Stop Using the Compliment Sandwich and Give Better Feedback

Written By: Alison Green
March 18, 2014
3 min read

1. Stop using the compliment sandwich. You’ve probably heard of this technique – the idea is that you praise something the employee has done well, then give some critical feedback, then wrap up with some more praise, thus “sandwiching” the criticism inside of praise. The problem is that it’s fooling no one. It can make the praise seem insincere, or cause your employees to start bracing for criticism every time you open a conversation with praise. Plus, it can cause the critical part of the message to get lost. There’s no need to hide critical feedback inside a sandwich – you can and should just be straightforward about it.

2. Make feedback feel less scary by providing it regularly. If you give feedback only rarely, it will begin to feel like a Big Event – and often a scary one, both for you and for your staff members. But making feedback a regular part of your conversations with employee (such as making it an item in every weekly check-in) will help “normalize” it so that staff members (hopefully) won’t see it as an intimidating conversation that only occurs occasionally.

3. Be clear and specific. Too often, managers give feedback based on a vague sense, rather than being specific about what they’re seeing and what they’d like to happen differently. For instance, if you’re dissatisfied with the way an employee is running meetings, you shouldn’t just tell her she needs to work on running meetings better. Instead, identify specifically what the issue is. For instance, you might say, “I’d like you to make sure that we don’t rush through topics that people need a chance to discuss, and that we have a mechanism for tracking next steps before the meeting ends.”

4. Make it a two-way conversation. Feedback shouldn’t be a monologue; it should be a two-way conversation where you share your thoughts and solicit your employee’s input. You should pause to hear your staff member’s thoughts and ask for her input. For instance, you might ask questions like:

  • "What do you think?"
  • "What's your take on that?"
  • "What do you think could have gone better?"
  • "How could you approach it differently?"

5. Don’t put feedback off. Feedback is far more effective when it’s given right away. The longer you wait, the more awkward the conversation will be when you finally do have it. Plus, the problem may have taken root, and the staff member may wonder why you didn’t tell her earlier.

6. When a problematic behavior has become a pattern, talk about the pattern, not just the individual occurrences. Often, a manager will give similar feedback over and over to an employee; at that point, the problem is the pattern more than any one individual instance, and the feedback should be focused on that pattern. Otherwise, the staff member may not connect the dots and realize that issues she might have viewed as relatively minor on their own add up to a more serious concern when viewed all together. For instance, if your employee regularly has errors in her work, don’t just address the latest error; instead, say, “I’m concerned by the number of errors I’ve been catching in your work, and it’s making me concerned I need to look at everything you produce before it goes out. I need you to consistently produce error-free documents.”

Written By: Alison Green
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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