Nothing will make it taste good
I’m still surprised when this tactic is used, and surprised at the number of articles that recommend using it. A "compliment sandwich" is where you put the meat of criticism in the middle of two pieces of complementary bread. The idea is that you soften the blow of the criticism by giving the recipient praise before and after you deliver some negative feedback concerning performance or behavior.
What those who recommend this seem to consistently fail to understand is that you undermine your effort at performance management and most likely damage your relationship with your employee. You lose credibility and respect. Simply put, people are not that stupid.
I get it. Giving negative feedback, having to correct poor performance or inappropriate behavior is tough. It’s uncomfortable. It’s also necessary. Here are some problems and risks with using this approach:
- Your motive is transparent. And not in a good way. Most people know what you’re trying to do – make them feel "good" about the coming criticism. Hearing the initial compliment will only serve to make them brace for the bad news, thereby nullifying your effort. Others will see your compliments as insincere, again undermining your effort. In this case, a spoonful (or two) of sugar will not make the medicine go down any easier.
- Your message will get lost. What is your purpose for these conversations? You want to correct inadequate performance or behavior. There will be many who will only hear the compliments; completely missing the message you want them to get about the true situation. Your effort fails to accomplish what you intend, which is to provide constructive feedback in order to improve performance. People often only "hear" the beginning and end of such conversations, not the middle.
- You alienate and lose respect. Your employees are adults. You should be treating them as adults. If you have negative feedback to give, just give it. Again, they see through your transparent efforts to somehow make this easier to hear. When you reach the point of having these conversations, you will often find yourself reaching to find something complimentary to say. This is only too clear to the employee. Do you really want Joe to come away from the meeting thinking "the best thing he could say about me was that I come in on time?!"
If you have to give negative feedback – give it. Be clear and direct about the problem. Be clear and direct about what your expectations are for performance going forward, and about the consequences if that doesn’t happen. Then, you can have an actual conversation about how those expectations can be met, engaging the employee is coming up with the methods for the solution. If you feel the need to add praise to the conversation, this may be the only appropriate time to do so. Talk about times and situations where the employee was successful in similar circumstances and solicit ideas about how he/she can apply those methods to the current problem.
Praise and compliments should not be marred by including them with criticism. Give that praise when it’s warranted, all by its lonesome. It will have a much more positive (and intended) effect when not stuffed with negative meat.