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A spoonful of sugar

You’ve probably come across…maybe even been on the receiving end of…the “praise sandwich”. That’s where a manager buries any negative feedback between two layers of praise. The idea being not to leave the employee at a low point at the end of the conversation.

Management training programmes often teach that “sweetening the bitter pill” of negative feedback with praise before and after is a gentle way to get people to improve their performance .

There’s a couple of problems with this approach.

Firstly, for some employees…hopefully not many…finding two things to praise them for so you can slip the negative feedback in the middle might be a bit of a stretch.

Secondly, and more seriously, it turns out the praise sandwich isn’t all that effective.

Think about it.

You want people to learn where they’ve under-performed and do something about to put that right next time. You want to leave them primed for action, not basking in the warm glow of having done a good job on something else.

Of course, some managers don’t enjoy conflict so shy away from the negative feedback anyway. So their direct reports get the mildest hint of under-performance mentioned briefly surrounded by extensive and lavish praise. They probably come away from that discussion with the feeling that they’re doing a great job and needn’t change anything.

By the same token, being over-critical isn’t right either. There’s no quicker way to switch off any sense of staff motivation than continually criticising someone, especially if they can’t do anything about the issues which cause that under-performance.

The other problem with the praise sandwich is the delays it can lead to.

Pretty much everyone agrees the right time to give any sort of feedback, positive or negative, is as close to the incident as possible while everything is fresh in people’s minds.

If you wait hours, days, weeks or months until you’ve racked up a couple of positive things to say alongside the negative one, most of the benefits of having that conversation are lost. Unless it’s an enormous issue, the longer the elapse of time between the incident taking place and receiving feedback, the more likely it is the staff member concerned won’t even remember the incident you want to give feedback about.

To make progress faster, praise people generously when they’ve done something excellent. Don’t store it up in case they do something wrong next week and you don’t have anything else to use as one of the positive layers in your praise sandwich.

By the same token, raise any concerns as quickly as possible too. The last thing you want is for an area of under-performance to become the norm just because you haven’t pulled people up about it for days or weeks. Then it’s twice as hard to get them to correct course and do things they way they should have been doing them all along because they have to “unlearn” the wrong way and re-learn the right way.

In the final analysis, however noble its intentions, staff members quickly get to recognise the praise sandwich when they see it and know what’s coming as soon as you’ve reeled off the first compliment. That takes the edge off any positive feedback you might give which means the net effect of this conversation is to leave them demotivated, when the stated intention of the praise sandwich is to leave people in a positive frame of mine.

This renders the whole purpose of the praise sandwich null and void.

When it comes to giving performance feedback, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down is not nearly as effective as you’ve been led to believe.

People respect being told what they need to do better, as long as you do it in the right way and with the intention of helping them improve, rather than for point-scoring or to undermine them.

There’s no need for a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down when people know you’re on their side and cheering them on for the win. They’ll be happy to take any learning points and try their hardest to do better next time.

Which is what you want, after all.

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