beware of bosses handing out “crap sandwiches”

If you’ve ever taken a management class — or been managed — you’ve probably come across the “feedback sandwich.” Known more colloquially as the “crap sandwich,” the idea is that when giving criticism, managers should sandwich it between two pieces of positive feedback: open with some praise, then offer the criticism, then close with some more praise to leave the person feeling good. It’s based on the idea that it’s easier for people to accept negative feedback when they also hear about what’s going well.

Unfortunately, the crap sandwich is fraught with problems. At Slate today, I talk about why — and how feedback should work. You can read it here.


{ 141 comments… read them below }

  1. Ruthie*

    My future mother-in-law once endearingly suggested we try the “sandwhich method” of giving feedback (in a non-work context). We giggled and told her that it’s actually called a “s*** sandwich,” which she refused to believe.

      1. Frank Doyle*

        That’s not an accurate term, as you don’t generally refer to having a “bread sandwich.”

        1. Matilda Jefferies*

          It’s not accurate, but it’s pretty common – this is how I’ve usually heard it described as well.

          1. PB*

            I’ve heard it, too. Probably because “Compliment sandwich” sounds better than “Criticism sandwich.” Regardless, whenever I hear someone advocate the whatever-sandwich as a brilliant management approach, I know to be wary of all their advice.

        2. logicbutton*

          I’ve mostly heard “compliment sandwich,” too. I don’t think it’s inaccurate – you might not talk about bread sandwiches, but you might talk about a bagel sandwich.

      2. BRR*

        I have as well. I imagine the changing of the name is to give this method a more appropriate, disparaging name and what Frank Doyle said above.

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I’ve heard both variations, and I think the difference in terminology also signals the difference in how a person sees feedback. Some folks see this as wedging criticism between slabs of compliments, while others see it as burying the lede to put the flaming bag of dog poop between bread and hide it.

      4. LAP*

        “compliment sandwich” was probably coined by the person who came up with the idea and “shit sandwich” by the person receiving the feedback

    1. Amber T*

      I try not to be judgmental over what people do, but if you’re going to be eating sh*t sandwiches at your desk all day every day, I’m gonna find you weird >.<

      1. Videogame Lurker*

        I was hoping the link to the Bad Boss Story type article about the boss who defecated in a bag and put it into other people’s lunches as a “prank” would be linked to in the related links.

        But I would also judge the person, and start to worry about E.Coli outbreaks, which is the last thing my workplace (public schools) needs.

        1. Videogame Lurker*

          *edit, well, any work place, but public school shutting down for E.Coli would impact more than just employees.

        2. Amber T*

          Oh man I forgot about that guy… I agree that pranks overall don’t really belong in an office, but HE didn’t belong in an office.

  2. LimeRoos*

    We just talked about this in a session on how to give feedback to people with different communication styles. The instructor was from HR and it was the first I’ve heard of it being….not so good. And now I doubly understand why. I love AAM.

    1. designbot*

      yeah, I still regularly hear this advice in the workplace.
      I think the broader spirit of it is good—make sure that employees aren’t only hearing negative feedback from you—but the specific formula sucks.

    2. Amanda*

      I prefer to get negative feedback directly and without delay. No point letting something fester and letting people thing less of me in the interim.

      I tell all my managers this when I start. Or when I interview, if it comes up. How they implement it has proven to be an excellent indicator of how well my time at the company is going to go.

      My current boss is a kind but no-nonsense German fellow. I quite like working for him. That goes a long way to smoothing over all the other nonsense this role entails.

      Why not just ask people how they like their criticism, and endeavor to deliver that way?

  3. ICan'tBelieveThis*

    I am reading this while hiding at the back of the room and it is extremely apt. The project lead has decided that today’s topic is “improve team processes – what works and does not work.”

    “We’re doing a good job, but some of the team has issues with communications, but we’re all talking now.” Heaven forbid that the project lead talk directly with the affected members instead of all of us. SMH.

    1. Matilda Jefferies*

      I love the irony of using the compliment sandwich format to talk about communication problems! Are they perhaps trying to give a meta-example of a problematic way of communicating?

  4. Anonymous Educator*

    I don’t see what the issue is. Unless you have an employee who has a serious problem (said something racist, sexually harasses other employees, just plain doesn’t show up to work, etc.), most of the “negative” feedback you give can be phrased very unemotionally as a recommendation. My favorite kind of feedback from a manager is of the “I understand why you did X, but next time in that situation I would do Y, because [all these reasons].” And if the manager doesn’t understand my reasons for doing X, I’d like my manager to ask me for my rationale (in a non-confrontational but direct way).

    I think you’ll find as a manager, you will get direct reports who are far less defensive if you regularly compliment them on good work and if you phrase your criticism in an unemotional and tactful way. But you don’t need to sandwich criticism between praise or make some huge deal out of softening language.

    1. larz*

      One thing I’ve learned from my boss is the approach of “Help me understand how x happened” or “how you decided to do x.” It takes away the assumption that you know, and is so generous of heart–like, even if there was a real problem, someone dropped a ball or overstepped, it’s a chance to find out what they thought they were supposed to do, rather than condemning.

      1. Jadelyn*

        Agreed – it starts from the premise of “people are generally trying their best, so if someone messed up there’s probably a reason [that isn’t just malice or incompetence].” And often that kind of feedback can help identify real issues with a process, bottleneck points, unnecessary steps, etc.

    2. Kelly White*

      I’ll be honest- this wouldn’t work for me- and I might just be being nit-picky here. But early on in my career, I had a boss who always told me how “she would have done it”, and I never really understood if she was telling me she wanted me to do it that way, or if she was just being conversational about how you can get to the same end point via different routes, or if it was a combo of those- and I ended up being super frustrated because it felt like no matter what I did and how I did it, she would have done it a different way.
      If the language was changed to:
      “I understand why you did X, but next time in that situation I would like you to do Y, because [all these reasons].” I would be far more receptive.

      1. Close Bracket*

        Yes, I agree with this. I’m a literal person, and in response to many a boss who said to me, “I would do it this way,” I have replied, “I thought about that, but [reasons], so the way I settled on is better.”

      2. Anonymous Educator*

        “I understand why you did X, but next time in that situation I would like you to do Y, because [all these reasons].” I would be far more receptive.

        Sure. I mean, I wouldn’t think it’d be worth mentioning how “next time” I would have done it if I didn’t expect you to do it that way, but the way you phrased it is certainly more direct and less ambiguous.

        1. JSPA*

          There are many reasons to compare processes.

          Count me as another person who’d hear the soft version as “you could consider this.” Or even as, “nice, you thought of a different way to approach this problem, well done”–which is the exact opposite of the message you want to convey.

      3. AmazinglyGuileless*

        Yes, exactly. This is something I find so frustrating with bosses. My last boss was particularly bad at this. Her: “Well, I would do it like this.” Me: “Yes, I didn’t do it that way, because X/Y.” Her: “Well, but that’s how I would have done it.” So frustrating. Be direct and literal, otherwise I’m going to have problems finding out what you want.

        1. designbot*

          Did you tell her, “Well it’s fine with me if we do things different ways. If it’s a problem for you, you should say so.” ?

      4. nonymous*

        I find my husband and I use the “would have done it this way” language, and it’s a way for us to learn from each other. In the framework of boss/subordinate dynamics it doesn’t work as well because the boss is supposed make declarations that carry greater weight, presumably because they are privvy to information and strategies that subordinates are not.

        The challenge when using “b/c reasons” approach is that it invites discussion. Great if the goal is to workshop a problem but not great when the goal is to enforce a common standard.

      5. TIFF*

        My supervisor did this all the time. She’d phrase everything like a suggestion and I was stupid enough to think it was only a suggestion and kept doing my thing. Apparently to her these were direct orders that I blatantly ignored.

          1. Decima Dewey*

            A library where I once worked had two highers up with opposing personalities. One was the type that suggested things when she meant to make a direct order. The other was a drill sergeant type, but you always knew when doing something wasn’t optional.

        1. Amanda*

          Oh lordy my former boss was just like this. He was also incapable of telling me that there was a problem. I heard it second hand, if you can believe that.

          I also believed him when he said it was ok to take a 3 week vacation to bury my mom. He laid me off a little while after I returned. Apparently his definition of ok was not the same as mine.

          Now I only work for people who can speak their damn minds like adults.

  5. Ella*

    I’ll be honest… I much prefer getting feedback this way, mostly because it helps me understand both what to change moving forward and what to continue doing moving forward. Also because I’m naturally quite anxious, and it’s reassuring to know my boss does still have positive thoughts about me and my work despite the criticism she’s giving me at that moment.

    Of course, if it’s just a quick correction or note I don’t need a whole rigamarole, and if there’s a very serious problem with my work (AKA the kind that might lead to being fired) direct is probably best, but for mid-level “here is a problem I’m seeing that I’d like you to correct” type feedback I personally really do appreciate a compliment sandwich approach.

    1. BRR*

      I’m asking this out of curiosity so I hope it doesn’t sound antagonistic, would it work for you if you just received a constant stream of both good and bad feedback? Does this method not make you feel like the positive can be disingenuous if one reason it’s being given is to soften the tough feedback? I am with you in needing to hear positives because I want to know if something is working well.

      1. Ella*

        I’ve never really felt the compliment parts of this were disingenuous, as long as the positive feedback doesn’t come out of the blue and doesn’t feel like a massive stretch. So specific/accurate praise, not “you didn’t show up drunk to work today well done!”

        And it’s not like I want this all the time – if there’s a straightforward correction in how I’m doing something I have no problem with being given direct feedback. It’s more the performance review type feedback where I find it helpful. If there’s a larger/ongoing issue or weakness to my work you’d like me to correct, then it’s nice to be reminded of my strengths at the same time. It helps keep my brain from spiraling into a “oh god I’m a failure and they’re going to fire me any day now” hole, so that I’m able to concentrate on fixing the issue that’s been raised. (Though if you really are going to fire me any day now over the issue at hand that should definitely be made clear!)

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      I’ll be honest… I much prefer getting feedback this way

      Perhaps this is also something else for managers to consider early on, either in the hiring process or in on-boarding. Ask your direct reports how they’d prefer to get feedback. I think the crap sandwich is horrible, but you will get people who prefer to get it that way. Why not tailor the feedback delivery mechanism to the recipient?

    3. LCL*

      Count me as another who prefers, and was taught, that the compliment sandwich is the best way for certain things. Things that are related to the job, and fixable. And the CS has to be given in good faith, not “you showed up sober this morning, great. You messed up your last job, don’t do that again. I know you will do better today because you are clearheaded.”

      The positive part doesn’t sound disingenuous to me if it’s true. Even if it’s only tangentially related to what is being discussed, and I can tell the person had to really look to find something good to say. I have had personally and witnessed supervisors be displeased with something the employee did, and turn an often legitimate criticism into a session of ‘what’s wrong with you and your performance and everything you did wrong in the last quarter.’ Using the CS makes it much harder for a person to do this.

      1. Jadelyn*

        Re your last point, I understand that criticism can go overboard, but there are better ways of fixing that than the s*** sandwich approach. Like the manager learning how to give good, actionable, targeted feedback at appropriate times, rather than holding everything in until they have an excuse to wordvomit everything back out at once. If both praise and criticism are being given on a regular basis, the criticism shouldn’t devolve into what you’re talking about, but trying to fix it with the sandwich approach is just going to teach your employees to associate praise with criticism.

    4. Genny*

      Personally, I like it too. I have a tendency to diminish my accomplishments and magnify my failures, and then method helps counteract that.

    5. Jaydee*

      I think there’s one area where the sandwich approach is really natural (at least for me) and that’s where someone has produced a thing that is generally very good but there are one or a very few specific things that could be improved. I want to make sure they know that the overall quality is high but that the specific things do need to be fixed. This is especially true with written work because sometimes you can get something back that is all marked up and instantly think you’re the worst writer ever. But then once you start reading through it and see the bigger picture, it’s really that you need to elaborate on section A, cut down section C, move a couple things around a little bit, and fix some typos. So I will often hand back something I’ve edited and say “Over all this looks good. You got all the main points and your writing style is excellent. I’ve marked a few things that I think could help emphasize the strongest points and a few things I don’t think you really need to include. Also, please run spell check. But solid first draft. Keep it up!”

      Otherwise, I would much rather receive pretty regular feedback of both a positive and negative variety without my boss feeling like they have to find some sort of positive feedback in order to soften or cushion the blow of the negative feedback. If there’s a blow that needs to be softened, you haven’t been providing feedback often enough to correct minor things before they escalate to a bigger problem.

      1. GlitsyGus*

        I agree with you. It can be very easy when you’re going over the final details of a thing, or working out how a small error may have gotten made to forget to say there there are good things, or that someone overall is doing well. Simply starting with “overall this is really great,” (if that’s true) or, “everything went perfectly, except the font was supposed to be green and it was blue. Was there a reason it was changed?” can help to put things in a more accurate perspective.

        I had a boss that was like this and I was convinced she totally hated everything I did because she spent her time going over the fixes and maybe only once or twice let me know they were details and that there were things I had done very well. She was really confused when I finally told her that I was trying really hard, but it seemed like I was never able to get things right, because in her head the “everything is great, but…” was implied, but it’s easy to forget that people under you may not know that.

      2. Avasarala*

        I agree, I think this structure could work when something is 75% or more “good” and just needs a little tweaking. It makes a lot of sense to give the good, the bad, and wrap it up with the overall (good) impression. But really the structure here is good-bad-overall, not good-bad-good. And each should be proportionate, so an A would get lots of praise overall, and a C would get a little praise with more criticism and an overall middling review.

        Also the sandwich method is really ineffective across cultures. In the book the Culture Map, there is the example of an American boss who presents major criticism with this method, and the French subordinate is over the moon at how wonderful she is doing at her job, after all her boss praised her much more than her French boss ever did! The boss’s concerns were totally lost in the noise of the praise.

  6. Snark*

    The crap sandwich technique always smacks, to me, of…..techniquing. It doesn’t strike me as sugarcoating, though there’s plenty of that, or necessarily even of patronizing – though it can easily be that as well. What bothers me the most is that it strikes me not as a genuine conversation about feedback, but an impersonal and performative implementation of a technique. And that sucks, because feedback obviously should be personal! Shoehorning it into this prescriptive, rigid framework makes it a rote, blank interaction with no deeper meaning or genuine connection. It’s the “did you find everything you were looking for today” of management.

    1. Armchair Analyst*

      This. We learned how to do this in my MBA classes. We practiced it.
      Interesting to hear criticism of it! I do like direct, but I also like to hear positive. :/

      1. BRR*

        I’m not 100% this is what you’re saying but giving direct feedback and giving positive feedback aren’t mutually exclusive. What I think is more common is there can be a lack of praise given when a manager is happy with things.

    2. Ali G*

      Yeah – if you have compliments for me, then give me compliments. If you have areas where I need to improve, or I did something wrong, then tell me about those and work with me to create a solution. It’s that easy. You don’t need a “method.”

    3. Ex-Academic, Future Accountant*

      Yeah. Much like that letter writer Alison mentions, I hate feeling like someone is “handling” me.

      1. Snark*

        It includes that feeling, definitely, but it also feels so….mechanical. Like instead of managing me, I’m being treated like a finicky machine that needs a particular type of input to crank out widgets. It doesn’t consider what I need from the interaction, it doesn’t feel like a real conversation, it’s just reading from a script.

        1. LCL*

          Thanks for helping me to understand why I am driven to apoplexy by people asking for a script for interpersonal problems. I still don’t understand why CS=script=bad, while script for personal problem=good.

          1. look at the trees*

            Well, that script for personal problems isn’t an actual script of things to read out. It’s more “what on earth do I even say to my dad who wants me to move halfway across the country to live with him because he doesn’t like my apartment”.

          2. JSPA*

            Why someone asks for a script for a personal situation:

            1. they can’t think of a single way to phrase this without sounding unhinged, or being far more offensive or combative than they want to be. What they’re really asking for are examples.

            2. faced with someone unreasonable, needy, or unable to process a refusal, someone needs a short, repeatable phrase that returns the problem to the other person. They’re looking for a shield, a duck’s back, and an invisibility cloak, rolled into one.

            3. they’re perseverating–chewing endlessly on a series of thoughts–and they need new words to break free from the cycle.

            Often, they know the schematic pattern that they want, as well as the overall goal. (“return awkwardness to sender,” “bland refusal,” “separation of personal issues from professional issues,” etc).

            They don’t have the right words, to populate the pattern.

            Sh*t sandwich is the pattern. The script is the actual words within.

          3. Snark*

            I don’t have a problem with scripts, where a scripts is like “how do I talk to Person about Issue without devolving into a stuttering fool or telling them they’re bad and should feel bad”. I have a problem with boiling down complicated, potentially fraught interactions to bullshit MA-class mad libs.

            1. JSPA*

              Sure, agreed. Some situations don’t have a plug-and-play solution. And some people refuse to believe that this is so, and will continue to solicit / demand a plug-and-play solution for every situation.

              But y’know, “worst BS example of item X” is always going to be irksome. For any Item X.

          4. Mad Baggins*

            Hm, you raise an interesting point. I don’t know if the replies to you have really answered the question because they all address personal scripts from the perspective of the person giving the speech, not from the person receiving it. I wonder if the person on the receiving end of a personal script feels like they’re being treated like a “finicky machine,” or like they’re not worthy of a real conversation.

            I’ve thought about this a bit, and I also don’t see how the act of using a conversational technique (or “script”, “example”, “pattern”) is inherently good or bad. I think it can be helpful or harmful depending on the usefulness of the technique itself. It may help the user get an idea of how to word their ideas, or it may be a crutch to let them skip out on real thought and connection. It may help the listener better understand the issue without offense or confusion, or it may make them feel “managed” or mistrusted by the speaker.

            I think many Captain Awkward scripts, dating scripts and other personal scripts are most helpful when they show you the recipe for why this works and the thinking behind it. I think the crap sandwich is often presented as a one-size-fits-all panacea for how to give any feedback, so it’s like buying cake mix that says “perfect for breakfast, lunch, or dinner! just add filling!” and you have no clue what that filling is supposed to be.

            1. JSPA*

              I literally ate one of those three days ago.

              “We make this for dinner by adding basil and oregano, or we add banana for breakfast!”

              It was not one of life’s culinary high points.

        2. LQ*

          I mean you are. You are a biological machine that needs a certain type of input to crank out widgets. You are just saying that what they are inputting is the wrong type of input. All a conversation is, is a series of inputs and outputs to achieve an outcome. I want to achieve the outcome of learning about this person, having a friend, getting the answers on the Johnson files, becoming the VP of marketing…whatever it is it’s just a long series of inputs, you just are rejecting that input and demanding a different input.

          1. Snark*

            This is getting fairly pedantic. My point was clear enough; yes, you can represent all human interactions as a set of inputs if you want, but if it becomes too obvious you’re feeding a human a script based on a rehearsed technique rather than communicating with them in a natural, unrehearsed, and thoughtful way, many humans will reject that input.

            1. LQ*

              Sorry, I wasn’t trying to be pedantic. I was trying to point out that you are behaving in exactly the way you are saying you aren’t behaving. You are saying, don’t treat me like a finicky machine who will respond poorly to X input. That’s not me at all, I respond poorly to Y input. That’s very different. I don’t think that’s different at all. (I’m not saying this because it’s bad, I absolutely recognize this behavior in myself all the time. For me it is very helpful to just sort of shrug and go, I’m a finicky machine, I need Y. If you really need me to respond well to X then either I need to change (and how likely is the reprogramming for me to get there) or you need a different machine.)

              If you truly aren’t a finicky machine wouldn’t you either accept the input provided (shit sandwich or not) or (better, I think?) put out an output that says, hey, please just give me feedback as it comes up with context, I don’t need the bread.

              1. Snark*

                I understand the point you were making. I don’t think it’s accurate or adds anything to the discussion.

    4. Aurion*

      Agreed. The sandwich technique always strikes me as either a) the manager expects that I’m so delicate that I can’t take a (polite, kindly delivered, in good faith) criticism without falling apart, which is kind of insulting, or b) the manager doesn’t know how to give feedback at all and thus has to resort to this kind of performative technique. Neither situation sits well with me.

      Of course, this is assuming the manager is a decent enough boss that they can give polite, kindly but firmly delivered, in good faith feedback; if they’re a screaming verbal abuser then all bets are off. But assuming sanity on both ends it really isn’t a big deal to hear criticism without couching it in praise. I do a good job? Great, my boss will tell me. I screwed up something? My boss asks me what happened, tells me how to course correct for next time and/or not to do it again, done.

      Feedback doesn’t have to be this Big Thing.

    5. BRR*

      Yes! You articulated what I was thinking so well. When I’ve been on the receiving end of this, it feels so inorganic.

    6. PlainJane*

      100% this. It’s pretty much always going to sound insincere, because it’s so obvious the person is using a management technique. Talk to me like I’m a person you care about, be genuine, and tell me what you need me to know. I don’t need management BS, and I don’t need kid gloves. Be civil, but be direct.

  7. Plant_Mama*

    I really dislike this method. It makes the good feedback seem so insincere, if there’s negative feedback you need to give me, just give it to me!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      “Let’s see. I have to give employee Fred a criticism, so I need two compliments. Oh boy. This is going to be tough, what with Fred being Fred. Oh. Wait. I know. I will tell him that he keeps his pencil drawer super neat and I never see his telephone wire tangled up.”

      Meanwhile, pencil drawers and phone wires have very little to do with Fred’s job as a brain surgeon.

      Granted, most situations are not this extreme, but people do pick up on the boss’ desperation with trying to find something/anything positive to say to fill the compliment quota.

    2. Wine Slinger*

      Yes! My manager notoriously provides feedback to our sales team this way in monthly meetings and all it does is make it seem like he has to temper every compliment with a criticism. He can’t just tell us “We’re up 25% year to date as a company and having our biggest month ever! Thanks for all the hard work.” He has to throw some criticism in there, too: “some of you aren’t doing X”, “not every one is up Y%”, “we need to move the needle more on Z.” Often the compliments are pretty big accomplishments for us as a company, but they’re never presented on their own so it never seems like we are actually getting good feedback (can’t have us feeling too good about our work!).

      The best bread in the world won’t make a good sandwich with shit between the slices.

  8. Someone Else*

    I once had a somewhat awkward interaction with my new boss. This was years ago in a different role but we were having a departmental meeting intended to get to know each other and were doing “exercises”. One of them was to go around the room and say the way you prefer to receive feedback. It was just in the order we were sitting at the time. So NewBoss says she loves the sandwich method. I’m next, and I still don’t know quite what possessed me (had we been encouraged to practice complete honesty? was I being ornery? do I just suck at tact?) I followed up by saying I do not like the method NewBoss just said she loved, and it was ineffective because of (reasons AAM has indicated in article) and that I prefer to just be told, plainly and directly. I don’t recall exactly how I put it, but the gist was “just tell me”. I’m having trouble imagining now how this did not come off as extremely adversarial given the juxtapostion…and yet somehow I managed to be matter of fact and calm and not sound annoyed? It went over well with the room on the whole. NewBoss just sort of seemed puzzled and basically said “ok well I’ll give you feedback your way if you give it to me my way”. For unrelated reasons, she did not last long.

    1. Close Bracket*

      “NewBoss just sort of seemed puzzled and basically said “ok well I’ll give you feedback your way if you give it to me my way”. ”

      Fair enough!

    2. Hapless Bureaucrat*

      Huh. I hadn’t thought about it until no. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask my direct reports to use sandwich method on me. It feels like an added burden to be wary of hurting my feelings when I’ve got more power. I expect them to be polite and make actionable, timely requests but that’s it.

      I do use sandwich method, but pretty much only when i’m providing comprehensive feedback on a work product. Then I want to point out the things I want kept as well as changed.

      1. Lehigh*

        I have always heard advice to use it in this kind of context – if you are critiquing something formally, I think it’s a good format.

      2. GlitsyGus*

        I think that’s a great context for it, when you’re going over a project or larger time period it’s more important to balance the good and the bad together, it keeps one from overwhelming the other and taking more focus than it deserves.

      3. TL -*

        That’s really helpful for that kind of thing, though, because often you do want them to know what they’re doing well. I ‘use’ it when I’m editing written works because if people don’t know what works well, they can’t replicate it.

  9. only acting normal*

    I once had a manager slice the “bread” so thick I didn’t understand for several minutes that they were turning me down for promotion, and the *entire purpose* of the meeting was just to say aye or nay to the promotion.

    1. Mrs_Helm*

      This. Even if the bread isn’t that thick, I know people who would only take away the last part of what was said. (Memory? Attention? I dunno.) So, every single time they’re given a crap sandwich, they think they’re doing good.

      1. Baby Fishmouth*

        I read something once (on AAM?) about how this is particularly true when it’s men that are given ‘sandwich’ criticism by women. The female manager will sandwich the criticism between compliments, and think her male report has understood and will change what’s needed – and he’s left the meeting thinking he’s doing a fantastic job. When men are given sandwich criticism by other men, they will focus more on the criticism.

        1. Yikes*

          I’m a woman, but the first time someone used it on me, this is exactly what I thought! I went home and told my roommate what my boss had said, like look how great I’m doing. She was like, “You’re an idiot. Have you never heard of a compliment sandwich?”

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Years ago I read of a study that showed people tend to remember the beginning and the end of a list of things.
        They tend to forget what is in the middle.
        With this study in mind the idea of a compliment sandwich sounds like it is doomed to fail, as people will tend to remember the start and the end of the conversation and forget the stuff in between.

        I had a boss who would spend a good 45 minutes going over “my review” with me. What he actually did was spent about 10 minutes telling me everything I was doing wrong and the remaining 35 minutes was spent discussing what’s new coming down from corporate. I did not usually remember any of what he said, because to me the conversation was all over the map. Once I got a call from corporate, they asked me how my review went. Since the review as several months earlier, I really did not remember, and I told them that. So they launched into specific questions. I answered each one by saying, “Well as I said, I really don’t remember but I guess that blah, blah, blah.” They never called me again.

        1. Birch*

          Yes this, exactly! This is the major problem I have with the sandwich method. It’s called primacy and recency effects in psychology. So I prefer to just “get the good news first,” i.e. update me on what’s going well, then let me know what needs improvement. Same pattern for meetings–share what’s been done, clarify what needs to be done. You’ll usually remember both the beginnings and ends of both “good” and “bad” because they’re separate chunks rather than mixing it all together.

  10. J.B.*

    I don’t like the crap sandwich method, but I have used it when I don’t have authority over someone and I’m pretty sure they don’t take criticism well. Or in some cases say a short blunt item and then move on. It is reflective of a bigger issue. A boss should be addressing the bigger issue.

  11. Hiring Mgr*

    I would just say be sincere, honest, and regular with both positive and negative feedback. With negative, explain why you’re saying whatever it is and steps they should take to improve. With positive, let them know how they can keep improving in that area, new challenges to tackle, etc

    In my experience the most important part of this is regular and consistent feedback so nothing is a surprise. If you’re doing that, I don’t think the mechanism of the FB matters , whether it’s compliment sandwich or some other method.

  12. Anonna Miss*

    I think the crap sandwich is a favorite of old-school (read: bad) bosses who believe that the only important feedback to give is negative, any any positive feedback is fluff/touchy-feely/expected of you in your job, etc.

    If the only feedback you were getting from your boss for an entire year was going to be “You need to work on Y”, it was better to hear “You’re good at X. Y is an improvement area. Z is fine”. Then at least you wouldn’t get nothing but negative in your once-a-year annual review.

    I’m a much bigger fan of giving feedback on an ongoing basis, so that it’s just a natural part of your interaction, rather than a big formal meeting where something comes up for the first time. “You did great at P just now. I would have done Q differently because (reasons), but if you have a rationale for your way, I’d be glad to hear it. [Discussion] Let’s pre-game on R early next week, so we can really make it stand out.”

    If there’s ongoing dialogue all year, the end-of-year review is just documenting what you’ve been saying all year. The formal review is NOT the time for that “I’ve been meaning to give constructive feedback, but have shied away from it, so now I’m going to tank your rating over something you didn’t even know was an issue” issue.

    (I hate once or twice a year reviews as the only time employees get feedback. Too many employers won’t give them up, and employees end up blindsided.)

  13. Close Bracket*

    I have heard of the “open faced crap sandwich,” which is supposed to be (may or may not actually be) a better way to give feedback than the crap sandwich. Just take the analogy to it’s logical conclusion – the open faced sandwich leaves off the top slice of compliment, starts with the crap filling, and finishes with the bottom slice of compliment.

    Giving regular feedback, and, crucially, immediate feed is important. Being able to give that feedback kindly (but directly!) is also important. That’s why people use sandwiches. Delivering good with bad is not inherently bad technique – in the words of a former co-worker, “It takes a whole lot of attaboys to make up for one ‘oh shit.'” So instead of just doing away with sandwiches, try and find a variety of scripts for delivering corrections.

    I would argue that in addition to making negative feedback a regular and therefore normal thing, managers should also make positive feedback a regular and normal thing.

    1. JSPA*

      I’d rather have the bread in the middle. Even if it feels way messier.

      Tell me there’s a problem, and that the result has been or will be [unvarnished consequences] if it continues / happens again.

      Then tell me that you firmly believer I can muster what’s needed to deal with it, because [praise for abilities & good will]. Ask if I’m ready to hear the details.

      Then go over the problem, including hashing through what steps are required to fix it, if relevant.

      The problem are pure statement of fact. The stuff in the middle is the “If someone has to have this problem, it’s great that it’s someone like you, who has the qualities needed to turn things around.” Putting the concrete bits at the end makes them memorable and empowering, and sends me off with the feeling, “here’s something I can get to work on right away.”

      Anyone else find that they respond well to this pattern?

      1. Close Bracket*

        You know what, I think I like that, and I will add it to my arsenal and give it a try.

    2. Someone Else*

      I think this is more of a downward facing sandwich? Open-face to me would start at the bottom with bread/compliment, and then finish with filling/criticism. Whether talking top-down or bottom-up, I think this still has the potentially negative side effect as the full sandwich: you close with a positive and potentially undermine the importance of the criticism. Not all, but a significant number of people would walk away from that interaction with “well I must be doing fine because (positive thing said at the end)” So that becomes the take away. It’s important to give both positive and negative feedback in general, but unless this is an annual review, it’s probably best not to make a point of doing both at the same time. Praise the praiseworthy stuff, totally. But if something needs fixing, it’s more likely to sink in if it’s a separate conversation just about fixing the thing. Sure if someone asks “well what about A? Am I doing A right?” and they are, then yes tell them that, but the problem with the sandwich is the forcing of both, just so you can end on a positive note. Avoid the mixed message.

    3. Lily Rowan*

      Oh god, I realized I often do a reverse of this. “In general, good job. Here are the specific things to change.”

      Is that also terrible? I do think I give a good amount of positive feedback that is specific as well.

      1. GlitsyGus*

        I do this. Mainly because for me it’s a good way to open the discussion. I’m not trying to placate with the first part, just more starting off with acknowledging the person put in effort, and I noticed that. Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty and make this thing shine.

        I know it doesn’t bug me when others do it, because I see it the way it is, an easy opener to a potentially fraught, or at least larger, more detailed topic. I can’t speak for others, though.

      2. Close Bracket*

        That gets into what Allison said, where employees know that every compliment has a “but.” If you give enough compliments without buts, maybe it works out? I don’t know.

    4. Student*

      I sometimes do this with junior employees in emails, when I need to fix something that I regard as important enough to fix, but not really something I expected them to know or care about them getting wrong.

      The compliments in that situation are intended to convey to the person who’s relatively new to the work world that they got a B+, not a C-, so please don’t flip out about it and get all emotionally needy on me, but do go fix the minor things that need to be cleaned up. The list of just things to fix tends to make them feel like they got a C-.

      Then they come talk to me, seeking validation and reassurance or worried that they are worthless or getting fired or something – when I just wanted them to put commas in the right place for their independent clauses. I’m emotionally managing them ahead of time so they don’t come emote all over me like some real-life Eeyore. I don’t particularly like doing that, but I’ve gotten the Eeyore response often enough from new junior employees, and it is so very unpleasant to deal with, that I go out of my way to preempt it.

      Eeyores of the world – please, please take like an hour to just chill and think about whether this thing I want fixed is a big deal. You can usually figure out on your own if it’s a big deal or not. And please trust, just a little bit, that I’ll let you know if it is a big deal.

      1. Jadelyn*

        The problem with your last paragraph is that, for many people, we’ve had enough experiences with bosses who wouldn’t let us know if it was a big deal, until the day they fired us over it. I’ve personally had this happen to me, the only time I got fired from a job – when she called me in, she told me that technique A that I’d been using for doing something was not the way she wanted it done, she wanted it done with technique B, and it’s been bothering her for months, so she was going to have to let me go. Despite not having, at any point in the preceding months, actually told me she wanted me to do B instead of A.

        And that’s an unfortunately really common experience for people to have, so you might consider not expecting your staff to just psychically know that you’re not that type of boss, and trust you to tell them if something is a big deal from the word go. That’s a trust you unfortunately have to earn, and if you can’t handle the process of establishing that dynamic maybe you shouldn’t be managing people.

        Also, have you considered explicitly saying in your feedback “this is not a huge deal, just try to do XYZ in the future”? If you’re just saying “do XYZ in the future”, then yeah, people are going to assume it’s a big deal, because it’s generally safer to assume it’s a big deal and be wrong, than to assume it’s not a big deal and be wrong. You can reassure people that they’re not in trouble over a minor thing, without having to resort to insincere “sandwiches”.

        PS just for the record, your whole thing about “Eeyores” comes off really rude and dismissive of not only your staff, but anyone else who’s ever worried about feedback because they’re working for a new boss and haven’t had time to develop a good grasp on what’s important to the boss and what’s less so. Was that really necessary?

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I am having difficulty remembering Eyeore as terrified. Eyeore gave up… on everything.

          I took over a group of employees who were terrified of me. I could see it in their eyes, hear it in their stuttering. They talked to their shoes when they spoke with me. It would take three or four of them to decide to broach a very basic question with me. This was a group of people who had been burned and burned badly by other bosses who knows where.

          It took almost a year to get them all to calm down. But around the six month mark much of the stuttering and shoe gazing was over. I encouraged them to teach each other and it was fine not to want to ask me something if the person nearby already knew the answer. When things went wrong, I spoke directly to the person in a low voice so others could not hear. But if I did something wrong, I apologized in a normal speaking voice. Sometimes the questions were just plain Good Questions so I would talk to the entire group because it was reasonable to assume that most people would wonder about x or y. I thanked them when we left at night.

          If a person is scared of their boss, it takes time to get them to settle in and it takes consistent behaviors on the part of the boss. My thinking is if they can do the work, then it’s worth the effort. In the end, the productivity of my group doubled. And we were all just average people, I include myself here as being average. The productivity was off the charts and that was the synergy that can happen when people are not dealing with fear.

        2. TL -*

          But emotionally managing people who get upset over every correction is exhausting and, honestly, at some level (and after a certain period of time) an employee needs understands what is a big deal and what isn’t at least 75% of the time.

          I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to expect that asking for a small correction could just be that, without any emotional management beyond being a polite and respectful person. If the employee finds correction stressful, that’s their thing to manage (assuming their boss is a normal and reasonable person.)

  14. Kheldarson*

    I think this is a technique that’s useful in certain contexts. Like… I use it when I’m doing my tutoring job. I get async sessions to edit a paper and I get only my comments in the doc and on the overview sheet to convey how the student is doing on their paper and what needs to be corrected. Sandwiching works in this scenario because you build up their confidence and tend to go into and out of the issue portions in a much more positive manner than you otherwise would.

    But for people you work with consistently (like employees or regular students), you shouldn’t be doing that because you should know how they like their criticism delivered.

    1. Lynn Whitehat*

      I learned the sandwich technique at a leadership training thing when I was in high school. And really, it was good scaffolding for high schoolers who were giving instructions and feedback for the first time. “Don’t just pick pick pick! Find some positive observations to make too!” It’s a lot easier to notice what is going wrong than what is going right. So one thing I will say for the sandwich is that it does force you to notice people doing things right. And over time it becomes more natural to give both positive and negative feedback.

      1. Turtle Candle*

        I was first introduced to it in college, and it was basically the same logic–tell people what’s going right in addition to what’s going wrong. Since we were all a bunch of hypercritical overachievers and otherwise feedback would have been… well, Stradivari could have come back from the dead with a violin made just for them and they would’ve critiqued the precise shade of the wood, you know? Because they had internalized that you prove intelligence and discernment by always finding something to fault. So the “SAY SOMETHING ABOUT WHAT’S GOOD” was an important lesson.

        Outside that context, it’s less relevant, because presumably normal people already do (or should) say nice things as well as negative ones, without the need for a metric for it.

    2. Story Nurse*

      Yes, if the entirety of your job is critical, it’s really important to put some positive stuff in there! When I was doing professional novel editing and critique, I would write out all the flaws and problems and concerns first, and then I would go back and do a positive introductory section. Artists are extremely protective of and identified with their art and I didn’t want to make my clients cry.

      When I’m writing my advice column I always start with supportive words too. It makes it much easier for people to hear critique and accept advice.

      Generally speaking, I find that a “sandwich” of:

      – I think you’re great BUT
      – there’s this problem SO
      – let’s talk about how you/we can fix it, BECAUSE
      – I believe in you/I really want to make this work with you

      works well in almost all circumstances. Directly linking the compliment to ways of fixing the problem and/or to my desire to keep interacting with the person is much more effective and organic than the “Your desk is so tidy BUT you need to repay all the funds you’ve embezzled from the company BUT I love your hair!” compliment sandwich cliché.

  15. The New Wanderer*

    It seems like it all boils down to frequency of feedback and point of feedback.
    Crap sandwiches don’t make any sense if the feedback is regular (because the employee should already be aware of good things) or if the point is to fix a specific near-term issue (because the message can be lost).

    If the feedback is rare and the point is to fix a near-term issue, it smacks too much of the manager digging for something nice to say to offset the unpleasantness of having to correct someone. Also for reasons Alison mentions, it’s not great management to only offer rare feedback.

    If the point is to give an “area to improve” like in an annual review, there should already be positive feedback to offset that if the person’s performance is overall decent, and if the performance is pretty bad, sugar coating isn’t going to help if the point is really “improve on this or leave.”

  16. Drago Cucina*

    A few months ago I caught myself doing this. A staff member had been accused of doing something baaaad. As in, he could be fired immediately for it. I reviewed, via security footage, what had actually happened and the patron’s bad behavior. I complimented Angus on how he handled the situation. I did recommended a change in body language that could be misinterpreted if you didn’t know he frequently stood that way. Then complimented him on keeping his calm.

    I stopped and laughed, then said, “I just gave you a sandwich.” Not my preferred method of dealing with a critique.

  17. KC without the sunshine band*

    I don’t know if I would consider this the same thing, but I have done something similar in cases where I don’t see the people who report to me often, as in I am a distance boss. When we get together, we rehash the things, good and bad, that have happened since last time we were together. Most of these items we have already discussed to some degree, so there’s typically not new items on the list.

    However, I try to start any review meeting like this with something positive as well as end on a positive note. Everything in between is a random mix based on how things have come about, highlighting action items for anyone as they come up. I think it is beneficial to both of us to feel like we are “winning” more than we are “losing” and book ending the meeting with positive vibes helps with this.

  18. PlainJane*

    True story: I was once ordered to use this method by an employer’s HR department as part of a reasonable accommodation for an employee who had significant performance problems and some mental health issues. I was told that I could not give this person any negative feedback on performance unless it was sandwiched between 2 compliments. And for the record: I’m not a harsh boss, and I’d been coaching this employee (giving direct feedback in a civil way) for months. This all started when it was clear that coaching wasn’t working, and I put the person on a PIP.

  19. C Average*

    I was just thinking about the sandwich technique recently! One of the supervisors I work with is super critical and hard to please and just no fun to work with. He’s not a bad guy; he just seems like he needs someone physically strong to yank the giant stick out of his ass for him.

    Anyway, he started to tell me I was doing a really good job with an aspect of my job and I was really gratified to receive some praise from him. I work hard and I’m conscientious, and recognition is always nice. But then he came in with the critique and I thought, “Shit! I’m being sandwiched.” I didn’t even catch the final piece of praise, if indeed there was one.

    1. Cass*

      I’m picturing this in my mind where you’re saying out loud and in the moment, “Shit! I’m being sandwiched” while supervisor continues to deliver said sandwich as if he wasn’t just interrupted. Made me laugh.

      Hope it turned out OK, though.

      1. C Average*

        It turned out fine. The criticism was minor and fair and helpful, and would have been minor and fair and helpful on its own without the compliments. What bugged me was the sense I got that the only way anyone was getting a word of praise out of this guy was to get it wrapped around a piece of criticism. “I have to tell C to go a little easier on the teapot glaze, but that means I also have to come up with TWO NICE THINGS about C. Two nice things! So hard. Management is so difficult sometimes.”

    2. TL -*

      For what it’s worth, I’m one of those people who just assumes that highly critical people means you can assume things that aren’t commented on are good. So I don’t find them hard to work with (and I often find them easier than people who compliment just to make sure they’ve giving positive and negative praise. Assume my default is competence. :) )

  20. look at the trees*

    I’ve gotten that sandwich so much in my life, starting back in high school, I no longer believe any of the praise. Just give it to me straight, doc, don’t tell me I’m pretty first.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, I am with you on this one. I tend to not believe the praise either and wait for the other shoe to drop. “Okay so what is it you REALLY want to tell me?’

  21. The Tin Man*

    Another downside is that if you give most of your feedback this way it can make people feel that if you are giving them a compliment then they should be ready for a criticism to follow, distracting from the positive feedback!

    1. Lily Rowan*

      Yeah, I think that is actual the biggest downside. You want people to believe your positive feedback, not just think it’s bread!!

  22. SusanIvanova*

    I’ve often seen it recommended for fanfic, where you aren’t doing it in any position of authority over the person – they’ve put something out for free, so a comment that’s just criticism would come off as overly harsh. So you say what you like about it because starting out negative isn’t friendly, then the criticism, then something good to not leave on a down note.

    For a job I’d want the feedback to come in as needed, good or bad.

  23. Argh!*

    NB: if you are a woman in the midwest, directness can come across as being blunt or “abrasive” if you speak like the direct men in your organization. If you are surrounded by roundabout-speaking women who use waffle words and phrases (“This might not be a problem. It could just be me, but…”) … be careful about directness! If you say in 2 minutes what it takes your coworkers 5-6 minutes to say, they will think there’s something wrong with you. If you use those 5-6 minutes in New York you will be seen as a time-wasting wishy-washy wimp.

    I speak from experience here!

    1. Leela*

      Can confirm, grew up in a rural midwestern community. People laugh where I live now because I do things like ask if I can have a glass of water (“What? LOL of course you can”) but don’t realize it’s a midwestern way of saying “FYI I’m going to start going through your cabinets, this is your chance to stop me if you’re not down with that”.

      And so much verbal packaging is required in that area. I definitely prefer blunt but respectful feedback and it was nightmarish for me to have a manager in the midwest be like “Oh my god Leela, you are soooo good, you work sooooo hard and we really see that and appreciate that (five more minutes of this) but actually while I’ve got you….” I was just going “come on. come on. come on. get to it” for all the fluff compliments

      1. Argh!*

        I have reached the point in a few meetings where I just interrupt everyone and ask, “What is the purpose of this meeting?” or “Okay, what is this committee supposed to accomplish *this week*”

    2. AmethystMoon*

      Agreed. Women have to be especially careful, as we get chastised for not being nice enough or having a perfect enough tone. This may be the 21st century, and technically there may be laws about equal treatment and such, but it is still misogynistic as heck when it comes to women in the workplace.

      1. Amanda*

        Yeah. I’ve learned through hard won experience that my work life will go more smoothly if I work for a guy whose wife also works. At some level that seems to translate into “doesn’t bat an eye at a woman who speaks directly”.

        I work in a highly technical field where sadly rarely had any female management in my org or neighboring orgs. So it really comes down to how woke my boss is.

  24. Leela*

    I think it’s very, very hard for people to believe the “bread” part of the crap sandwich after they realize their manager is using this technique. It makes a lot of people wonder if the manager had to just think up something positive to say, twice, in order to say the criticism

  25. Jadelyn*

    To me, if you “sandwich” me, it tells me the following:
    1. You’re not genuinely praising me for the things you’re supposedly praising me for – you just needed to find something to pad the criticism that is the real heart of the conversation. I am now going to trust your complimentary feedback much less in the future, and always be looking for the criticism I assume is going to be tucked in there somewhere. I will be hyperaware of every possible unspoken criticism in every conversation we have from now on, which is very stressful and not conducive to good communication. At worst, if you make a real habit of this, I will start avoiding talking to you because no matter what you say, I’m going to assume there’s a hidden critique in there somewhere.
    2. You think I’m such a delicate flower that I can’t handle just being bloody well told “you did X when you should have done Y – in the future, please make sure that in situation A, you do Y instead.” I feel coddled and “handled” in a very bad way, like you don’t respect me to be a grownup and accept correction gracefully. I then start wondering if I’ve done something in the past to make you feel that way, and get even more hyperaware and neurotic about my behaviors.
    3. Either that, or you’re such a conflict-avoidant delicate flower that you can’t handle telling someone they did something wrong. Which makes me lose respect for you as a manager, and undermines my trust in you because I don’t feel like I can rely on you to actually tell me if I’m doing something so wrong that it threatens my job – I will assume that you’re the type to just blindside me with it when you fire me.

  26. HereKittyKitty*

    I personally hate the sandwich method when getting feedback. I find it sooooo confusing. Just tell me what you want! I would rather change the thing that’s wrong than dance around it forever!

    However I also have a coworker that is defensive, angry, and cries when given feedback. I would have to give her feedback wrapped in bows and butterflies or else nothing would change because she would get distraught. Wasn’t in a position to change much about her behavior, so had to deal with it.

  27. Delta Delta*

    A good manager gives feedback when it’s warranted. That could be in small doses of both good and constructive feedback. It gets scary when an employee only hears from the manager once a year, and it’s basically the Festivus Airing of Grievances. If you need me to put a cover sheet on my TPS report, tell me right away and be direct. It’s simple and it works.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, really. I love my current boss. We talk about everything as it comes up. If we are saying opposite solutions for a problem, we tell each other why we chose that particular solution. Usually it becomes apparent that one reason is much stronger than the other reason.
      We both have had the same experience, where we have caught ourselves saying we can’t wait for the other one to come to work because then Problem X will get fixed.

  28. Lost in communication*

    What do you do when you’re in an organization that is averse to regular, direct feedback, particularly if it has to do with corrections or something that could be perceived as negative? We can’t even use a word like problem in our organization without large parts of management getting bent out of shape. Culturally, there are huge issues and management is inclined to tiptoe around addressing a problem rather than deal with it directly, which I find absolutely maddening. Im not in management, but I am in a position where I have to give regular feedback to my peers on their work. I’m someone who tends to be direct in feedback, good and bad, and it has put off many of my co-workers. I find myself having to soften my feedback, but it just ends up obscuring the message and perpetuating problems.

    As a side note – why the heck do people get so upset about critiques to their work, particularly when there are actually errors? Wouldn’t people rather have the error caught internally within a team than by a client or someone up the chain in management, especially if there are no consequences to having your errors caught internally? Wouldn’t people rather improve and learn to execute their job better or more effectively? Wouldn’t people rather learn how to to make an error than repeatedly make it and have it corrected?

  29. Extra Vitamins*

    I’ve had what I guess would be the “reverse crap sandwich.” I got a promotion, but they had to stick that news between some complaints. Can’t have morale too high or something. One of the complaints was that I move my eyebrows a lot. (?)

  30. Eefs*

    Oh my god I cannot BELIEVE you wrote about this!!! This was one of my main issues when I worked at my Worst Job Ever (literally gave me nightmares during my stay). I was 19 and and both the owner and manager would speak to me and go “okay, so feedback sandwich blah blah” and I immediately understood in my head “oh ok, so you have a problem with me so you’re going to literally tell me that but here’s a compliment before and after too”. I found it really helpful to know at a young age that all adults and bosses are not necessarily competent and probably learnt through some book or cheap training.

  31. media monkey*

    so did no one else think this was going to be about actual sandwiches? i’m hungry now…

  32. AmethystMoon*

    This is how Toastmasters trains people on giving feedback about speeches. If most organizations train on this technique, and that is what people learn to do, then until there is a major change in the status quo, it will keep happening.

  33. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    Ah, memories….. “Tangerina, we’re going to take you out to lunch at a fancy restaurant because you’ve done such a good job! Now, we’re going to tell you that we’re not going to replace your full-time employee who just left, and instead give all of those full-time duties to the coworker who hates you and is already doing her own full-time job, so you have figure how to supervise her part-time even though you’re peers…. and now, here’s an old piece of Tiffany we had lying around, which we’re giving you for your five-and-two-thirds-years anniversary here! Congrats!”

  34. Jessen*

    What amuses me is that a lot of us customer service workers do similar things, and I have had a boss recommend doing this with customers. It is entirely a way of avoiding getting yelled at by a customer who’s upset that they’re not getting what they wanted. Which is definitely necessary with some customers, but should not be necessary with employees.

Comments are closed.