Sandwich Criticism between 2 Slices of Compliment

By | January 9, 2020

[January 9, 2020] Many techniques work well in delivering negative feedback.  My dad, who worked his way up through the ranks of the Missouri Pacific Railroad (MOPAC), was fond of the Sandwich Technique.1  He told me that it was always best to surround criticism with compliments.

It goes something like this, “Bob, you’re talented.  You screwed up on this task.  Bob, you still a pretty smart guy.”  The core of the sandwich technique is giving criticism without trying to hurt that person’s feelings.  Sometimes this is an effective method, but it depends upon the situation and the person getting receiving criticism.  Being selective in its use is paramount.

Maybe I’m a bit simple, but I fell for it once.  My first War College paper was due, and I spent several hours making sure everything was just right.  Upon its return and marked up in red were the many mistakes I’d made.  The instructor wrote, “You’re on a professional football team, you fumbled the ball and the other team ran it back for a touchdown, but you’re still on the team.”  Ouch!  I survived the War College and the compliment-criticism-compliment technique worked that time.

My dad was a very effective and talented manager.  He must have thought highly of this method and why he took the time to reinforce it with me.  I’d worked on a railroad owned by the MOPAC during the summers between college semesters.  Occasionally my dad would try to provide me with positive criticism using the sandwich technique.  At that time, it didn’t work as intended.

The sandwich technique often doesn’t work.  Here is why it doesn’t always work.  A person who is getting the method used on them hears all the positive comments, and the negative is buried.  It’s a natural tendency for us all to do that.  We hear the beginning and the end of conversations more than what is in the middle.

I prefer the pure, unvarnished truth, and I like it upfront and center.  Most of those in the U.S. military and those at senior leadership positions also prefer being given criticism as cleanly as possible.  “Don’t beat around the bush, tell me what’s wrong,” my friend told me once when I was responsible for correcting a mistake he kept making.

The Sandwich Technique is easy, and it does work; however, use it with care.

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  1. Also referred to as the Feedback Sandwich or Criticism Sandwich, this is a management technique that’s been around for a while and seems to work reasonably well. Some say, however, that it’s one of the worst management techniques ever invented.  Mark Murphy, in an article titled “The Compliment Sandwich: What Is It And Why Is It So Bad?” does an excellent job of explaining it and from which I use some of his thoughts in my article.  https://www.leadershipiq.com/blogs/leadershipiq/compliment-sandwich
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

17 thoughts on “Sandwich Criticism between 2 Slices of Compliment

  1. Tom Bushmaster

    YOU’RE FIRED!!!!! That is how Donald Trump took care of under-performing staff members. That works too but can have unexpected negative consequences. But hey, it’s efficient.

    1. Dale Paul Fox

      Yep and easy to use. That is why all of us should grow a pair (pun unintended) or, to use other words, toughen up a bit. The strong do well, the weak suffer.

      1. Willie Shrumburger

        Hi Dale, I find this method of sandwiching the constructive criticism between two compliments to be an effective/disarming way to help improve/correct behavior. Just my experience.

  2. JT Patterson

    This technique is not intended to be fake or simply to placate others. Being brutally direct can backfire and make people feel defensive and unable to hear your comments (no matter how useful they are). 😊

    1. José Luis Rodriguez

      I disagree, JT. Often being ‘brutally direct’ works best of all. There are those folks who are rather sensitive (we know who they are) and the sandwich tech. does work pretty good with them. But training folks HOW to take constructive criticism is something all leaders should strive to make part of their own makeuup.

  3. Janna Faulkner

    How it’s implemented is straightforward, and it’s a great tool for managers who are new or who are nervous about giving criticism. It’s designed to make the situation easier for all parties to handle.

    1. Linux Man

      Yes! “The Sandwich Technique” is a mindful, sensitive communication strategy which everyone (including hyper sensitive people) can use to transform the relationships with their partner, friends, family, and co-workers. I use it often and can say from experience that it works well. Not everyone benefits from it. I find that the more mature or senior in rank and experience, the less effective this strategy can be.

      1. Crazy Dude

        Good points Linus Man. I would like to add also that this is one of the first techniques taught to managers but not taught to leaders. That itself is an interesting thing to be happening.

  4. Eric Coda

    I like your War College term paper story. The instructor definitely used the Sandwich Technique on you. I guess it worked out. I too had something similar happen to me in college but the reverse was done; criticism-compliment-criticism. That too worked but not as well. Ha Ha Ha Ha…..

  5. Army Captain

    Many junior officers use the Compliment-Criticism-Compliment sandwich technique because it’s easy to use and understand. There are, of course, better and more sophisticated ways but this one works well in at least half the situations leaders find themselves in. Thanks Gen. Satterfield. Well done!

    1. Deplorable John

      Army Cpt, thanks for reinforcing the theme there today. Thank you for your service.

  6. Autistic Techie

    Excellent article. I’d heard of this rather simple technique before and use it sometimes.

    1. Dead Pool Guy

      Yep, that’s why we read this leadership blog. I try to spend a couple of minutes in my busy day to jump onto this site and take in a few clues on how to better be a leader. It works. And, occasionally there is something that is really entertaining.

      1. apache2

        👍 Well said, Dead Pool Guy (interesting moniker).

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