stop using the compliment sandwich … and more ways to give better feedback

If you’re like most managers, you don’t give your staff nearly as much feedback as you should. That might be partly because it takes time to give feedback well and most managers are busy, and it might be partly because tough feedback conversations can be intimidating to launch. But giving feedback, and giving it effectively, is one of the most important things you’ll do as a manager. Here are six ways to get better at it.

1. Stop using the compliment sandwich. You’ve probably heard of this technique – the idea is that you praise something the employee has done well, then give some critical feedback, then wrap up with some more praise, thus “sandwiching” the criticism inside of praise. The problem is that it’s fooling no one. It can make the praise seem insincere, or cause your employees to start bracing for criticism every time you open a conversation with praise. Plus, it can cause the critical part of the message to get lost. There’s no need to hide critical feedback inside a sandwich – you can and should just be straightforward about it.

2. Make feedback feel less scary by providing it regularly. If you give feedback only rarely, it will begin to feel like a Big Event – and often a scary one, both for you and for your staff members. But making feedback a regular part of your conversations with employee (such as making it an item in every weekly check-in) will help “normalize” it so that staff members (hopefully) won’t see it as an intimidating conversation that only occurs occasionally.

3. Be clear and specific. Too often, managers give feedback based on a vague sense, rather than being specific about what they’re seeing and what they’d like to happen differently. For instance, if you’re dissatisfied with the way an employee is running meetings, you shouldn’t just tell her she needs to work on running meetings better. Instead, identify specifically what the issue is. For instance, you might say, “I’d like you to make sure that we don’t rush through topics that people need a chance to discuss, and that we have a mechanism for tracking next steps before the meeting ends.”

4. Make it a two-way conversation.< Feedback shouldn’t be a monologue; it should be a two-way conversation where you share your thoughts and solicit your employee’s input. You should pause to hear your staff member’s thoughts and ask for her input. For instance, you might ask questions like:

  • “What do you think?”
  • “What’s your take on that?”
  • “What do you think could have gone better?”
  • “How could you approach it differently?”

5. Don’t put feedback off.

Feedback is far more effective when it’s given right away. The longer you wait, the more awkward the conversation will be when you finally do have it. Plus, the problem may have taken root, and the staff member may wonder why you didn’t tell her earlier.

6. When a problematic behavior has become a pattern, talk about the pattern, not just the individual occurrences. Often, a manager will give similar feedback over and over to an employee; at that point, the problem is the pattern more than any one individual instance, and the feedback should be focused on that pattern. Otherwise, the staff member may not connect the dots and realize that issues she might have viewed as relatively minor on their own add up to a more serious concern when viewed all together. For instance, if your employee regularly has errors in her work, don’t just address the latest error; instead, say, “I’m concerned by the number of errors I’ve been catching in your work, and it’s making me concerned I need to look at everything you produce before it goes out. I need you to consistently produce error-free documents.”

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. Just a Reader*

    I like #4. Sometimes you know you kind of sucked at something, but don’t know if anyone noticed or if it’s really a problem. Having an open discussion about it helps a lot and can also show your manager how you arrived at whatever decision or action caused the issue.

  2. Confuzzled*

    I can’t stand this. My manager does this and when she does I tend to take her less seriously as it signals she isn’t comfortable in her management, and the unpleasant things that come along with it.

  3. Jamie*

    This needs to be required reading for everyone who is or will one day be a manager.

    Points also easily co-opted with a few changes for auditors as well. My biggest hurdle in training auditors was not control samples, or procedural issues, or paperwork – it was how to give feedback properly. No good cop or bad cop – just confidence in your feedback, willingness to listen, and how to hold people accountable without apologizing or making it personal.

    And that compliment sandwich has always bothered me – who came up with that? All it does is install the conditioning to respond to a compliment by waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I first learned it in teacher school; it’s something used for elementary students, but I don’t know if that’s where it originated. Adults can (or should be able to) take critical feedback, so I think it’s unnecessary with them.

      1. Anonymous*

        I suspect the compliment sandwich spawned from the idea that you should give both positive and negative feedback. Unfortunately, sandwiching them together can have the effect of diluting both.

    2. pomme de terre*

      For some folks, hearing only criticism immediately puts them on the defensive and they lash out or start rationalizing why the behavior wasn’t really that bad and don’t really absorb the advice they’re being given. If you tell someone what they’re doing well in addition to telling them what needs improvement, they’re more likely to listen and act on the suggestions. To mix food metaphors, the compliment sandwich is meant to be a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

      I agree with Alison that the method is now so common that it’s not fooling anyone, but I can see why it exists.

      1. Ruffingit*

        I can too. With some people, the compliment sandwich works because they are not able to hear criticism without a positive beginning/ending note. I think whether this is a good method or not is very person specific. Personally, I’m fine with people just telling me what’s what and let’s all move on, but I do know there are more sensitive people (and sensitive is not bad in this context, it just is) who would do better with the sandwich method.

        1. Tax Nerd*

          I had a staff person that would all but have a meltdown if any criticism wasn’t served with a heaping spoonful of praise and compliments, as well. (She was a stereotype of the “self esteem” generation.)

          She would go over my head and literally cry to my boss that I was meeeeeeeean. Because he couldn’t handle a female crying, he just told me not to criticize her. This, after we had had a conversation about the feedback that I planned to give, and how I planned to give it. Her immaturity and his failure to back me up were maddening. So glad I don’t have to work with either, anymore.

          1. Ruffingit*

            That is way outside the sensitivity I’m describing. That’s supremely immature and ridiculous. The sensitive person I’m thinking of is more someone who will hear things better with some positive things attached. The situation you describe just sounds weird and way out of bounds for a professional atmosphere. I’d be glad too if I didn’t have to work with either of those people anymore.

    3. Lynn Whitehat*

      I think the compliment sandwich is to feedback what the 5-paragraph essay format is to writing. It provides a structure to beginners who otherwise wouldn’t have any idea what to do so they can communicate something coherent. But at some point, you have to “take the training wheels off”.

  4. danr*

    Am I glad that my managers never followed the sandwich pattern. Meetings were focused on either compliments or problems, never both.

  5. Zelos*

    Augh, the compliment sandwich. I hate that technique, and everyone (except Alison and the commentors here) tells me to use it! I don’t disagree with commenting on positives and negatives, but there’s no need to sandwich them: “you did well with A, B, and C. For the future, I’d like to see you do D, E, and F” is perfectly fine. Sandwiching the criticism in the compliments just makes me ignore the compliments while I listen for the tidbits of criticism in between the praise.

    Thank you, Alison, for being my bastion of sanity.

    1. EngineerGirl*

      This exactly. You’re so upset by the technique that you don’t get the message. The technique invalidates both parts of the review. The person doesn’t believe the compliments because they are followed by criticism. They are unsure about the criticism because it is followed again by a compliment (so it couldn’t be THAT bad, right?)

      Hard discussions are by nature hard. But someone can’t improve if you don’t tell them what you are seeing wrong. A blind spot can’t be fixed because the person doesn’t see it (that’s why it’s called a blind spot). Managers who don’t address these issues are setting their people up for failure.

  6. Jake*

    My first boss gave 90 percent positive feedback and10% negative, and the vast majority was not in a formal meeting. It made his feedback seem real because it was on the spot.

    My current manager doesn’t give enough positive or negative feedback, which is probably true of most managers.

    1. tcookson*

      I like about my boss that he gives feedback immediately in the moment. If he likes something, he immediately says he likes it; if he doesn’t like something, he immediately says he doesn’t like it. But he keeps his comments focused on the work and doesn’t get personal. I think it comes from his being a designer and having a very high comfort level with critiquing work product.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Not getting personal is a big help. A lot of people don’t realize that keeping your comments on the work is the best way to go rather than saying things like “You’re clearly a bad worker” or “You just don’t get it, do you?” or things of that nature that are more personally insulting. It helps nothing. Keeping comments on what needs to change is much better.

  7. Emmy*

    Ugh, I hate the compliment sandwich and my boss uses it all the time. Personally, I have a hard time taking the compliments seriously, and also generally expect some criticism to follow every compliment, which really diminishes the compliments. And there are definitely people I know who only hear the compliments, not the middle part! I’m a big fan of direct but courteous, specific communication.

  8. Jules*

    I hate compliment sandwich. The msg gets lost in translation.

    From the recent conflict mgmt class, if you hate conflict (i.e. root canal is cake walk in comparison), prepare an outline/speech/basic answers which gives you time to think about what they say before replying/basic ways to say ‘lets walk away and come back later’.

    It really helped.

  9. ChristineSW*

    LOL I think the compliment sandwich was designed for people like me; that is, super-sensitive. I can see why a manager giving feedback may feel that this is a way to soften the blow of criticism.

    #4 – This x 100. Don’t just tell me that I need to work on X, ask me about my take on it and openly brainstorm ways that might help me improve. Yes I can get in my own way, but it’s only because I want to do a good job, give accurate information on chocolate teapot resources, and contribute to the organization’s mission.

    #5 – This happened to me quite a bit in PreGradSchoolJob. So, so embarrassing when it came time for the annual review :(

  10. AnotherAlison*

    What is this mysterious thing called feedback?

    Of course, I’m guilty of taking the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset and never ask anymore.

    1. Mints*

      These articles make me realize how much I need a new job. I’m like feedback? positive feedback is money in the bank every two weeks and that’s all I care about, ugh.

      I’m off to trawl job boards

  11. Anonymous*

    I wish my manager took the monthly check-ins our organization does seriously and gave real feedback in addition to talking about what’s working/not working. The only feedback we tend to get is when something goes way wrong, or at our annual reviews.

      1. AAA*

        Wow! I hadn’t come across this post but was going to ask pretty much the same question. It is really hard to keep requesting feedback and only getting complimentary feedback rather than critical–especially when you want to grow in some direction and don’t know how you might be holding yourself back.

        This is great advice as usual, Alison!

  12. Sascha*

    A lot of times the compliment sandwich sounds like backhanded compliments to me. It makes the person saying it sound pretentious. Now I think a person can genuinely have 2 pieces of praise and 1 piece of criticism and it doesn’t have to make the “sandwich,” but Alison is talking about doing the sandwich all the time, which is a problem. Because sometimes you just don’t have anything to praise…so a person will fish for meaningless praise items, and that comes off as disingenuous.

    1. tcookson*

      The compliment sandwich comes across as a backhanded compliment to me, too. Or kind of as an insult: like when you have to give a dog a pill and you hide it in a piece of cheese to trick them into swallowing. I always feel like there’s some kind of mild deceit going on, and I’m put off by the feeling that the person didn’t respect me enough to just talk to me instead of trying to “handle” me. I really hate feeling like I’m being “handled”.

  13. Anon*

    I had the most ridiculous conversation with my manager the other day. We were doing my annual performance review. First, my self-evaluation of all the things I did well, plus a couple of things I’d like to improve on. Then, her take on the same thing.

    She did well with providing positive feedback, but then completely fell apart when it came to the “needs improvement” section. The one thing she wanted me to improve was a variation on the thing I had already said myself that I needed to improve. And it was based on a pretty big mistake that I had made earlier in the year – which was addressed at the time, but it was definitely big enough to merit repeating in the review.

    All this is to say, I was expecting feedback in that situation. Not only that, but I was expecting negative feedback, and in fact I was expecting *that specific* item of negative feedback. So she should have been able to deliver it, right? Apparently not – there was a good two minutes of “um, er, well the thing is,” and nervous giggling before she got to what she was actually trying to say. I felt like I needed to coach *her* on how to do my performance review!

    I like Jamie’s take on it above – No good cop or bad cop – just confidence in your feedback, willingness to listen, and how to hold people accountable without apologizing or making it personal. Take a deep breath, and just say what you need to say.

  14. Lora*

    As near as I can tell, the sandwich thing is intended for managers who NEVER give positive feedback. At all. I have encountered a handful. That said, of the ones I have encountered, it was a safe bet that ANYTHING out of their mouths, either positive or negative, was insincere nonsense.

    NB for managers who never or rarely give positive feedback: After a while, nobody takes your critiques seriously because everyone assumes you’re just a grumpy, nasty, mean person who simply never has a good word for anyone. And then nobody wants to work with you, and you never get any good projects or collaborations because everyone sees you as The Asshole. It hurts you more than it helps your employees in the long run.

    1. Harriet*

      Yes – we recommend it to professors who overwhelmingly give negative assignment feedback. It can be a useful way of forcing them to pick up on the positive aspects of a piece of work.

    2. LMW*

      That’s how I’ve always seen it too. I recommended it as a technique to a colleague because she had an awesome team that was falling apart because she was so bad at giving feedback. They were doing far more right than they were wrong, but you’d never know from their conversations. So I finally told her, look if they are primarily doing a good job, you need to make sure they are getting the praise they deserved too. Instead of walking into wrap sessions to dissect what went wrong, spend a little time on what went well, what they need to improve next time and what the overall outcome of the project was. Once she got into the habit of doing that, she got better at just giving regular feedback (no sandwich), but she needed something like that to start with because she was just…sucking at giving feedback.

      1. Julie*

        I had a manager once who started every “evaluation” type of conversation by asking me how I thought things were going. My assessment and hers were always aligned, and it gave her an easy opening to talk about the things that I (and she) thought I needed to improve on (as well as the positive aspects of my performance). I think this approach would also work well when talking with a team about how a project went.

  15. NutellaNutterson*

    I don’t have the link on hand at the moment – there’s been interesting research that if you open with the criticism, it actually makes people more focused and likely to hear/remember the praise, whereas, as A. says above – the sandwich leaves you bracing for the “but” and ignoring or dismissing the praise.

  16. A.Y. Siu*

    Everyone has different learning styles, to a certain extent, so I can only speak for myself, but I learn best through less formalized feedback.

    Don’t schedule a meeting with me. Don’t have some convoluted review process.

    Just give me feedback when it’s warranted. When I do a good job, say “Hey, great job on X. I really like how you did Y.” When I screw something up, say “Next time you may want to do X first before you do Y” or “Can you double-check with me before you do X?” No need to sugarcoat anything. Tell me when I’m doing well, and tell me when I’m not doing well. But do both.

    1. Anon*

      Yes, I like this too. Personally, I have anxiety issues and a history of managers who turned our weekly meetings into hour-long torture sessions examining everything I was doing wrong and why. A quick and straightforward “Hey, you’ve been doing this, please do that instead” will not set off my alarm bells or start me worrying that my boss doesn’t like me, it’s just a request that I do something differently.

      I don’t know if this is true for anyone else, but I respond well to a manager saying “I need you to _____.” For some reason “You should be in the office promptly at 8:00” gets my defensiveness up much more than “I need you to reliably be in the office at 8:00”. The first feels like a judgement that I’m failing at this thing, the second comes across as a clarification of what the job requires.

  17. MaryMary*

    Our CEO insists we use “softening statements” when giving feedback, which basically devolves into a compliment sandwhich.

  18. HR Lady*

    This is a great article, Alison. I encounter a lot of managers who are so scared to give negative feedback that they just don’t do it (or they wait until they are at the end of their rope and super angry).

    Feedback is a 2-way street, though. People should give some thought to how they “take” feedback. It is much easier to give feedback to someone who is open to hearing it, open to change, and doesn’t get angry or teary-eyed.

  19. AVP*

    I had a manager who would *announce* that you were in a compliment sandwich halfway through. As in-

    “Have I ever told you that that run the office better than anyone ever has? But, I wonder if maybe you could make it more of a point to throw away clutter at the end of every day? Oh, and – here is the other piece of bread, someone told me if I wanted to give feedback I had to sandwich it! So I’ve also noticed that the kitchen is very clean, thanks for taking care of that.”


    1. Jazzy Red*

      THIS ONE makes me laugh.

      I’ll bet he thought he was doing a good job with the feedback, too.

    2. tcookson*

      Okay, I might actually like a compliment sandwich if I could laugh about it later as much as I laughed about this!

    3. Julie*

      I can really see how this formulation would make the person receiving it completely miss the part in the middle that they’re supposed to pay attention to and improve on. “So she’s happy with how I run the office and how clean the kitchen is. Awesome! Wait, what is the thing I’m supposed to do differently? I can’t remember what she said about that.”

  20. Dan*


    I have to be honest, I won’t take critical feedback all that seriously if the first time I hear about it is at my annual review. I mean, if you’re going to let me get away with it for upwards of 11 months before saying anything, I’m not going to believe that *you* think it is all that serious.

  21. Sharon*

    I’ve seen #4 done well and also done really, really badly. The bad scenarios were when it was used in an overly blunt and extremely condescending way by someone who had a personal dislike for me. I think it was just teachers; I don’t remember any specific cases with employers. But it goes like this:

    “You really screwed that up. I can’t believe you could be so stupid! I think you need to work harder to do things right, wouldn’t you agree?”

    Which amazingly does not lead me into a conversation because I’m busy being defensive. And I’m not normally a defensive person, I can take criticism pretty well, unless it’s delivered with a chainsaw.

  22. Chris*

    I think the compliment sandwich can be done well, but ONLY if it feels natural. I think that the take-away from a CS is that you want to assure the employee that you think they are generally capable (assuming they are), but you have this area of concern that you want to address. I think it’s nice to hear both compliments and criticism in the same discussion. But when it’s super formal and regimented, it sounds completely artificial and disingenuous. If the CS doesn’t evolve naturally from the situation, don’t force yourself to use it. Working with people requires flexibility, and it’s maddening when some HR moron uses a random study of college students to enforce some iron fisted policy on the assumption that it’s “how people work.”

  23. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

    Sadly, the compliment sandwich technique is taught in a lot of management workshops. I can see how it might make sense in certain situations, but I think that in general it isn’t the greatest method to give criticism. I think that some managers use this technique when they are afraid of upsetting their employee… maybe because they don’t feel comfortable giving he feedback, or maybe the employee has gotten very upset or defensive in the past… not my favorite technique because then it makes the criticism seem less significant and the take-away for the employee may be that they are doing a great job with A and C… and there is a small issue with B that they need to work on… very good post and really interesting comments!

    1. A Bug!*

      The way I see it, if your employee requires a compliment sandwich to keep them from responding to valid feedback with a tantrum, then that’s a performance issue in its own right, and teaching managers to use the compliment sandwich instead of addressing that issue is pretty silly.

  24. KayDay*

    When I am receiving feedback, the most useful things are:
    1. An overall assessment–specific details about what to improve are very useful, but if that’s all I get I tend to think that I’m doing an overall terrible job. It’s also important to know if 90% of my work is good, or if I’m doing ok but not great, or if I really am sucking at everything.

    2. Details about what needs improvement; so I can fix it.

    3. What I am specifically doing well, so that I know that I’m actually doing the right thing. I can’t tell you how many times I have been not completely sure if what I did was correct/good/what my manager wanted because I never heard back about it. I knew it wasn’t completely wrong, sure, but I didn’t know if it was completely right either.

    Overall, I agree with most of Alison’s tips, particularly #6 (talk about the pattern).

    #4–make it a conversation is good in theory. It works when the boss is generally open to feed back about their feedback. HOWEVER, I absolutely hate when managers ask questions that they (not the employee) should be answering. It can have a very aggressive feel sometimes; like being called on in class in high school or, “guess what I’m thinking or your fired”. For example, a manager who asks, “what did you think about your presentation?” when it’s clear the manager has something to say about it. Say it first! This is particularly true when there is a very specific answer the boss has in mind–e.g. Boss: “how do you think you could have improved the report?” Employee: “um, by starting sooner?” Boss: “you should have used the XXX template and based your description on the report from 2010.” Ask questions after saying what you think and in response to what you say. Think conversation, not interrogation.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Think conversation, not interrogation.

      I agree. That whole method of guess what I am thinking about your work is such a time waster. Just be specific and clear and let’s move on already. This is not some kind of Socratic method of management where you make “the student” suss out the details, etc. It’s a workplace. Say what you want and be done with it.

  25. Ruffingit*

    #3: Be clear and specific

    This is a good thing for life in general. So many people don’t do this and then wonder why they’re suffering. This works both at work and in our personal relationships. Don’t just tell your spouse, for example, “I need you to be more supportive!” OK, so what does that mean to you? What specific things are you looking for there? I can’t tell you how many people I have heard say “Well, they should just KNOW what I need.” Unless you’re married to a psychic, they don’t know so open your mouth and be specific or suffer. Your choice.

    1. fposte*

      Which reminds me of this week’s That Bad Advice, about a woman who’s been married for forty years and is convinced her husband takes her completely for granted because he’s never bought her a diamond ring. Which she has clearly indicated she wants…by leaving jewelry catalogs around.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Yeah, because the passive aggressive hints (leaving catalogs around for example) always works wonders. I admit that in my much younger years I had the whole “Well, he should KNOW what I want/need/feel” thing going on. Thank God I grew out of that and realized what I posted above, which is that no one can know unless you tell them. I’m now subscribing to the newsletter of “Tell people specifically what you need/want/feel and move on.”

  26. Kevin Sanderson*

    Can’t agree more about the feedback/compliment sandwich. It gets used way too often, and employees start to flinch when they get praised because they think something bad is coming. If employees do something well, give good feedback. If something needs to be corrected, take appropriate corrective action. Feedback is easier for the employee and manager when done more often….

  27. Vicki*

    As part of giving feedback regularly, here’s a corollary – let it go.

    If you give feedback on something in early November, and the situation doesn’t come up again and you don’t need to follow up on it, do NOT bring it up as a Major Flaw That Needs Addressing on the annual review in mid-March.

    The biggest rule that every manager should follow in terms of the so-called annual performance review is: There Shall Be No Surprises.

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