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Stop Serving The Compliment Sandwich

Stop Serving The Compliment Sandwich
Published January 9, 2015 by David Burkus
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?


More about David Burkus

David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.

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