Leading people: Ditch the compliment sandwich

Don't make it fluffy - be straightforward with your feedback when evaluating staff.

I'm willing to be criticised on any subject at any time by anyone. Except, that is, by my mother, my husband, my friends, my colleagues, my trustees and my peers.

People often talk about the compliment sandwich - you know: say something nice, then sock it to 'em and then say something nice again. In my experience, doing that is often the emotional equivalent of someone calling you into their office, covering your head with a pillow, dropping a tank on it and then kissing it better. Guess what - it still bloody hurts. I suspect that the compliment sandwich is more to help the giver of criticism feel better about themselves than it is to help the recipient of the homily not to come away broken.

And - puh-lease - let's call a spade a spade. Calling criticism 'behaviour-enhancing feedback' or a 'learning conversation' is like calling a pile of dog poo 'positively emitted canine excrement'. It's confusing because you're not sure whether what you're getting is good or bad, until you sniff and you know that, whatever it's called, it smells bad anyway.

No one likes criticism. So it behoves us as managers not to treat staff like idiots, or patronise them as if they're kids who can't cope - but to deal with them honestly and openly on the assumption that they're adults and they'll get over it.

Telling people the truth about what is going wrong in their performance is much easier if you don't make it fluffy because you're afraid of hurting their feelings. People don't generally die from hurt feelings. But you don't have to be brutal. Being straightforward with the truth works if you are clear that you value the human being.

Be clear with them about what the problem is. Don't personalise it. Focus on what they are doing wrong, what effect that is having on others or their work and what it is they need to do to improve. Make it plain that you believe they can improve. Be clear about what behaviours you expect to see as a result of them improving and then let them know that you are there to support them to get it right.

- Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change and a trustee of MedicAlert.

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