Compliment Sandwich is BAD Practice!

A “compliment sandwich” is a widely accepted practice of delivering bad news that a person’s performance needs improvement. A compliment sandwich starts with praise, then adds criticism, then finishes with praise. It’s supposed to make the listener more receptive and leave them feeling better. In fact, the more praise at the beginning and end, the better the recipient of the criticism will feel, and the more receptive he or she will be. Great theory, right?

BUT – that’s not how it works in the real world. Think about it. If you praise your dog, giving it a doggie treat and patting its head, then you scold it and spank its nose, then praise it with another treat, how does the dog respond to praise and doggie treats after you’ve done this a few times? It has learned that praise precedes scolding, so it will start being afraid of praise. Last I heard, humans are smarter than dogs. So if a person is working for a boss who uses the compliment sandwich technique, and the boss compliments the person on their performance, what do they expect next? Exactly. They don’t even hear the compliment; they just prepare themselves against the expected criticism.

The art of effective coaching is to deliver a single, clear message. And a large part of the art of coaching is praising people when they do things well. Period. No other zingers, no other hooks. Just straightforward praise. So people get comfortable being praised. With that as a foundation, when it’s time to criticize, the person will be better equipped to hear the criticism, especially if it’s delivered from the standpoint of missing expectations that were already agreed upon. The criticism should end with a clear understanding of how the person can improve (with measurable goals and dates), and the commitment of both parties to help that happen.

Have you used compliment sandwiches? How did they work for you? Or have you had compliment sandwiches used on you? What was that like?

Gary Langenwalter

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