The Misplaced Trust in the Compliment Sandwich

Many people understand that giving feedback can be useful and necessary. But they often struggle with how to provide feedback effectively.  A popular way of giving feedback is called the compliment sandwich. In this conversational approach, you start with a sincere compliment, then provide constructive criticism, and end the conversation with a heartfelt compliment again. Does that sound good and logical? In a new article, psychologist Adam Grant explains why this approach doesn’t work.

Two Problems with the Compliment Sandwich

Grant describes two main problems with the compliment sandwich. First, the positive feedback can be perceived as insincere. Second, the positive points can overshadow the critical feedback, especially if the recipient is inclined to ignore or downplay the criticism.

Grant says: while you as the feedback giver mean: sincere compliment – constructive criticism – sincere compliment, the recipient hears: obligatory (insincere) compliment – criticism of who I am as a person – obligatory compliment. The following image from his article illustrates this.

Grant’s Alternative

Grant advocates doing it differently, namely as follows:

  1. Explain why you are giving the feedback: This means letting the recipient know that the feedback is given from high expectations and belief in their potential.
  2. Do not place yourself on a pedestal: This includes acknowledging your own imperfections and emphasizing a mutual learning culture.
  3. Ask if the person wants feedback: This gives the recipient control and reduces defensiveness.
  4. Conduct a transparent dialogue instead of a manipulative monologue: This means that the feedback giver is honest about his intentions and is open to dialogue and self-reflection.

Progress-focused View on Feedback

I agree with Grant’s criticism of the compliment sandwich. Many people believe in it, but it usually doesn’t work well and is often even counterproductive. Grant's alternative contains useful elements but is still somewhat general.

In this article, I described how we view feedback in progress-focused working. Here I briefly summarize the points discussed in that article:

► What is the use and value of feedback?

  • Feedback provides insight into the effects of our behavior, which is essential for personal and professional growth.
  • Due to our limited perspective, we often miss the full impact of our actions; feedback from others can supplement this.
  • Others can observe our behavior from unique standpoints, offering valuable and different perspectives.
  • People with different knowledge and skills can provide feedback that helps us learn and grow in ways we hadn’t considered.
  • Feedback can help us identify and address our blind spots, leading to more effective and goal-oriented behavior.

► When is it useful and legitimate to give feedback?

  • To stimulate growth and progress in others.
  • To prevent further harm from ineffective behavior.
  • When, given your role and task, it is appropriate for you to provide feedback.
  • When there is a good basis of trust with the other person, especially if you do not have hierarchical or functional authority.

► Giving positive and negative feedback:

  • Positive feedback is often useful, especially regarding efforts and progress.
  • Negative feedback is appropriate when the other person is unaware of areas for improvement, is already competent and motivated, and is open to improvement.
  • Effective negative feedback includes instructions for improvement, is based on clear performance standards, and is given personally.

► Guidelines for giving feedback:

  • Focus on process and behavior, not personal characteristics.
  • Give positive feedback on achieved progress and what has been done well.
  • If there is negative feedback, base it on clear performance standards and explain how things can be improved.
  • Give negative feedback sparingly and personally, with suggestions for improvement.
  • Use informative formulations that indicate how changes can lead to better results.