A friend and I were joking around about his snarky comment on my Facebook page, and he half-jokingly said “I need to learn how to be better at the compliment sandwich.”
[Cue screeching-to-a-halt sound effect.]
No, no. Don’t learn that. Please!
Have you heard of the “feedback sandwich” or “compliment sandwich” approach?
This is feedback-giving advice that some people still dole out. And some people still practice.
And I hope (very much!) that after reading this post, you will not use it, ever again.
In this blog post, I’ll first describe what the feedback sandwich is, and why its proponents think it’s a good idea. I’ll then describe what’s wrong with it and what to do instead.
Let’s break it down.
Why are you even delivering constructive feedback in the first place?
The other person is doing something that isn’t effective and you want them to stop or change it.
Key: Regardless of your method ,there should always be a constructive reason to deliver constructive feedback.
So what’s the big deal?
Well, you’re worried that they won’t like hearing it.
Or that they will get hurt or angry by this feedback.
What’s the feedback sandwich?
According to the proponents of the feedback sandwich method, the way you overcome this concern for the negative impact of constructive feedback on the other person and your relationship with them is that you ‘sandwich’ the negative component between two layers of positive feedback or compliments.
The idea is that it will thus soften the blow or ease the pain.
And as a result, according to this approach, the person will receive your negative feedback in a more favorable way.
I say, “B.S.!”
What’s wrong with the feedback sandwich?
My beef with the sandwich method (see what I did there? ;) ) is not so much the actual feedback in the moment and how well it is received, but rather the aftermath of using this method habitually.
You see, when you use this as your feedback delivery method, you are teaching people to be on edge whenever something positive comes out of your mouth.
You are training them to be worried when you give them a compliment or say something nice.
Because when they experience the feedback sandwich the first time, they don’t know what’s coming. It seems okay.
But when it’s how you deliver feedback habitually, they begin to detect the sandwich pattern and notice that whenever you give them something that is unpleasant to hear, it is always preceded by a nicety.
And vice versa (that's the rub!): when you give them something nice to hear, it's often followed by something not so pleasant.
And like Pavolv’s dogs, people become trained to immediately expect ‘bad’ to follow when they hear ‘good’ if that’s the pattern they experience. They are conditioned to expect it to recur.
Like a cotton ball... (say what?!)
I like to use this metaphor when I teach this in my workshops:
Think about a little cotton ball.
What are its properties? It’s fluffy, soft, harmless.
When its fluffiness is rubbed on your arm, it’s very nice. No problems.
But what whenever someone rubs a soft, fluffy, harmless little cotton ball on your arm, it’s immediately followed by the prick of a needle drawing blood?…
Well, then, whenever you see or feel a cotton ball rubbing on your arm, your feelings about that cotton ball change, don’t they?
It’s no longer soft, lovely, harmless fluffiness. It’s no longer welcomed or benign.
You’re on edge...
You’re ready for that needle prick...
You’re no fool!
Same thing with the feedback sandwich: A compliment or nicety, by itself, is lovely.
But not when it seems to always be followed by something unpleasant.
It teaches you to never let your guard down for compliments again!
And *that’s* what’s wrong with the feedback sandwich: it mars the positive feedback forever as something to ignore (at best) or be wary of (at worst).
Please stop. Don’t serve up that nasty feedback sandwich anymore!
What to do instead of the feedback sandwich (how to deliver ‘negative’ or constructive feedback)?
“So what should I do, Halelly? How should I deliver constructive feedback in a way that doesn’t cause the other person to shut down, get defensive, or feel badly about me and our relationship?”
Well, I’m glad you asked!
I have a two-pronged suggestion for you – because life, and people, and communication, is rarely simple and one-faceted. And I really want you to implement both of these facets.
We have to think about the context and content of the feedback conversation BOTH in the big picture (macro) perspective of the whole relationship AND the specifics of the feedback conversation (micro) perspective.
Warning: My advice will not work as well if you only focus on the feedback conversation in isolation. (But then my caution about the feedback sandwich is also not stemming from a micro view, either.)
Halelly’s two-pronged solution for providing constructive feedback: Focus on both the macro and the micro relationship.
- Macro: The big picture must be tilted in favor of positive content
- Micro: The feedback conversation must be free of fluff and fillers, sincere but short, direct and to the point.
Let's take a closer look at each:
Macro: The big picture must be tilted in favor of positive content
We humans are hard-wired to look for bad news and negative information about our world. Our brain is rigged to notice negative stuff more than positive stuff in order to help us stay alive.
It’s a good thing and really helpful when it comes to protecting us from lions and tigers and bears, but it’s not that helpful in our modern-day interactions at work and at home. We seem to notice what’s wrong with the situation or seek out a negative interpretation of every interaction and others’ intentions.
This tendency can be the source of many misunderstandings and interpersonal conflicts.
So one of the key insights backed by cognitive and social science research is that we need to overdo the positive interactions with people around us to try to overcompensate for this negative bias.
In other words, we need to infuse our relationships with a disproportional supply of positive interactions to make up for our tendency to seek and notice and remember the negative much more than the positive.
Some say it’s a 5:1 ratio. Some argue it’s more. But it should definitely be more positive interactions to negative ones.
Important: the positive interactions MUST be unvarnished and unattached to any negative input. They should be free-standing, isolated and solely positive.
Meaning, NO SANDWICH!
Because as we saw, positive interactions lose potency and ultimately have zero benefit (or worse, a detrimental effect) when they’re always or often followed by the ‘needle prick’ of something negative or unpleasant.
Important caveat: positive interactions MUST BE SINCERE. No fake flattery or forced compliments. People can smell fake and it’s definitely not going to be perceived in a positive way or support your high-positive-to-negative ratio, trust me.
When you have a relationship with someone that involves a plethora of positive interactions, you are helping to isolate and outnumber any kind of negative ones.
And then, when it’s time to deliver unpleasant news such as giving constructive feedback, the overall positive skew you’ve already embedded into your relationship over time will sustain and buffer that negative interaction from taking an overly large toll on the relationship.
The person to whom you give that feedback will be able to receive the feedback as helpful and assume a constructive intention on your part when you’ve created that pattern in your interactions that says you are kind, generous, appreciative, and benevolent.
And they’ll be a lot less likely to freak out (which is the reason people use that sandwich in the first place).
Micro: The feedback conversation must be free of fluff and fillers, sincere but short, direct and to the point
So your constructive feedback conversations will no longer “need” that ‘fluffery’ of the maligned cotton ball. And you can ditch that yucky feedback sandwich forever.
When you want to give feedback about something that the other person is doing wrong, or that is not working for you and you want them to change it, you will be less worried about their reaction when you talk about it in the context of a positive-heavy relationship.
You won’t need to be as worried and feeling the need to pussy-foot around the message. Or stick it in that sandwich.
You simply deliver constructive feedback in a conversation that is as short as possible. And with empathy, of course.
Explain observable facts (not assumptions), their impact on you or the work (answer the question, “so what?”), and allow the other person to react and give their side of the story as soon as possible.
Then, discuss ideas for ways to resolve the situation and agree on a path forward that both of you can live with.
Finally, offer your support and follow up.
That’s it – short and sweet. Direct and sincere. Kind and well-intentioned.
NOT fluffed up with cotton-balls and compliments that poison your future positive interactions.
In this video I made a while ago, you can get a bit more on how to deliver constructive feedback with my four quick tips:
Now it’s your turn:
What’s your experience with giving or receiving the feedback sandwich? I’d love to hear your thoughts, reactions, experiences, and/or questions in the comments below!
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