Making Sure Constructive Criticism Sticks

Communications Skills, Course Correction

Mark Murphy has a great short article titled “Don’t Make Constructive Criticism so Soft That People Miss Your Message.”

In it, he criticizes the feedback sandwich, which I learned long ago in Toastmasters. It’s simple: when you are giving feedback, first tell something positive, then something to improve, then end with something else positive.

This method is very effective in a Toastmasters setting, where the #1 priority is to keep everyone motivated and enjoying the experience.  In Toastmasters, you are not responsible for anyone else’s improvement. You give suggestions for improvement because everyone in the room is there to improve, and suggestions are part of the program.

But I can see that it would not be particularly effective in a managerial setting, where you are responsible for your team members performance. In those cases, you need to be more direct.

What interested me most is that he linked the method to the serial effect: you remember the first and last things you hear the best. In Toastmasters, that needs to be positive. In business, the need for improvement may be the thing you need to remember!

Again, the article is here.



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  1. Daniel Wisehart

    I still use a sandwich-like construct in business, but I use a different source for the feedback.

    If my criticism is directed at something narrow and concrete, like why the person used an inappropriate method to solve a programming problem, I start by asking them why they made the choice they did. This starts the feedback coming from them and it engages their brain into the issue. Then I give my constructive criticism and then, I ask them to summarize or to tell me other places in the code this might apply or if they think someone else would benefit from this discussion. This way the feedback ends with their comments.

    If the issue is something broader, like the inappropriate comments a man is repeatedly making around female employees, I ask them to tell me about their interaction with female employees. The middle part is a lot more back and forth in form: “did you realize…no I didn’t…do you understand…” In the final stage I want ask them to walk me through how in the future interactions with female employees will go.

    Again, the criticism starts and ends with their feedback, which also gives me a chance to hear things I did not expect.

    • Jean Moroney

      Thanks for sharing your method, Daniel. I think your method is effective because the first and last step is them processing the situation. You’re making a sandwich with thinking as the bread rather than positive comments.

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