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How to Deliver Critical Feedback That Employees Truly Hear

Topics: Retention
If you’re giving an employee hard feedback in the form of a compliment sandwich, your message may not be received the way you intended.

The basics of a compliment sandwich: start with a positive comment (a compliment), layer your critical feedback in the middle, then end with another positive comment.

I don’t know where this originated, but it was one of the first patterns taught to me as way to give critical feedback. The thought is that wrapping the hard feedback in positive messages, that the recipient will be more open to the whole package. But based on my experience, this is isn’t true. In fact, doing this has gotten me into enough trouble at this point that I’d consider the compliment sandwich an anti-pattern, or a counterproductive solution.  

If you're giving an employee hard feedback in the form of a compliment sandwich, your message may not be received the way you intended.Click To Tweet

How could a compliment sandwich get you into trouble?

It’s simple, the message you’re trying to send is not the message that is received. You’re likely trying to send the message: “here is a piece of feedback that is crucial to your success in this role.” What they’re hearing is: “I’m doing a good job, keep going.” And, you can’t blame the recipient either. If you delivered it as a sandwich, you just gave them two-parts positive information to one part negative information.

I wanted to experiment to see if this was true. In a weekly one-on-one, I gave someone critical feedback in a compliment sandwich. At the end of the one-on-one, I asked the recipient to review everything they heard, and what they were taking away. What they heard was: “I’m doing a good job!” I tried this a couple more times, with different team members with strikingly similar results.

Does this mean you should just be straight-forward and give the feedback? Yes. Does this mean you should do it like a jerk? Absolutely not. Consider these three example, and evaluate them for likelihood that the recipient will hear the intended message and how they’ll respond:

Sandwich:

“Your work on Project X was excellent, I love how you did Thing Y. I noticed on your current project you’ve been missing some crucial communications, and things have been slipping because of it.  But, generally your communication on other projects has been good.”

Jerk:

“What the heck is going on? You’re really dropping the ball on crucial communications for your current project. If you don’t square this away, we’re going to have to talk about a performance improvement plan.”

Decent Balance:

“A couple of crucial communications have been missed recently. This seems unlike work I’ve seen you do in the past. I just wanted to find out if you knew they’d been missed, and what you wanted to do about it.”

Obviously (at least to me), the “decent balance” example is a clear winner. With this option,  you’re focusing the recipient’s attention on the behavior you want them to change and the impact this behavior has on the team/organization. What you’re doing here are a few things:

  • Letting the recipient know that you’ve observed a problem created by their behavior
  • You’d like to learn more about the problem by getting their perspective
  • You’re inviting the recipient to offer their own diagnosis of the problem and solutions to address the problem
  • You’re re-affirming the person that you’re not questioning their character

When talking with other managers about this topic, one person belabored the sandwich metaphor to a breaking-but-still-valid-point: “When you make a sandwich at home, the bread-to-filling ratio tends to be higher than when you buy at a deli (more filling).  Many managers do the same with their compliment sandwiches, finding big juicy compliments and not putting enough of the important flavor in the middle.”

Does this mean you should never give a compliment sandwich? No. Some people do really respond well to the compliment sandwich. But, I’d venture to say they’re the minority. And, just like all communication with employees, you have to tailor your message to each employee.

Try running your own experiment, and let us know the results!

Additional reading on this topic, from people significantly more qualified than I:

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Adam Phillabaum
Read more from Adam

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