Workplace Communication: Un-Sandwich Your Stress


Dr. Marlene Caroselli, author of The Language of Leadership and other books



Whether it’s a family setting, a community meeting, or a workplace interaction, each of us has had to deliver bad news from time to time. Such scenarios can be stressful for both the messenger and the recipient of the unwelcome information.



Here are two techniques that may ease your discomfort.




The Sandwich Technique



A number of people endorse the “sandwich” technique. It works like this. If you have negative information to impart, let’s say to a subordinate, you begin the appraisal interview by pointing out the good things the person is doing. Then, you address the areas that need improvement. You conclude by pointing out additional positive actions the individual displays. Many managers swear by this technique.



We suggest a more direct approach for this reason: Today’s employees are better informed than ever. They are familiar with this technique and so, when their supervisor begins listing the admirable aspects of the individual’s performance, they are not even listening–waiting instead for the other shoe to drop. Their trust is held in abeyance during the recitation of positives.



What’s the alternative? Take full advantage of this influence-opportunity. Avoid the impression that you may be mouthing soft insincerities before the hard truth. We recommend that you isolate the most serious problem with the individual’s performance. Discuss it at length, learn why the individual may be having difficulty with it and offer suggestions for improvement.



Once a plan of action has been established, you can conclude with a summarizing statement such as the following. “Hector, now that we have a handle on that one aspect of your performance, I want to mention the many other aspects that you are handling quite competently. If your job could be divided into eight primary aspects, you are doing just fine with the other seven. Please, continue exactly as you have been doing with….” You could then list the other job requirements with which the person has demonstrated considerable competence.




The Good News/Bad News Technique



Certain verbal “crutches” have permeated the business world to such an extent that they are actually crippling creativity. For example, the pervasive “Have a nice day” has reached such mind-numbing proportions that many people cringe when they hear it. In fact, in some police departments, officers are forbidden to use the phrase after issuing a ticket to motorists. Their superiors have deemed the phrase insulting and have compared it to rubbing salt in a festering wound. To wish someone well after issuing a ticket smacks of perversity. Perversity is a guaranteed trust-buster.



Another crutch is the “I’ve-got-good-news-and-bad-news. Which-do-you-want-first?” method. Psychologically, many seem to believe, the recipient will be so euphoric after hearing the good news that the bad news won’t seem so bad (or, after hearing the bad news, the good news will go a long way toward lessening the depression created after the first news release).



You can find more straightforward ways to present information that may not be well-received. For example, “There are two things I’d like to discuss with you today. First, an aspect of your performance that I feel needs improvement. Second, the opportunities that may arise if that improvement is achieved.”



What are other straightforward ways of delivering the combination of good news and bad news? Reflect on your own experiences and determine what worked and what did not.



What are some bad-news messages that have recently been delivered to you? List them here and tell if they were delivered in a way that earned your trust or that influenced you toward positive action.



Message #1:______

Did the message-deliverer earn your trust?______

Why or why not? ______




Message #2:______

Did the message-deliverer earn your trust?______

Why or why not? ______



Message #3:______

Did the message-deliverer earn your trust?______

Why or why not? ______



Through analysis such as this, we can glean insight into the methods that constitute effectiveness in influencing others. Preparing ourselves by developing a one-construct-fits-many-situations repertoire, we can cover a multitude of spins.



Several bad-news-to-be-delivered examples follow. The less effective response is presented for you. Your task is to supply a more effective, influential message, one that inspires trust.



Situation #1: You have failed to meet a commitment.

Ineffective: “I won’t be able to ship the materials to you next week as I had promised.”

More effective:



Situation #2: You, as team leader, have learned the team’s proposal has been rejected.

Ineffective: ‘Well, guys, just as we expected, our brilliant leaders have failed to see the merit of our proposal. Poof! All that hard work down the old toilet.”

More effective:




Situation #3: Senior management, in a cost-cutting mode, has decided that neither the annual Christmas bonus nor the annual Christmas party will be given this year.

Ineffective: “You can call me Scrooge if you like, but there’ll be no ho-ho-ho’s around here this year. We can’t afford the Christmas bonus nor the usual Christmas party.”

More effective:




A final word. Don’t postpone the inevitable. As unpleasant as the task is, it will be better for both you and the person who needs to hear the bad news if you deliver it as soon as possible. Keep in mind the words of two sages:



General Colin Powell: “Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age.”


Mark Twain: “If you have to swallow a frog, don’t stare at it too long!”


Dr. Marlene Caroselli is the author of The Language of Leadership (a main selection by the Executive Book Club); The Business Ethics Activity Book (a Director’s Choice by Doubleday Book Club); and numerous other publications. Her most recent books are 500 Creative Classroom Techniques for Teachers and Trainers (HRD Press) and 8 Leadership Tips from Real Leaders (Axzo Press). Marlene’s Website is at



More articles by Marlene Caroselli: Stress: Moving from Distress to Eustress


Learn more about workplace communication, leadership skills, the Sandwich Technique, the Good News Bad News Technique and many more at Marlene’s website. Remember also to keep visiting The Ultimate Stress Blog.

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