Why The (Ineffective) Compliment Sandwich Prevails

Updated:

September 12, 2022

Managers need to know how to give feedback. That means knowing:

  • How often to give feedback
  • How to present negative feedback 
  • How to deliver feedback that drives action

Many managers are still using old, unproven methods such as the compliment sandwich.

The compliment sandwich is a simple mind trick; you present positive feedback, then negative feedback, then another piece of positive feedback. 

The compliment sandwich is certainly prevalent, but is it effective? That is, do people who receive compliment sandwiches recognize the negative feedback in between the two pieces of positive feedback? 

PerformYard has compiled a survey-based report that seeks to answer this question and others, including:

  • Do people like receiving compliment sandwiches? 
  • How do people prefer that their bosses/managers give them feedback? 
  • How do managers tend to give feedback? 
  • Do people generally like the way their managers give feedback? 
  • What are alternatives to the compliment sandwich?

The results revealed that there are far better ways to deliver negative feedback than by using a compliment sandwich. There is also a discrepancy between how people say they want to give/receive negative feedback and how people give/receive negative feedback. 

Managers can use this information to deliver better, more effective feedback to employees.

Key Findings From The Survey

  1. The compliment sandwich remains very popular. 86% of people have received one and 95% of people have given one. 
  1. The compliment sandwich is confusing. Only 50% of respondents thought the negative feedback was the key takeaway from the compliment sandwich, and 86% of people thought the feedback was overall positive.
  1. The majority of respondents receive negative feedback directly, without sugarcoating. The majority of people also prefer this style of direct feedback. 
  1. When presented with alternatives to the compliment sandwich, an overwhelming majority of people want feedback that’s forward-looking, action-focused, frequent, and specific. People are quick to recognize better ways to give negative feedback.

The Compliment Sandwich Remains Popular

  • 86% of respondents have received a compliment sandwich. 95% have given one.
  • An overwhelming 86% of respondents reported receiving compliment sandwiches “sometimes” or “often.” 
  • When asked if they’d given a compliment sandwich, 95% of people said they had. 58% of respondents said they deliver compliment sandwiches often.

What’s the takeaway?

With so many people giving and receiving compliment sandwiches, it’s worth asking if it’s an effective way to deliver feedback. 

These findings suggest that the compliment sandwich is alive and well in many companies. Managers at your own company may be using compliment sandwiches to deliver feedback. You may even be delivering them without noticing. 

Now that we know the compliment sandwich is still being widely used, we must ask if we should continue using it. 

The Compliment Sandwich is Ineffective / Confusing

When presented with an example compliment sandwich:

  • 55% of respondents said the negative feedback was the most important takeaway.
  • 26% said the first piece of positive feedback was most important.
  • 15% said the last piece of positive feedback was most important. 

The supposed point of the compliment sandwich is to give negative feedback without making the person on the other end feel bad. The worry with compliment sandwiches is that the positive feedback will distract the recipient from understanding the negative feedback.

That’s why it’s notable that a little more than half of the respondents said negative feedback was the most important thing to take away from the compliment sandwich. That means 45% of respondents thought one of the pieces of positive feedback was most important.

Among respondents who said they received complement sandwiches, “often,” 43% thought the negative feedback was most important and 40% thought the first piece of positive feedback was most important. 

People who say they have never received a compliment sandwich were least likely to identify the negative feedback as the most important takeaway. 

What’s the takeaway?

Compliment sandwiches are a way to present negative feedback while softening the blow to the recipient. The goal is still to ensure the recipient understands the negative feedback. Since nearly half the people in our survey thought the positive feedback was the most important takeaway, it suggests that the compliment sandwich is not an effective communication tool. 

The Compliment Sandwich Doesn’t Create a Sense of Urgency

Although 55% of respondents thought the negative feedback was the most important part of the compliment sandwich, 85% of respondents thought the feedback was overall positive. 

Even among the 55% of recipients who thought the negative feedback was the most important part of the compliment sandwich, 77% of those people thought the feedback was overall positive. 

What’s the takeaway?

The findings suggest that the compliment sandwich may an effective way to create a sense of urgency in the person receiving the negative feedback. 

If you’re delivering negative feedback in a compliment sandwich, do you want the recipient to feel as though the feedback is overall positive? Would the recipient be likely to change their behavior if they think they’re getting positive feedback? 

The results of this survey show us at the compliment sandwich is confusing at best. There was no consensus about which piece of feedback was most important. Most people thought the feedback was overall positive even though a compliment sandwich is a tool used to deliver negative feedback. 

People Prefer When Negative Feedback is Direct

  • 58% of people prefer that their bosses give negative feedback directly without sugarcoating. 
  • 52% of people say their bosses do give negative feedback directly, without sugarcoating
  • Just 24% of respondents say that their boss uses compliment sandwiches to deliver negative feedback.
  • 67% of people think their boss is good at giving negative feedback.

Given the fact that most people say their bosses give them negative feedback directly, without sugarcoating, it’s worth exploring how people feel about their boss’s ability to give negative feedback. 

67% of respondents say their boss is “good” or “great” at delivering negative feedback. When we compare this data with the fact that most people’s bosses give negative feedback directly, we can conclude that people like bosses who give negative feedback directly. 

What’s the takeaway?

Being a well-liked manager does not always equate to being a good manager. Still, there are some takeaways here. We know that the compliment sandwich is a confusing, ineffective way to give feedback. 

If the compliment sandwich isn’t an effective communication tool, is it at least a way to get your employees to like you? That doesn’t seem to be the case either.  We also know that people say they like to receive negative feedback directly, and like bosses who deliver negative feedback directly. 

The compliment sandwich does not seem to have very many factors working in its favor. So why does it remain prevalent? 

The answer may lie in the disconnect between how people say they want to receive feedback, and how they deliver feedback. 

"We tend to have fears that somebody will take our feedback personally, get upset, or feel like we're innately criticizing who they are as a person. Research has shown that only 18% of employees receive feedback about their communication skills, but 97% of employees believe communication impacts their daily job performance.
Think about a time when you received feedback that genuinely helped you improve. Compare that to a time when you received feedback that didn't go so well - maybe you felt defensive or demoralized. What were some of the key differences? You probably had a much higher degree of trust with the person giving you feedback in the example where it went well."
- Laura Gallaher, PhD - CEO and Founder of Gallaher Edge

Why Does The Disconnect Exist? / Where Is It Coming From?

  • 58% of people have used compliment sandwiches when delivering negative feedback
  • 65% of people think they’re “good” or “great” at giving negative feedback.
  • 78% of people who have received formal training believe they are "Good" or "Great" at giving negative feedback.

People have high opinions of themselves when it comes to their ability to give negative feedback. More than 65% of people think they’re “good” or “great” at giving negative feedback. Just 8% of respondents say they’re “bad” at giving negative feedback.

With so many people believing they’re already good at giving negative feedback, it’s unlikely that many people would seek out training on how to give negative feedback. We found that 41% of respondents say they have never received any training on how to give negative feedback. 

  • 61% of non-managers have never received training on how to give negative feedback. 
  • 28% of managers have never received formal training on how to give negative feedback.
  • 76% of managers think they’re “good”’ or “great” at giving negative feedback.
  • Just 50% of non-managers think they're "good" or "great" at giving negative feedback.

These same respondents also tend to give compliment sandwiches when delivering feedback. 

There’s a clear disconnect here, as this same group of people said they prefer to receive negative feedback directly, without sugarcoating. 

What’s the takeaway?

Why do people who think they’re good at giving negative feedback continue to rely on compliment sandwiches?

The answer could be that compliment sandwiches are a crutch. We know they aren’t the most effective form of feedback, but we don’t like to give negative feedback directly. 

Managers can learn a lot from this data. As a manager, you may be sugar-coating negative feedback to soften the blow. The data suggests that you don’t have to do this; it isn’t an effective way to communicate and it won’t make your employees like you more. 

So, how should you deliver negative feedback?

When it comes to interpersonal feedback, here's a radical way to think about it: When you give me feedback, that tells me more about you than it tells me about me. And because our relationship is important to me, that's useful to me.
When it comes to interpersonal interactions, humans are different. We all have different life experiences, different associations, and we can totally put different meaning on the same observed situation. It's really useful to let go of the idea of right and wrong when it comes to giving interpersonal feedback. When you're giving interpersonal feedback to somebody, you're telling them, "hey, here's a way that I think you and I can work together more effectively."
- Laura Gallaher, PhD - CEO and Founder of Gallaher Edge

Compliment Sandwich Alternatives

The next section of the survey explored different ways to deliver feedback. We presented survey respondents with four questions that compared one form of feedback against the other:

  • 70% of respondents prefer forward-looking feedback to backward-looking feedback.
  • 90% of respondents prefer action-focused feedback vs character-focused feedback.
  • 81% of respondents prefer frequent feedback to infrequent feedback
  • 77% of respondents prefer specific feedback to more general feedback.

Across the board, respondents were able to recognize the right ways and wrong ways to deliver feedback. In all of these instances, we delivered feedback directly, without sugarcoating. We did, however, change how we delivered the feedback. 

Respondents preferred forward-looking feedback, (“Here’s what you need to do in the future”) to backward-looking, (“Here’s what you did wrong in the past”). 

They preferred action-focused feedback (“You did this thing wrong”) to character-focused feedback (“You don’t seem to care about work”)

They preferred frequent feedback (“You did this wrong this morning) to infrequent feedback (You’ve been doing this wrong for a month).

They also preferred specific feedback (“You need to do this part of the task better”) to general feedback (“You screwed up”). 

What’s the takeaway?

As a manager, it’s your job to deliver feedback that employees respond to. The survey participants indicated that they would respond better to certain types of feedback. These forms of feedback are far more effective than the compliment sandwich because they align with the respondent’s preferences for direct feedback.

However, you still need to focus on delivering feedback that is forward-looking, action-focused, frequent, and specific. 

What Should Managers Do With This Data?

The compliment sandwich isn’t just a gimmicky way to tell someone you don’t like their shoes. It’s a real way of delivering feedback that made its way into the modern workforce. 

However, the results of this survey show that the compliment sandwich sends mixed messages and isn’t likely to produce the desired outcome. 

When managers are thinking about how to provide feedback to the modern workforce, they can look to the results of this survey to see that direct feedback is best. Managers may also have to combat their tendencies to sugarcoat negative feedback. 

Most people think they’re good at delivering negative feedback, but many people also use the ineffective compliment sandwich when delivering negative feedback.

So, what’s the solution? 

Some people might think about going through formal feedback training. However, in our survey, people who have received formal training on how to give feedback are 5% more likely to sugarcoat negative feedback. 

The best solution may be the simplest solution. Give feedback directly and frequently. 

What is a Compliment Sandwich?

A compliment sandwich is a form of feedback in which you give someone a piece of positive feedback, then a critique, followed by another piece of positive feedback, thereby sandwiching the critique in between two positives. 

Compliment Sandwich Pop Culture References

  1. Pixar has a unique approach to negative feedback. They call it “plussing.” The rule is that if you give criticism, you have to also give a “plus.” Author David Burks writes about it more in his book, “The Myths of Creativity.”
  1. A recent analysis of Australian poetry reviews found that 44% used a different form of the compliment sandwich, called an “Open-Faced Compliment Sandwich.” The open-faced compliment sandwich is a neutral statement, followed by a negative statement, followed by a positive statement. Emmett Stinson writes about this phenomenon in the article, “How Nice Is Too Nice? Australian Book Reviews and the ‘Compliment Sandwich
  1. In season 2 of the TV show, “Hart of Dixie,” George is having trouble figuring out how to break up with a girl. His friend Wade explains to him the concept of the compliment sandwich, and George uses a compliment to break up with his girlfriend, Shelby. (Video)
  1. In an episode of the TV show, “Family Guy,” Stewie gives Brian a compliment sandwich as part of a manager review. Stewie leads with, “You look like Snoopy and it makes me smile” then gets to the negative feedback, “You’re a smelly dog.” (Video)

Just for Fun: Notable Findings About Feedback in the Workplace

Preferences by Age Group:

  • Younger respondents (age 25-34) are most likely to prefer a compliment sandwich.
  • Older respondents (55+) are least likely to prefer a complement sandwich

Perception of Bosses by Age Group:

  • Out of all age groups, people aged 45-54 are least likely to think their bosses are good at giving negative feedback.
  • Younger age groups are more likely to think their bosses are good at giving negative feedback.

Feedback Frequency by Age Group:

  • In the 55+ age group, a majority of respondents reported that they only receive feedback yearly.
  • Out of all the age groups, the 25-34-year-old age group was most likely to receive feedback monthly.

Stats About People Who Think Compliment Sandwiches are Negative:

  • Of the respondents who thought the compliment sandwich was overall negative, 87% thought the negative feedback was the most important part of the compliment sandwich; compared to just 55% for the regular population. 
  • Of the respondents who thought the compliment sandwich was overall negative, 0% had received formal feedback training.
  • Of the respondents who thought the compliment sandwich was overall negative, just 30% deliver compliment sandwiches often vs 56% of the regular population. 

California and Texas:

  • 75% of Californians surveyed had received some kind of training on how to give formal feedback, compared to just 57% of Texans surveyed. 
  • 37% of Californians surveyed think they’re “great” at giving negative feedback, compared to just 21% for the overall population. 
  • Among Californians surveyed, just 13% say their bosses use compliment sandwiches, compared to nearly 25% for the overall population.  

Education Level:

  • Among people with post-graduate degrees, 41% receive compliment sandwiches “often” compared to just 26% for the overall population.

Marital Status:

  • Among survey respondents who are divorced, 60% have never received formal training on how to give feedback, compared to 40% for the overall population.

Income Level:

  • Among people who make over $150k, 82% deliver compliment sandwiches “often,” compared to just 58% for the overall population. 
  • Among people who make over $150k, 48% think they’re “great” at giving negative feedback compared to just 21% for the overall population.
  • Among people who make over $150k, 53% have received formal feedback training compared to just 28% for the overall population.

How We Surveyed

This survey uses data from a sampling of US adults over the age of 25. All respondents have been employed for all or most of the last 12 months. 

The survey is broken down into three sections:

Section 1 presented survey respondents with a hypothetical compliment sandwich and asked them for their reaction. 

Section 2 explored people’s general thoughts on negative feedback; how it’s delivered to them, how they prefer to receive it, and how good they and others are at giving it.  

Section 3 presented the respondents with some alternative ways of delivering feedback and asked which way they preferred to receive feedback.

What to do next.

Here are three ways you can continue your journey to a more modern and effective performance management strategy:

  1. See PerformYard In Action. Find time with one of our product experts to get a live look at what it's like to use modern performance management software. Every call starts with a 5 minute discussion of your approach and then immediately dives into a live product demonstration that's based on your organization's process. Or start by watching a 2-minute video overview.
  2. Learn more about modern performance management. Start with our Guide to Building a Modern Performance Management System, or visit our blog to see the latest ideas from our team.
  3. If you know other HR Pros who would appreciate this article, share it with them through email, LinkedIn or Twitter.