Yesterday’s article presented the popular ‘sandwich technique‘ for giving interpersonal feedback. This follow-up article will critique this method and discuss three common mistakes that render the sandwich technique ineffective. The next article will introduce an effective feedback technique with pointers for further information.
These discussions and examples focus on manager-to-employee feedback. This analysis is, however, relevant to other interpersonal contexts–between peers or between spouses, for instance.
Mary Kay Ash on the Sandwich Technique
Sandwich every bit of criticism between two heavy layers of praise. … A manager should be able to tell someone when something is wrong without bruising an ego in the process.
Never giving criticism without praise is a strict rule for me. No matter what you are criticizing, you must find something good to say — both before and after. This is called sandwich technique.
Try to praise in the beginning and then again after discussing the problem. You don’t subject people to harsh criticism or provoke anger.
Common Mistake 1: Praise is substantial and obscures the criticism
Consider the following case. Surya was the head of a committee that organized the annual family picnic at his company. The committee exceeded the picnic budget by 35%. Surya’s boss uses the sandwich technique to criticize him for his failure to control expenditure.
- Praise: “Surya, our management was very impressed with the attendance at our annual family picnic. The weather was great. The catered food was excellent. The activities for children were wonderful. You even organized contests for children and family.”
- Criticism: “By the way, you overspent by 35%. You should check your expenses and try to be within budget.”
- Praise: “I understand you worked very hard to coordinate the logistics. I congratulate you for doing a remarkable job leading the committee and for your enthusiasm. Thank you for a job well done.”
In the above example, the praise is substantial and obscures the criticism. Surya may neglect the criticism since the criticism is insignificant— therefore, lost—when sandwiched between “heavy layers of praise.”
Common Mistake 2: Praise is trivial or just-for-sake and serves no function
Suppose that Charlie led a brainstorming meeting for a new product. One of his new fresh-from-college employees proposed an idea that was not practicable. Charlie was annoyed with the idea and responded, “That is a stupid idea. You are thoughtless. You have been here for less than a week. I don’t think you are knowledgeable enough to contribute to our discussions here.”
Janet, Charlie’s boss, observed this interaction. After the meeting, she wanted to criticize Charlie for condemning the new employee in the presence of several other employees. Janet recalled the sandwich feedback technique she had learnt. However, she could not conceive praise for Charlie. Hastily, she stated something trivial just for the sake of paving the way to her criticism.
- Praise: “Charlie, good job organizing the meeting.”
- Criticism: “I noticed that you openly called the new employee’s idea “foolish” and dismissed his idea. Don’t you realize he is fresh from college? Did you see his reaction? He felt dejected and showed no enthusiasm during the rest of the meeting. He was probably there to meet many people from our department and learn how we manage projects. How can you expect him to feel happy about joining your team? I have noticed that you jump to criticize other people’s ideas in meetings. Look, a good manager encourages participation in meetings. I think you should apologize to the new employee. [Pause]”
- Praise: “Hmm … anyway. Good meeting. I liked your flowchart.”
As in the above example, for the sake of sandwiching their criticism, managers tend to offer unrelated—often trivial—praises when faced with the challenge of criticizing their employees. Such praise is inconsequential and, therefore, defeats the purpose of the sandwich technique.
Common Mistake 3: Employees get tuned in to the praise-criticism-praise pattern
Once managers learn and use the sandwich feedback technique a few times, employees recognize the praise-criticism-praise pattern. Employees realize that the managers offer criticism after initiating their conversations with praise. Subsequently they learn to discount this praise since such praise is just a lead-in to the criticism.
Conclusions: Sandwich feedback is often ineffective
Frequently, from the mistakes explained above, the sandwich technique amounts to undercutting praise with criticism. A praise followed by criticism undermines the positive impact of praise and weakens the significance of the corrective feedback.
Sandwich feedback is perhaps best used to help new managers develop feedback skills: to provide affirmative feedback to encourage employees to repeat desired behaviors and to offer corrective feedback to influence change. Once managers are at ease with giving feedback, they can focus on discussing what their employees do right and defer offering corrective feedback for other conversations.
Effective feedback is timely, relevant and forthright. Tomorrow’s article will introduce an effective feedback technique.
***Related Article: On the use of the word ‘but‘ to undercut praise with criticism. ‘But’ as in “Great job on the PowerPoint presentation Tom, but, you used small fonts—the audience was not able to read text on your slides.”