Ditch the Compliment Sandwich

February 20, 2024

In case you’ve never heard of it before, the “compliment sandwich” is the idea that difficult feedback is “sandwiched” between two compliments. In theory, it makes critical feedback easier to give and receive.

There’s nothing wrong with it, per se. It’s just not as clever as some people think.

Now that I’ve told you there’s nothing wrong with it, let me tell you everything that’s wrong with it.

First, if this is your go-to method for softening the blow of critical feedback, then there’s a good chance that peers and employees get uneasy when you come in with a compliment. Further, if you’re guilty of providing inconsistent feedback, it’s almost certain that your “compliments” are just a signal that bad news is coming. This makes people nervous and does not bring out their best.

Second, if you wanted to tally your ratio of praise versus criticism, 2 to 1 (as you find in the sandwich approach) falls short of the 4 to 1 that many experts recommend. But tracking numbers misses the bigger point that praise is more powerful than correction.

Which brings me to point number three: Praise is more powerful than correction. Correction is vital. And knowing how to give direct critical feedback is a must-have skill for any leader. I even wrote an entire article about it here. But what’s far more effective than telling someone they’ve got it wrong is helping them know how it feels when they get it right. I call this “building a better radar system.” Get good at catching people doing the right thing and demonstrate how significant every small win is. If your radar system is broken and you keep overlooking small wins, chances are you won’t be seeing any big wins ping on that radar system any time soon.

Forget the compliment sandwich. Go for the compliment sundae instead. Lay it on thick. Show others how monumental each small victory is and how they tie into the big picture. Celebrate every win.

For another helpful analogy just look at how a crowd gets involved at a baseball game. Of course, they cheer louder for homeruns, but they’re still providing real-time feedback for every routine play. When their team makes a blunder, the crowd (if they’re any good) doesn’t start yelling at their team. Instead they make the appropriate moans and groans and demonstrations of empathy. They are involved throughout the entire game regardless of the outcome, and every interaction is aimed at the same message: We are on the same side, and we’ve got your back.

You don’t just want employees who give you their best. You want employees who wantto give you their best. That only happens through a shared emotional experience of success and consistent support during setbacks.

This is how Emotional Capital becomes rocket fuel for positive energy.

Ditch the sandwich. Go for the sundae. When it comes time to give difficult feedback, make it direct, and your team will know it’s coming from a place of wanting what’s best for them.

They, in turn, will reciprocate.


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