Constructive Criticism and Feedback Sandwiches with Bruce Springsteen

Let me give you a hypothetical situation. An employee comes into your office with a performance issue. You a) Boost his confidence so he has the self-esteem to do better in the future or b) Provide a gentle critique. OR, if these routes don’t work for you, maybe you need option c) Be more like Bruce Springsteen.

When Springsteen’s legendary saxophone player Clarence Clemons died, Bruce gave Clemons’ nephew Jake the opportunity to audition for the E Street Band. Jake was dreadfully close to blowing the opportunity. First, he was an hour late for the tryout. Then when he finally arrived, Jake told Springsteen that he only “sort of” knew the songs. Springsteen’s response is a lesson for any leader presenting constructive feedback.

Let me get this straight. You are coming to audition for Clarence ‘Big Man’ Clemons’ seat in the E Street Band, which is not a job, by the way, but a sacred f–king position, and you are going to play Clarence’s most famous solos for Bruce Springsteen [referencing himself in the third person], the man who stood beside him for forty years, who created those solos with him, and you’re gonna ‘sort of’ know them? Where … do … you … think … you … are? If you don’t know, let me tell you. You are in a CITADEL OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL. You don’t DARE come in here and play this music for Bruce Springsteen without having your S–T DOWN COLD! You embarrass yourself and waste my precious time.”

When Jake walked out, he knew exactly what he did wrong. There was no ambiguity or uncertainty. That’s the problem with many performance discussions today. We are so concerned with being nice and politically correct,  we lose the benefits of frank criticism.

Springsteen did not personally insult Jake or say anything out of line. He simply made it clear that 1) this job matters, 2) preparation is a requirement, and 3) Bruce is the Boss! That’s not to say we need to deliver the message exactly like Springsteen, but it’s a step closer to enacting real change. If Springsteen’s approach does not mesh with your style, consider this easy-to-implement method, the Feedback Sandwich.

With a Feedback Sandwich, also called Positive-Improvement-Positive (PIP), criticism is broken into three segments:

  1. Start by focusing on strengths
  2. Then provide the criticism
  3. Lastly, describe the positive results that can be expected when the criticism is acted upon

Beginning with a positive statement lets the receiver know you are on her side and you are not there to attack her. It lowers defenses and is more likely to ensure they are receptive when the criticism begins. And by ending on a positive tone, the employee leaves on a high note, knowing the potential advantages and consequences.

The Feedback Sandwich is a little softer than what Springsteen said (he skipped the first segment), but he did master segment two and segment three was covered when Springsteen ended the disastrous incident with the opportunity for one more audition. This time, Jake arrived early, thoroughly learned the material, and got the job. Hopefully you’re next encounter will result in the same happy ending.