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Team Culture

Stop Serving The Compliment Sandwich

We have good news. And then some bad news. But ultimately some good news.


At some point in your career, you’ll be taught that the “best” way to give constructive criticism is to start the conversation with some positive thoughts, then transition to the negative feedback, before circling back and either reaffirming the positives you began with or offering new, positive feedback to end on.

It’s one of the more popular ways to teach people how to deliver negative feedback, so popular in fact, that is has even been parodied on Family Guy. At the same time, it’s hard to explain the sandwich’s popularity, as it’s hard to find someone who enjoys the taste. 

Compliment sandwich is actually a poor description, since rarely is a sandwich named for the bread. A more fitting title would be the criticism sandwich, but that would extenuate the criticism and hence run counter to the point of the technique.

In order to produce outstanding creative work, you need criticism. We regularly use criticism and conflict to make our ideas better and our projects stronger. That’s the reason the compliment sandwich is so ineffective. It works against us by making the criticism harder to comprehend, sandwiched in between two vague and unrelated positives. You can wind up unsure of whether you’re going to be promoted or fired. Beyond that, if the criticism is sharp enough, it will make all of the positives feel insincere, again negating the purpose of delivering the feedback.

We need to take the compliment sandwich off the menu. Here are some suggested replacements:

Be specific. The problem of the compliment sandwich is that it is vague. Even without the bread, your criticism may be hard to understand. It’s not enough to say, “this could be stronger.” Spell out what “stronger” means. Is it “Your report needs to be more direct and engaging,” or “This ad needs to be more surprising and counterintuitive?” Don’t assume that the adjectives you prefer have the same connotation in the receiver.

Be regular. If you only offer feedback and criticism sparsely, like at the end of the year during a performance review, then it can feel like a big, undesired event. However, if you make feedback a regular part of your conversation, it will make those interactions feel more normal and a part of the process for improvement. Make it a habit to conduct regular post-mortems as projects draw to a close. Even better, schedule biweekly or monthly meetings with direct reports and make constructive criticism part of the agenda.

Plus. Or offer specific suggestions for how people can improve upon the subject of your criticism. Offering suggestions demonstrates not just that you’re good at finding fault, but that you’re pointing out that fault as part of a commitment to making them and the project better. The term “plus” comes from Pixar, whose people utilize specific and regular criticism to make every film better. So if one animator claims that a certain character looks off in one scene, the same animator will “plus” it with a suggestion on how to fix the animation. Ed Catmull even admits that every Pixar film starts out terrible: “We all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar’s stories starts out that way.” Honest criticism like that, and a lot more of it as the film is refined, yields some amazing work at the end. It’s a cliché that feedback is the breakfast of champions…but even champions rarely enjoy a compliment sandwich.

 —

How about you?

What have you done to make criticism more useful to your success?

Comments (1)
  • FeedbackSamwich

    Really good try at an article buddy! But seriously, this article could have been summed up in one sentence… “Offer feedback often and always make it sincere.” Oh hey, I guess you’re right! This doesn’t really work!

    • Piny

      I see what you did there 😛

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    • Gregory_Sadler

      That’s because you made it an open face compliment sandwich — just a compliment slice, and then the criticism.

  • nadavoid

    I definitely agree with this article, yet for a different reason. My complaint about the compliment sandwich is that it trains the person receiving it to expect a criticism if someone starts with a compliment. They start with a compliment, but you immediately brace for the “however”, even if there is none coming.

    I do think the sentiment is good though. The idea that criticism is more constructive when the overall environment is healthy, welcoming, supportive, and seeks to understand you. Compliments, public praise, kind gestures: when given regularly and in isolated occasions, go a long way to create a positive culture. Just don’t get in the habit of combining them with critiques. I have a lot of respect for keeping focused on the task at hand.

  • aka

    Couldn’t you have emailed the editor? Why post all that here?
    Is your post error-free? Look again.

  • aka

    My upbringing hardwired me to believe the criticism, disregard the compliment. I’ve had to train myself to graciously accept compliments. I’ve also trained myself to not frown when someone is criticizing my work, but to listen and nod and (most important) put aside any other work or distractions so that person knows she/he has all my attention. I confirm I understand what the problem is and, if necessary, make a promise to correct it or take the better tack next time. I restrain my compulsion to want to explain or excuse. Sometimes I have to provide context, but I find most people want whatever problem they perceive to just go away. When they see you’ve addressed it, that’s a good time to have that second talk and a deeper meeting of the minds. To me, it’s about getting to the solution.

  • chuckbluz

    It is interesting that my critical post was deleted, but I am glad to see that the corrections were made.

  • cory.strode

    I have had a lot of position where I train people, so my criticism usually comes from a “let me show you a better way to do this” perspective, and I like to think it gets good results. If you assume positive intent and believe that people WANT to do a good job, done right, you are helping them by showing them hwo to do a task.

  • Joel Pilger

    I’ve used this approach for nearly two decades with great success. But I call it “The Good / Bad / Good Sandwich.” Here’s how it goes.

    Don’t offer “two vague and unrelated positives,” that’s just being lazy. It’s not about giving coworkers dubious compliments! Instead, serve up the sandwich like this:

    1. “Here’s what’s working…”
    2. “Here’s what needs work…”
    3. “You can do this. It’s going to be great.”

    IMO, this approach works because everyone needs affirmation and feedback on what they’re doing right. The sandwich merely provides an easy reminder to always offer criticism within a broader context.

    Without context, all criticism (even if well founded) will eventually sound like, “You never do anything right.”

  • Jiří Petruželka

    I don’t see how anything from your article is in conflict with the definition you provided … you can be specific, regular and include suggestion while keeping the schema (positives)-(negatives)-(positives).

    “it’s hard to explain the sandwich’s popularity” -> I’d say sandwich is a way to keep the receiving side from getting defensive, allow them to accept criticism more easily and don’t discourage them; while the giving side does not look like it’s trying to put them down.

    One can name other negatives, like the positive part may look (or may become) sort of compulsory and forced, dishonest even. Result in too much sugar-coating. Slowing communication down. Make people expect compliments no matter what (this one I’d mark arguable).

  • Mark Wayland

    The fundamental problem with this approach is that it assumes that all employees are rational beings … in the same way that behavioural economics assumed that people were always rational. The thing is we’re not.

    Assuming that we would all be thrilled to be told how to do something better … because we all want to do what we do better, right? …. ignores fundamental human nature.

    It’s time organisations and managers realised that people need to be treated as respected humans before they are treated as valued employees.

  • jill

    well my regular criticism is your eliminated or we don’t like it…with out why (could cause anyone to be bitter and despondent)so being specific and be regular just sound like handing lesson to be learnt out of a silver spoon to some of us who are shut down at first attempt and what having a sandwich wow looks like folks don’t want the baby to cry or being called a harsh critic so it all gets dressed up…what happened to trail and error ?or learn from mistakes,this just sounds wrong being specific and be regular that’s energy draining in my opinion.

    • Scott

      I didn’t understand a word of that.

      • Hall

        1. jill thinks giving specific criticism is wasting too much energy; saying a simply “yes” or “no” is better, so you learn by “try and error”
        2. jill feels like giving specific criticism is belittling and like being a “I know it better”- person and the sandwich version of it is even more belittling, since it tries to soften the the critique “so the baby won’t cry”

  • http://www.astroadvisor.com/ T.S. Phillips

    That is a fine line to cross without making the other person defensive. Thanks for the suggestions to help bring out the best in others you work with. T.S., http://astroadvisor.com

  • Bill Lumberg

    Interesting – so, give someone feedback as a regular part of your conversations, and that’s going to create a positive culture. Do you find that your cubical is pretty much devoid of traffic most of the day? -Bill Lumberg

  • http://whatsbettertoday.com/ Dr John Kenworthy

    I could offer you specific criticism immediately on this piece, but that would simply raise your defences in your brain, send a little cortisol rushing through, and you won’t hear the feedback. Let alone act on it.

    So, I like the way you bring in the Family Guy parody, and you rapidly bring the reason we need criticism and if you were to improve it would be to explain how a feedback sandwich can work well and overall, a concise and well-written article.

    Of course, if I knew you personally, I could throw some personal value garnish in and help you digest the sandwich.

  • Candace Loy

    Well, because “read between the lines” … or slices. We all know how to do that. It’s different from showing you understand the context of the criticism and are considering / empathizing with other possible perspectives. Bullshit detectors can tell the difference between that and when you are serving up a sandwich.

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