The Compliment Sandwich: What Is It And Why Is It So Bad?

The Compliment Sandwich: What Is It And Why Is It So Bad?


The Compliment Sandwich: What Is It And Why Is It So Bad?

The Compliment Sandwich (also called the Feedback Sandwich or Criticism Sandwich), beyond being one of the worst management techniques ever invented, was created as a way of trying to give somebody constructive criticism without making them feel bad. Basically, it's where you give somebody a compliment, then you give them some critical feedback, and then you close with another compliment. 

For example:

  1. Compliment: Bob, you're just so talented. You're so smart and you do such a good job. You might be the smartest person in the department.
  2. Criticism: Your behavior on the team the past couple weeks has been pretty bad. Your colleagues are starting to get pretty irritated with you because you're sarcastic, and caustic, and everything else.
  3. Compliment: But you're just so bright. I just want everybody to appreciate how big that brain of yours really is.


What’s Your Style of Delivering Constructive Criticism?

How you deliver constructive criticism has a huge impact on whether your employees will (or won't) actually make changes and improve their performance. But do you know what kind of feedback you actually deliver? And how that gets received? Take this Constructive Criticism Styles Assessment to find out more.

Next Steps

We’re going to dig deep into the Compliment Sandwich and why it doesn’t work, but feel free to jump to any section that interests you:

How The Compliment Sandwich Commonly Gets Used

Developing and using assertive communication skills is critical to good management. But the Compliment Sandwich, where you give somebody a compliment, then you criticize them, then you close with another compliment, is a very poor method of trying to give direct reports constructive criticism without making them feel bad.

Here's how one training company instructs managers to sandwich feedback using the Compliment Sandwich process to deliver corrective feedback to employees. This is so absurd it would be hysterical, if only it weren't serious. 

  1. Decide where your employee needs to improve his/her performance.
  2. Think of something they do very well related to the situation. For example, if the performance that needs correcting is tardiness, maybe what the employee does well is getting straight to work once they do arrive, or how they frequently volunteer to stay late.
  3. Choose another positive point to remark on. This should be very loosely related to the above point.
  4. Deliver the first compliment. "Hey, Jon. Already deep in your work? Wow, you just got here!"
  5. State where you would like to see improvement. "It is almost 9:50, though; you've been late a lot recently...maybe you need to find a way to miss that morning traffic."
  6. Finish with the last compliment. "Oh, by the way, your car looks fantastic!"

Now, many Compliment Sandwiches aren't quite this ridiculous (although many are). But even if they're delivered more effectively, they all fail to accomplish what they intended; which is to offer some constructive feedback in order to improve performance.

Why Criticism Goes Ignored When Sandwiched Between Compliments

Trying to squeeze a negative performance critique or correction between layers of positive reinforcement doesn’t work and here’s why. Imagine you're Frank, and your boss has just called you in to deliver some tough feedback. He says, “Frank, you're a world-class programmer, the absolute best. You're probably the smartest guy in the department. You've been pretty nasty during our weekly meetings, and it's causing some hurt feelings. But I'm saying all this because you’re just so darn talented and I want to see you really flourish.”

What did you hear? If I'm Frank, I just heard: “I'm great, I'm smart.? Waa waa waa waa “I'm great, I'm smart?

Frank heard some compliments, then “waa waa waa waa” (like Charlie Brown's teacher), then some more compliments. What Frank didn't hear was anything at all about his job being in jeopardy or even that his performance is anything other than great. Not only is this Compliment Sandwich message completely disingenuous, but it’s also useless because no one remembers what happens in the middle.

Neurologically, we humans just don't hear the stuff in the middle. We hear the compliment given at the beginning because it comes out of nowhere. And we hear the compliment at the end because that's the last message and it’s the thing that sticks with us. But we don’t hear what’s in the middle, so the constructive criticism gets lost.

The middle position is often undesirable. Imagine, for example, that you and two of your coworkers have each been given the opportunity to present a project before the board. Based upon the presentations, only one project will be chosen for funding. Are you going to want to speak first, second or third? Most people opt for the third or first slot and will do anything to avoid the dreaded middle position.

Using a technique like the Compliment Sandwich all but guarantees that your feedback, which is wedged in between two compliments, won’t get heard. And if your message isn't being heard, you aren't doing anything to resolve the problem.

The Compliment Sandwich Creates Negative Mental Associations

Giving someone both a compliment and criticism in the same conversation is akin to giving them a cookie and then, as they’re taking their first bite, kicking them in the shins. Not only does the kick in the shins take away any enjoyment they would have received from eating the cookie, but it also creates a negative association in their mind. And in the same way that Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of a bell due to classical conditioning, the next time you give them a cookie they’ll likely be expecting to get kicked in the shin.  

Think about it; have you ever been given a compliment by your boss, and the entire time they’re speaking you’re anxiously waiting for the other shoe to fall? Waiting for the “but” that often follows a compliment? That’s the Pavlovian association wired in your brain from too many years of receiving compliments that were immediately followed by criticism.

Psychologically, you need to keep your compliments purely positive, and your criticism purely constructive. And the data backs this up. 

More than 14,000 people have taken the online test “Is Your Personality Suited To Working Remotely Or In The Office?” And one of the questions asks: 

When I receive negative feedback…

  • I like to hear it coupled with some positive feedback or compliments.
  • I want the candid unvarnished facts about what was wrong.

Amazingly, only 37% of people want to hear negative feedback coupled with compliments.

Moreover, a whopping 63% want their negative feedback to be just candid unvarnished facts.

It seems reasonable to assume that one of the reasons why people would prefer the candid unvarnished facts is that they’re sick and tired of people giving them a compliment to soften them up and then nailing them with the criticism. The negative Pavlovian response, coupled with the disingenuousness of mixing compliments and criticism, is awfully frustrating.

And there’s more data support. More than 180,000 people have taken the online quiz “What's Your Communication Style?” And around a quarter of people have an Analytical communication style. This means that they like hard data, real numbers, and they tend to be suspicious of people who aren’t in command of the facts and data. They like very specific language and dislike vague language. And Analytical communicators tend to have little patience for lots of feeling and emotional words in communication, and they often look at issues logically and dispassionately. 

Now, as you might imagine, these folks are not going to react well when someone tries to precede criticism with a compliment. It’s in the very nature of Analytical communicators to want facts not feelings and trying to soft-pedal criticism with a compliment is going to trigger all sorts of warning bells in their heads. In fact, they may very well look the other person in the eyes and say something like “If you have some criticism to give me, just give it to me straight, don’t fluff it up with lots of fake compliments.”

It’s important to remember that if your organization is at all representative of the population at large, a quarter of your employees may be Analytical communicators. And our research further shows that areas like IT and Finance could have nearly double the number of Analytical communicators compared to areas like HR or Marketing.

I recently conducted a short study that assessed how over 1,800 leaders deliver constructive criticism. One of the questions asked respondents to indicate which statement best represented them, and here are the 4 possible choices: 

  1. Employees need to know the cut-and-dried facts about whether their performance was bad, good or great. But I don’t get into emotional discussions of my feelings about their performance.
  1. I don’t have time to give constant feedback. If my employees want to know about the quality of their performance, they can schedule time to talk to me.
  1. Of course some employees feel criticized or offended by my words. Constructive criticism is supposed to be tough. It’s constructive, but it’s still criticism.
  1. I make constructive criticism easier to hear. I often use a Compliment Sandwich (a nice compliment, followed by a bit of criticism, followed by another nice compliment). If the employee shuts me out, they won’t improve.

About 31% of respondents chose Answer #1, which is good because that’s the answer associated with the most effective constructive criticism. Only 3% chose #2 (a laissez-faire approach) and 14% chose #3 (a harsh approach).

What’s concerning is that 51% of respondents chose #4. Now, some of the sentiment in that answer is fine; you don’t want employees to shut you out. But the Compliment Sandwich is rarely, if ever, a good approach to delivering constructive criticism for all the reasons mentioned above.

Remember that even if it makes managers and leaders feel better to mix criticism with some compliments, the data clearly shows that employees would rather hear the candid unvarnished facts. And further, you only need to remember Pavlov’s dog to understand the dangerous associations that emerge when we mix positive and negative messages.

Try Using A Softening Statement Instead

It should be clear that compliments and the criticism are incongruous with each other. But this doesn’t mean that you have to call your employees into your office and verbally bludgeon them to deliver constructive criticism. Saying “You're a jerk and everything you do is terrible” isn’t going to work either.

If you’re afraid that blatant candor about somebody's performance will shut down the conversation, you can always use a Softening Statement: one that won't mask your message. A softening statement basically says, “This is a serious message I have to talk to you about. I don't want you to miss the feedback, but know that this is coming from a place of being helpful and caring about it. Why am I saying this? Because this is really important feedback and if you don't make these changes, I'm really concerned that this is going to do damage to your career.”

For example, when giving a Softening Statement, you might try saying something like this: “Frank, I've got a tough message to deliver. There's no getting around it, but I want you to understand that I'm doing this out of a concern for your wellbeing; because if you don't fix this stuff, your career here is in jeopardy.” This kind of statement softens the blow while enforcing the important message of: you really need to listen to this constructive feedback.


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