Is the initial positive actually working against you?


Remember the initial positive?

First, tell them something positive, then tell them what’s wrong and conclude with another positive.

I’m sure it sounded like a good idea at the time. Especially for those of us who don’t really want to deliver bad news to people, it feels like a way to cushion the blow, from the messenger’s perspective.

But have you been on the receiving end of this conversation? It can feel something like this:

initial positive! “You’re doing great on the Kaboodle project, blah blah blah.”

(Right, you’re just saying all that because you’ve got some sort of gripe you’re about to unveil) 

here comes the bad news….“I think you could do better at managing your time on the KitandKaboodle project because….”

(Oh, so you think it’s my fault that Pat isn’t pulling his/her weight and now you’re blaming me. Great. I knew this conversation was really about that, and not Kaboodle)

and wrapping up with a positive! “But you’re making some good calls on the Zipperdoo project and I hope you’ll keep up the good work!”

(Yeah, until you assign Pat to that one too, then I’ll get the blame for slippage and it’ll be my fault again…)


(Thanks? All you did was tell me I was messing up the KitandKaboodle project.)

Okay, so that might be a bit extreme, but doesn’t some version of that happen when you’re delivering the positive-negative-postive sandwich? All the focus is on that middle piece and the positives are left to the side like unwanted bread crusts.

But a lot of us out there managing people were trained to do exactly this – and it’s supposed to make things better. Help the person you’re talking to see their strengths, talk about the things you should’t just sweep under the carpet, and then focus them on improvement in those areas with some assurance that you’re seeing the good work they’re doing.

Just tell me upfront

I had the chance to observe a couple of different exercises in the past month in which people were practicing a variation of this conversation.

Most of the time, some flavor of the sandwich was in play and sometimes the positives were so heavy the “employee” had no idea they had weaknesses.

By contrast, the most effective people put everything on the table at once.

“I’d like to talk about your excellent work on the Kaboodle and Zipperdoo projects and find out why we’re falling short of the schedule on KitandKaboodle. Which do you want to discuss first?”

When you’re going into a performance review, you don’t want to be surprised by what feels like a gotcha negative in the middle, do you?


Transparency might be the latest buzzword, especially if you work in government at any level, but it’s a key factor in this scenario. By getting the sandwich ingredients on the table, it puts you in a position to work together on the assembly. Maybe the person you’re talking with needs to be able to discuss the positives first, maybe they’d rather get that biggie off the table first, but you won’t know if you don’t ask. And if you ask, you’re treating them as a partner in the conversation.

There’s a lot of research and practical information available about how to handle the rest of the conversation, but ditching the initial positive might be a simple first step.

Here are a few resources I’ve used – I’d be curious to know of others people find useful:

Difficult Conversations: how to discuss what matters most

Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How you and your team get unstuck to get results

Ask for it: How women can use the power of negotiation to get what they really want

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