No One Wants To Eat Your Compliment Sandwich

BLT sandwich at the table of an American deli restaurant
Jimi Filipovski / Unsplash

Have you ever eaten a compliment sandwich?

You know what I’m talking about. Sandwiching a piece of negative feedback between two pieces of unrelated positive feedback—between two compliments.

Somewhere, in some corporate training manual or some class on business communications, this idea of the compliment sandwich was created. The idea was that people would be more receptive to constructive criticism if it was sandwiched it in between two compliments—Never mind that compliments are playing the role of the bread and not the middle of the sandwich…which is usually what we name sandwiches after.

I’ve been on the receiving end of who knows how many and I didn’t necessarily think it’s that tasty of a sandwich. In fact, for most people, the compliment sandwich doesn’t actually make you more receptive to criticism. It just leaves them confused. Think about your own response. One minute they’re saying nice things about you, the next their insulting you, then back nice things again.

You don’t know if you’re about to get fired or if you’re going to get a promotion.

Thankfully, there’s a better dish to serve than the compliment sandwich. As I wrote about in The Myths of Creativity, the creative geniuses at Pixar have figured out a way to deliver criticism that actually works. And that’s important because they’ve got to deliver a LOT of criticism in the process of making a movie—a process that Ed Catmull described as “going from suck, to non-suck.”

Pixar borrows their technique from the world of improvisational comedy. If you ever take an improv class, you’ll learn that the first rule is to always say “Yes, and.” You’re always supposed to be building off of your fellow actors, and never telling them no. Even if you disagree, you’re always building.

At Pixar, they call it “plussing.” The way plussing works is that if you give a criticism, you also have to give a plus—a suggestion for how to fix the criticism you just pointed out. Then, after the issue has been discussed, the person on the receiving end has freedom to accept or reject the suggestion.

The beauty of plussing is that it doesn’t blunt the constructive criticism. It allows someone to hear what’s going wrong. But the plus gives them an opportunity to improve it. Plussing is not just tearing people down. Instead, it sends a subtle message. It’s says, “I care so much about the project and about you and about getting this right that I can’t not point out his flaw that I see…but I’m also going to try my hardest to help you.”

We’re really good at criticism. What’s harder to get through is that we care and we want to help. A compliment sandwich doesn’t serve up that message. So stop serving those sandwiches.

Start giving people a plus. TC mark

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