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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

The Compliment Sandwich Doesn't Work

Stop using the compliment sandwich. It doesn't work. It guarantees that the feedback is not heard and the compliments feel dishonest. In fact, the compliment sandwich pretty much makes every aspect of the interaction worse.

The idea of the compliment sandwich - a piece of feedback wrapped in two compliments - is that the compliments should soften the criticism inherent in the feedback. This line of thinking comes from the reality that behavioral change is uncomfortable. That's certainly true.

Here's why the compliment sandwich fails: everyone hears the first compliment and immediately expects the critical feedback that is coming. The compliments fade from attention, and all the individual hears is undertones of personal criticism in the feedback. The speaker appears too insecure to be honest and straightforward, and the receiver has a reason to discard both the positive comments and the feedback.

The solution to the discomfort of feedback (of behavioral change, ultimately) is in how the feedback is delivered. The compliment sandwich doesn't fix this, but there are functional leadership strategies to lessen this discomfort. I'll get back to those in a second.

The real problem, which has a massive impact on your effectiveness as a leader, is that the compliment sandwich strips away the value of the two compliments. The sandwich makes praise become worse than useless: it makes the individual experience these two statements as manipulative and dishonest. The positive reward of a compliment or recognition is one of the most powerful ways that we affect behavior and support the leadership functions in the group. (Learn how great leaders use compliments in our series on the subject if you haven't read it already.) The compliment sandwich destroys this power and builds distrustful emotion relationships.

How should compliments be given? By themselves!

Give critical feedback in an entirely separate setting from praise, recognition, and compliments. Don't ruin praise by using it in a compliment sandwich!

Always separate praise and feedback.

OK, so we're going to give a member of the group feedback, and we know that is uncomfortable. How do we avoid the feeling of discomfort that comes with asking someone to change his or her behavior?

First, we as leaders must recognize that there is always going to be discomfort in asking someone to act or behave in a different way. Behavioral change is hard, and the request will always seem critical. It's OK for the group's members to feel this way if they have the support of strong functions in their work. Human beings can handle discomfort when these functions give them shared identity and direction, and when their interchange and emotion relationships within the group meet their human performance needs.

But we still want to lessen the discomfort, because we're good people and we want the intervention to succeed. Here's what we do: we connect the feedback, and the desired behavior, to the story of vision. We explain the benefits of the desired behavior by its effect on interchange and emotion relationships. And we support the individual through the process of behavioral change.

First, we use the story of vision to explain the context in which the behavior impacts the group's combined effort. When we explain how a specific behavior affects the individual's contribution to the final product, and therefore the group's success in creating a meaningful change for the customer, we provide context to justify the individual overcoming the discomfort of change. We quantify this impact with the standard of excellence, and we socialize it within a shared identity. This is why we must talk about all five factors that make up a complete story of vision.

Without the connection between individual effort and the group's shared output, critical feedback feels like a personal attack. The person's behavior, after all, is a choice that he or she has made. The story of vision explains that this choice is in service to a larger good, and therefore the individual is empowered to make a different choice because it benefits the group.

If the story of vision isn't well established, then this context is difficult to provide. Many organizations and leadership situations lack the shared words and understanding of a common story and therefore create difficulty with feedback. These environments transfer more of this effort to the immediate moment and leader, rather than drawing upon an already established narrative.

Second, we describe the behavior's effect on the group relationships, both interchange and emotion, to demonstrate that we see why the person selected the behavior and also the impact this behavior has on the other members of the group. We show how the group could do better if this person used a different behavior.

Finally, we support the behavioral change by lessening the discomfort of change. Our specific approach depends on the situation and behavior, but our feedback may offer ideas about a trigger for the behavior and specific performance. We may suggest interchanges or describe emotion reactions experienced by this or other group members. We likely describe the desired outcome, by which the individual will measure the success or failure of their actions. We may also follow up, or offer other group members as a support. These tactics ease the discomfort experienced by the individual as he or she adopts our feedback.

Ultimately, this change is a choice for the individual and not a mandate. This is the essence of functional leadership. The individual might decide to refuse the feedback. Leadership means allowing the individual a choice rather than using control to force the change. In fact, strong functions of vision, relationships, and learning might cause the individual to find a third, even more effective behavior for the situation, one that is entirely new.

When we tie all of these aspects of the three functions of leadership together, feedback becomes not a criticism that we have to wrap in complements so that we don't offend the person, but rather a way to bring out the best in that person's membership and contribution in this group. That's the functional approach to leadership in practice.

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