In one episode of Family Guy, they made fun of the compliment sandwich. Some time later, my friend asked for a critique of some writing, and I gave it to him. But he was then offended that I didn’t soften the critique with a compliment. When I grilled him on it, I found out he was looking for a compliment sandwich. Was he right?
Why is Family Guy significant? Family Guy makes fun of pop(ular) culture, so I assumed that popular opinion was that the compliment sandwich is bad. When my friend as well as one of his acquaintances requested such a thing, I had a little cognitive dissonance. It turns out Family Guy is not alone; many people disapprove of the compliment sandwich:
- Urban Dictionary, definition 1: “… criticism … between two insincere compliments. “
- CBS MoneyWatch: “I think it makes your compliments sound insincere.”
- In the examples on the above two pages, the concluding compliment is not closely related to the criticism. I can be viewed as an attempt to change the subject so that the listener does not try to dispute the criticism.
- Octavarius blog: The initial points are good, but the examples reinforce the above problems.
- Even monster.com disapproves.
But there’s a pattern here: The compliment sandwich fails when the compliments and the critique do not mesh with each other. If the listeners brain needs to shift gears between statements, then many of the point will be lost. So the key to making a compliment sandwich actually work is to make every statement about the exact same topic:
- Decide what the critique needs to be.
- Compliment the valuable part of the general area where the problem lies. This must be genuine, but that’s not hard — you did hire the person or otherwise appreciate their effort, otherwise you’d fire them. Tell them they’re doing a good job, all the rest of the job looks good. But there’s a problem.
- Give the criticism. Be specific, and make it clear where the solution lies. Again, be sincere — you do want this person to improve.
- Give a closing compliment that describes the value of fixing the above problem. The person (and their work) is valuable, but will be even more valuable once fixed. This is key to making this work. This statement must be a compliment, but also must cover the exact same subject as the critique.
Now you’ve solved all the problems:
- You’re politically correct, giving criticism in a very polite way.
- All parts of the sandwich are genuinely sincere.
- All parts of the sandwich are in agreement, so the listener knows what the problem is.
- At the end, the topic remains open, so the listener can discuss or dispute as needed.
As an example, here is [what I consider to be] a good example from an e-mail to the above-mentioned friend:
You have alot of good points in there, but your outlining skills are terrible. With a little reorganization, it’ll be a good page. Here’s my suggested organization …
I’ve complimented the overall work, given a specific complaint, then complimented what I believe the result will be once the problem is fixed. As a bonus, I solved the problem in my own way, so they could at least see why I though their organization is a problem.