The Criticism Sandwich: A Stale Idea


By Bruna Martinuzzi

Mark Twain said that “sacred cows make the best hamburger.” One sacred cow is “the criticism sandwich”—no pun intended. The criticism sandwich advises us to lay on some praise before delivering any criticism and then to complete the process by adding another layer of praise. Most of us know, from having been at the receiving end of what feels like faux praise, that this process almost never works. Now we have scientific proof of why we should stop making sandwiches.

In The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships, Clifford Nass, the Thomas M. Storke Professor at Stanford University, explains why this outdated management practice is not only ineffective, it actually does more harm than good. Our brains are continually evaluating things that happen to us as good or bad; we are wired to notice and respond to negative experiences, much more than positive ones because this keeps us safer by preparing us to react.

According to Nass, “One fascinating side effect of the power of negativity is that you remember less of what is said before receiving criticism because negative remarks demand so much cognitive power that the brain cannot move the prior information into long-term memory.” In other words, when criticism follows praise, we immediately forget the praise, which requires less cognitive effort, and focus more strongly on the criticism, which makes us remember it better. In this brief video clip, Professor Nass discusses some of his findings.

Rather than bracketing the negative feedback with positive comments, Dr. Nass advises us to start with a few, brief negative remarks and then follow them with a long list of positive ones. The emphasis here is on “long” as positive feedback is less memorable and easily discounted when accompanied by criticism. Also, because criticism puts us in a state of alert, we are better able to listen to the praise that follows: “The criticism will bring people to attention in time to listen to the praise.” Another prescription is to always accompany the criticism with clearly-defined steps for improvement and give people time to process the remarks and respond when they are ready.

If you are a leader, do your people trust that you are there to help them and not hinder them, and that there is no hidden agenda? This is the foundation of authenticity which earns us the right to approach others with constructive criticism that is more likely to be received as a genuine desire to help the person, and in so doing, the team and the organization.

Here are some practical tips for taking the sting out of critical remarks:

1. Focus the conversation on the future rather than the past.
Help your constituents spend their energies on what is ahead. A popular and highly effective technique is the Feed Forward Tool, developed by Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s leading executive educators and coaches. This technique entails giving people advice on what they can do moving forward, rather than focusing on the mistakes of the past. Here is a brief video clip of Dr. Marshall explaining the concept as well as a video-taped training session he delivered at Google.

2. Replace the long diatribe with a dialogue.
Brevity is a particular virtue whenever we address shortcomings in someone’s performance. Don’t go into the meeting with a mindset that you will fix the person. Rather, like a good physician, ask questions first, to diagnose the problem, before you prescribe the solution. The background information you didn’t know might alter how you perceive the issue. The black and white movie in your mind could be different from the Technicolor one that is actually playing. Even if nothing new emerges, this is another opportunity to control your impulses and practice leadership acumen.

3. “Let silence do the heavy lifting.”
Susan Scott, author of Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time coined this beautiful phrase. The kind restful silence—the space between the thoughts—allows the person to reflect and gather deeper insights. If nothing else, this generates an air of calm which is more conducive to a productive outcome for the conversation.

4. Use the conversation as an opportunity to grow the relationship.
Before closing the door to start the meeting, ask yourself how you can conduct this meeting in a way that will strengthen rather than fracture the relationship. How might you lighten up loaded language? What non-verbal language do you need to watch for in yourself? Subtle shifts like maintaining an open body posture, keeping eye contact, nodding while the person is talking, and keeping a calm demeanor create a safe environment. What might you offer as support? What small concessions can you make to turn this into a relationship tango rather than a solo performance? If emotions run high, at some point in the process, can you show empathy by listening, without interruption, and allowing the person the space to tell their story?

5. Help the person save face.
Be vigilant to preserve a person’s sense of dignity. David Rock (I mentioned his book on brain science in a previous article said that just hearing, “Can I give you some advice?” causes a defensive alert signal in our brain because we view the person offering the advice as claiming superiority. According to Rock, “It is the cortisol equivalent of hearing footsteps in the dark.” This has the effect of decreasing our status—and any sense that our status is diminished can feel like our life is in danger. Be mindful of this and don’t let them walk out of the room with a scuff on their self-esteem. As the saying goes, “The best way to save face is to keep the bottom half shut.” What parts can you safely afford to leave unsaid in order to preserve the person’s dignity?

6. Use the salami-method when you establish goals for others.
At the start of any project, take the time to divide the long-term, bigger goals into small, intermediate slices to prevent discouraging people. Let people know how they are doing after they complete intermediate steps. This injects the same positive energy in people as a coach giving immediate feedback to players on the field during the game. Most importantly, the salami method reduces the need to confront people with a laundry list of “improvements” during the dreaded review time.

7. Give praise en route.
Don’t withhold praise because you are too busy. Because so few of us take the time to sincerely praise good work, we need to be reminded of this powerful tool at our disposal. Genuinely providing positive comments earns you points in your people’s spiritual bank account which can offset some of the cost of delivering remedial remarks, when needed.

There are times, when our need to be liked may lead us to keep constructive remarks bottled up. We lie awake at night, fully knowing that they need to be aired. “Trying to get everyone to like you,” said Colin Powell, “is a sign of mediocrity” as a leader. It will result in our avoiding tough decisions and postponing the difficult conversation that needs to take place for the employee’s good and for the overall good of the team and the organization. It’s about responsibility as a leader. Rather than avoiding this leadership responsibility, we need to develop the skill to do it with no collateral damage to the relationship.

Bruna Martinuzzi is a facilitator, author, speaker, and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., a company that specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, and presentation skills training. Her latest book is The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

This article originally appeared on American Express Open Forum Used by permission.

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