Compliment Sandwich, Bitch.

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In which we talk about the jerks who don’t know how to give constructive criticism.

The compliment sandwich

I really love the way you offer suggestions for improvement, but…

When you’re dealing with people, I don’t give a damn whether you’ve got an MBA or a GED. You know what matters to me?

How you TREAT people. Yes, how you treat me is a significant factor, but I also look at how you treat others. How you talk about others. What you write in e-mail. Everything you say to or about people shows me the kind of person that you are. And if you’re being a douche nozzle, you should probably take this to heart.

I didn’t attend a fancy business school, but I did learn that the best way to deliver criticism is with a spoonful of sugar.

Mary Poppins is my homie.

If you’re going to tell a writer that their work could use a little cleaning up, I recommend the compliment sandwich.

How to dish out a compliment sandwich

What you’ll need:

  • Examples of excellent work, planning, organization, strategy or anything else that could warrant a proverbial pat on the back
  • The problem, issue, criticism that needs to be discussed
  • Proof and/or examples of the problem
  • A solution to the problem (if there is one)
  • The right words to eloquently phrase the problem, the solution, and the pat on the back so that you don’t come off as a dick
  • Someone to check your grammar and spelling (this is optional but highly recommended if you’re sending criticism via e-mail).

Step 1: Whether you’re writing an e-mail or confronting the offender in person, it’s best to ensure that you know exactly what you’re going to say. Words are powerful. If you’re not sure of your phrasing, consult with other people. This is essential.

Step 2: Deliver compliment #1. This is one of the easiest parts. “You’re doing a great job here (Elaborate. Get them on Team You).” or “I really appreciated how you handled project A, B, or C.” or my favorite, “I know you’re working really hard on this…”

Step 3: Transition into the constructive criticism. This should be seamless from compliment to “here’s something I’ve/we’ve noticed.”

Step 4: Deliver criticism. Make sure that you use NICE language. The words, “suck,” “shit,” “crap,” “awful,” “terrible,” “worst,” and any other derivative of these offensive words should be avoided at all costs. Stick with words like: “improve,” “adjust,” “modify,” “change,” and “expectations.”

Step 5: Offer that solution. If you genuinely don’t have a solution, give them TIME to come up with a solution. If you couldn’t think of one in the time it took you to plan this, they certainly aren’t going to have a solution on the spot, especially if they’re feeling attacked.

Step 6: Bring it right back to another compliment. Positive reinforcement works wonders. The whip? Not so much. “Thank you.” “I know you can do this.” “You’ve got a lot of great ideas, let’s implement them.” If you can’t think of 2 compliments, you’ve got a whole different problem on your hands, and I can’t help you. But if you can, then be nice to your people. Duh?

You have so much potential, so I know that you CAN make this compliment sandwich thing work.

See what I did there? - Your grammatically incorrect e-mail was much appreciated. For reference, though,

Have you experienced a peer or someone in your place of employment who didn’t have a nice thing to say, ever? How did you handle it? Do you believe in the compliment sandwich? How do you deliver constructive criticism?

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15 Responses

  1. I am a major fan of the compliment sandwich! Though I will say I offered a lovely one to someone (albeit unsolicited) about their writing, and got royally reamed…

  2. I’ve learned current constructive criticism is FOUR compliments, to one criticism. And that can be VERY hard to do, at least in my job, where 90% of what I say is “knock it off” (Case manager in community corrections)

  3. I use the compliment sandwich as often as I can. I also try to set a precedent of just encouraging others and noticing and acknowledging the good things that they do. I’ve learned the ‘receiving end’ way how NOT to do it.

  4. Sad part though, is that there are some people who cannot understand the compliment sandwich. Constructive criticism to them is still criticism even when it’s done nicely. I’ve witnessed several newbie writers get assbent over the nicest and most constructive criticism possible. You just can’t win everyone over no matter how nice.

    That said, I lurve the compliment sandwich. It certainly is a great way to explain and help people

  5. Haha I enjoyed this! Maybe I could employ this from time to time, when dealing with the technophobes I speak to in my day to day work. Alternatively, I could just pretend to be nice and then vent about them on my blog. I think that second option works better for my stress levels…

  6. At work we’re constantly talking about the feedback burger. Praise (top bun) followed by constructive feedback (meat) followed by positive reinforcement of some type (bottom bun). It works but it’s so drilled into our culture that whenever we get praise we’re kinda waiting for the “constructive criticism” aka. bitching out.

  7. This is how I was taught to coach my subordinates when I was a manager. I did it, but I didn’t like it. It feels disingenuous to me. I’m all about not being a douche if you’re trying to correct someone (or me) but sugarcoating just rubs me the wrong way.

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