).

What is funny is that those things don’t appear on the third question, but instead during the first or second one. I have found it very challenging to learn how to ask the right questions when I want to understand how I can be a better person or coworker.

Of course the first two questions are important. Yet in the end, those negative points that we are often afraid of drawing attention to are the points that can spawn the spark of a change.