It's not your fault. Negative feedback is harmful (usually).


We've all given it, and we've all received it:  the praise sandwich, aka the 💩 sandwich. This classic feedback technique is often used to soften the blow of negative feedback by surrounding it with positive feedback. Negative feedback is about pointing out mistakes. This contrasts with positive feedback, which is about pointing out what someone has done well.

But does wrapping negative feedback in positivity actually help?

The answer isn't obvious. After all, who hasn't felt defensive when receiving negative feedback at work - or from their partner? On the other hand, who can say they haven't benefited from a leader pointing out their mistakes? Maybe a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Academic researchers conducted a controlled experiment to figure out what types of feedback are most effective. In this experiment, test subjects did work that was either tactical or adaptive. Tactical work is more like the execution of rote processes. Tactical work tends to be easy to learn and also easy to not take personally. Adaptive work is more like the application of skill to more creative or complex challenges. Adaptive work tends to be hard to learn and much more emotional for people.

Midway through the test, subjects were given either negative or positive feedback on their progress. Which type of feedback do you think was most helpful?

As it turns out, it depends:

  • For the group doing the tactical, rote work, negative feedback increased their performance and positive feedback decreased their performance. 
  • For the group doing the adaptive, skill-based, work, the effects were reversed: negative feedback decreased performance while positive feedback increased performance.

So, what is going on here?

As mentioned above, tactical work is much less personal. For example, it's hard to get upset when someone points out the correct way to format the header in a company memo. There's a standard procedure without much room for creativity, so there's nothing personal at stake. The correction purely serves to speed you up in the future. Meanwhile, if no one corrected you but you later realize your mistake on your own, it's easy to feel like nobody is paying attention and your work doesn't matter.

On the other hand, imagine that someone criticizes the thinking you shared in that same memo. You've put your creativity and ingenuity into an analysis, and now your colleague is pointing out mistakes. It's much harder not to take this personally. 

The lesson here is that for adaptive work, where colleagues must learn more difficult skills, negative feedback harms confidence and motivation to learn. Therefore, if you want your people to grow their skills, you have to develop a culture of positive feedback.

At this point, the hard-charging executive might say, "True professionals should be tougher than that.” Let's examine that.

Researchers studied this same feedback pattern with professional rugby players. In case you need a visual reminder, these are rugby players. Do you think they're not tough?

Rugby players in a haka

In this study, the rugby players shown videos of their mistakes after their matches (i.e., negative feedback) performed significantly worse than those who were shown videos of their best plays (i.e., positive feedback). This has nothing to do with toughness and everything to do with how we process feedback on adaptive performance.

On some level, organizations understand that negative feedback creates motivational problems. Otherwise they wouldn't train leaders to use the 💩 sandwich, thinking that if they surround the negative thing they really want to say with two (often transparently fake) nice things, the advice will land. But it won't.

But how can we really accelerate a colleague's skill growth without negative feedback? That's where apprenticeship cultures come in.

Apprenticeship cultures versus feedback cadences

When building motivating, high-performing cultures, the devil is always in the details. High-performing cultures are, after all, complex adaptive systems, requiring systems thinking. In this case, apprenticeship cultures are the exact opposite of the 💩 sandwich model, in five key ways:

  • The feedback sandwich can be summarized as unsolicited negative feedback on behaviors, offering training with no accountability to learning.
  • Apprenticeship cultures, on the other hand, provide solicited ideas to improve skills, offering on-the-job practice with endorsements to validate learning.

What does this mean in practice? Let's explore.

The 5 steps to building apprenticeship cultures

Imagine Laura is an engineer, and her leader is Henry. We'll use their example to walk through these five critical differences.

Step 1: Start with a skill catalog

Most organizations use behaviors or competencies to manage performance. Employees are provided a chart of expectations and graded on them up to a handful of times per year. There are many problems with this, but let's focus first on the core element of behaviors or competencies themselves.

Competencies are typically complex combinations of skills - things like "Problem Solving", "Leadership", "Detail Orientation", etc.

For example, Henry might deliver a 💩 sandwich to Laura where the middle message focuses on a competency. Something like, "you need to be more dependable." 

Now consider the many possible root causes of a dependability problem:

  • Unclear role expectations
  • Bad prioritization on the team's part
  • Skill issues (e.g., time management skills)
  • A demotivating work environment
  • Etc.

Laura is certainly going to feel defensive - rightly so -  and won't have any real clarity on how to improve. Her motivation is likely to drop, and in turn so will her performance.

The problem is that competencies are too coarse to be useful. Most organizations that use competencies have something like 5-7, maybe a dozen of them. This coarseness makes them vague by nature, and thus it's difficult for colleagues to see a path forward for how they should learn. How are you supposed to improve your "Dependability"?

Behaviors, on the flip side, are often too granular, yet at the same time too general. What's more, they are often constructed in a way that is overly tactical, judgmental, and makes people feel micromanaged.

Imagine that Henry talks to Laura about a few behaviors that he thinks she is not living up to, such as:

  1. Starts meetings on time.
  2. Uses proper language.
  3. Allocates the proper time to tasks.
  4. Prioritizes well.

Again, Laura might react defensively, and with good reason. We all slip up in our behaviors sometimes. And like the dependability problem above, our behavior is highly subject to changing circumstances. Being told to change your behavior feels rigid and controlling, and like with competencies, it's hard to see how you might do so.

Furthermore, behaviors like these too often feel like they were made for evaluation, not learning - because they usually were.

Skills, on the other hand, strike the right balance between general and specific, tactical and adaptive, and are well-tuned to the needs of learning.

Imagine an organization that uses a skill catalog like the following, which can be found in Factor:

Each skill in this model is motivating, because it is...

  • ...granular enough to create focus, but not so specific that it feels like micromanagement.
  • ...written to inspire a growth mindset - everything here is learnable, unlike "dependability".
  • ... written for the learner, not the evaluator.

As a result, rather than feeling like a report card, a good skill model feels like a college course catalog: it inspires wonder and curiosity.

That's because each skill has been written to evoke a desire for learning through play. Moreover, the skills have been painstakingly crafted to be multi-purpose and transferrable to other situations. This strengthens each colleague's career and makes them future-proof.

The skills themselves are kept up to date and written to inspire curiosity and expose blind spots. All of this increases motivation to learn and encourages colleagues to make their own choices.

And like a good course catalog, a skill catalog should contain a wide range of skills, including hard skills like Functional programming as well as soft skills like Communicating with emotional rhetoric.

Step 2: Colleagues initiate the process

The feedback culture in most organizations is based on offering unsolicited advice - i.e., advice that wasn't asked for. This is a problem, because unsolicited advice is typically viewed as less trustworthy and less helpful than solicited advice - even though unsolicited advice is usually more reliable. Apprenticeship cultures need to figure out a way through this paradox.

Think about times when you received unsolicited advice at work. How did that feel?

In tradecraft apprenticeships - like woodworking, for example - advice is solicited. The apprentice is, by definition, an active learner; the nature of the job is for them to learn from a mentor or coach. And just from watching older students, an apprentice woodworker will know what skills they don't have. So for them, it's easy to know what they need to ask about.

If a knowledge work company wants to close skill gaps, they must build this same culture of apprentice-led learning. However, in typical companies, it is much harder for a colleague to ask for advice, largely because the work is invisible, making the skills gaps hard to identify.

Modern companies thus need to make it easies for colleagues to pick specific skills and collect advice.

For example, Factor puts skill goals on rails using an experience called Skills Checks. In a Skills Check conversation, a colleague answers a few questions while sitting alongside their manager, and Factor AI provides a draft development plan that they can use as a blueprint.

The first question asks the colleague about their play, purpose, and potential - the three greatest motivators.

Laura and her leader Henry have a Skills Check discussion to choose skills every quarter. To help them, Factor AI makes recommendations based on Laura's answers.

Step 3: Leaders and colleagues create on-the-job learning plans

Too often, attempts at positive feedback turn into giving everyone a participation trophy. But that isn't "feedback". And pretty much everyone sees through it.

In an apprenticeship culture, instead of false praise, once colleagues have chosen skills to work on, leaders share ideas to help that colleague improve their chosen skills on the job. This is much more motivating than a participation trophy.

Using these ideas, Laura and Henry will create a learning plan. Some ideas involve training, but most of the ideas should be examples of things Laura can do in her existing work that would stretch her skills, resulting in learning. 

For example, in this case, Laura has a goal to master the skill AI prompt engineering.  She and Henry created a great learning plan:

After the skill plan is created, Laura keeps it with the rest of her work on her Personal Board. Skill growth is never out of sight or out of mind.

Step 4: Leaders and colleagues work together to practice

Next, as Laura works, she incorporates the ideas she and Henry came up with. She routinely shares work product, and seeks guidance from Henry (and other colleagues) as she works.

Using Factor's mirroring function, she can also mirror cards representing her other work right into her skill so she can signal to Henry that she's looking for advice on how to use that skill in her day-to-day work. 

To ensure that the whole organization is driving apprenticeship, Henry's leader, Lindsay, uses Factor's analytics to make sure that skill velocity is high everywhere in the company.

Step 5: Colleagues seek endorsement

As Laura is learning this skill, she is building a portfolio of examples simply by using the cards in her Skills or mirroring relevant work cards. Then, once Laura and Henry believe she has achieved her goal, Laura seeks endorsement.

Panels of experts and leaders review that portfolio to maintain the organization's standard for that skill.  If they all agree that Laura's work on that skill meets the bar, then she is endorsed.  Otherwise, she gets ideas for how to continue to grow that skill.

Apprenticeship cultures should be on your agenda now, not later

Every company's talent and skill strategies must consider three era-defining trends:

  1. Skill gapsthere isn't enough skilled talent to meet company needs. Nine out of ten managers feel like they face skill gaps in their teams. And AI is almost certain to increase these gaps. 
  2. Skill obsolescence—many once-valuable skills are getting devalued due to AI-driven automation. 
  3. Widespread demotivation—performance motivation is extremely low, leading to record burnout and quiet quitting.

While it's probably obvious how apprenticeship can help with skill gaps and protecting workers against automation, it might not be clear just how critical apprenticeship is to motivation.

Our research makes it clear. For example, which do you think affects motivation more, work-life balance or apprenticeship? And which of those factors does your organization spend more time on? We've found that:

  • Great work-life balance is indeed important for motivation, raising motivation by 13 points on the tomo scale. 
  • However, having an apprenticeship culture is far more critical to work motivation, raising motivation by a whopping 55 points.

With apprenticeship cultures being critical to winning talent and growing performance, and given that it is surprisingly easy to build them with today's technologies, it is time for leaders to prioritize this critical lever. And with technology changing the work landscape at unprecedented speeds and scales, a culture of continuous learning is the greatest gift you can give your colleagues.

We built Factor Skill Checks to make all of this easy. To learn more about how you can implement them in your org, click here or reach out to

Originally published at:

Neel Doshi

Neel is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Neel was a Partner at McKinsey & Company, CTO and founding member of an award-winning tech startup, and employee of several mega-institutions. He studied engineering at MIT and received his MBA from Wharton. In his spare time, he’s an avid yet mediocre woodworker and photographer.

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Lindsay McGregor

Lindsay is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Lindsay led projects at McKinsey & Company, working with large fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, universities and school systems. She received her B.A. from Princeton and an MBA from Harvard. In her spare time she loves investigating and sharing great stories.

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