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Stop using the ‘compliment sandwich’ to give feedback

You’ve heard this one. Manager to employee: “I really like how well you worked with others on this project, but it would’ve been better if you delved a lot deeper into this specific topic in your report. You’ve been doing such a fantastic job lately.”

You know when your manager gives you feedback by telling you what you did well, only to follow it with bad news, then more of the good stuff?

This method goes by various names online, like the “feedback sandwich,” the “compliment sandwich” and the “sandwich approach.”

While popular, here’s the problem with it: It doesn’t work. Burying criticism between compliments often confuses the recipient about where the emphasis lies. Despite the fact that it makes us feel better about giving negative feedback, the compliment sandwich isn’t an effective way to communicate. Here are a few reasons why supervisors should stop doling this confused rhetoric out by the pound.

Your employees aren’t listening to you

The biggest problem with the compliment sandwich is that the jig is up: everyone is now trained to expect criticism after a compliment. Neither one gets heard. Adam Grant writes about what he learned from data on this topic in an article about the “feedback sandwich” on LinkedIn.

“Problem 1: the positives fall on deaf ears. When people hear praise during a feedback conversation, they brace themselves. They’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it makes the opening compliment seem insincere. You didn’t really mean it; you were just trying to soften the blow,” he writes.

It’s so easy to get caught up in what you did wrong, as opposed to what you did right.

After describing another issue, Grant writes about four ways “to make your criticism feel constructive,” some of which feature cited evidence. He says to start by telling them why you’re making comments about their performance, then remove yourself from “a pedestal,” then ask if they’re open to hearing what you have to say, and finally to deliver it clearly— not in a “manipulative” way.

It makes the positive feedback less special

When you pair compliments with criticism, you make compliments cheaper. Susan M. Heathfield explores this in an article on The Balance.

“Positive feedback is a powerful tool that managers can use to communicate the value of the employee’s work and contribution to the organization. It reinforces behaviors that you’d like to see more of on the job. The feedback sandwich diminishes the value and the power of the positive, reinforcing feedback that is delivered during the same message or meeting,” she writes.

Don’t lessen the impact of your positive words.The next time you’re tempted to smother your constructive criticism in praise, resist the urge to do so.

It doesn’t help the person make changes

Compliment sandwiches relay general opinions — both good and bad —  but they don’t guide the employee to change their behavior and do anything positive. More helpful feedback helps the employee know what they could improve and lets them take responsibility for making the change: “This report is good, but it could be better. How can we do that?”

Either way, a more direct approach helps people know what’s expected of them. Compliment sandwiches aren’t getting things done, and it’s time to stop them.