One of the most divisive techniques in leadership development is the “Sandwich Technique.” If you’re not familiar with it, the Sandwich Technique is where you start a prepared conversation with a subordinate by saying something positive, then covering something negative, and concluding with something positive. You “sandwich” the one negative between two positives.
Proponents of the Sandwich Technique point out that the technique avoids the morale-crushing results of having a conversation based completely on a negative topic. Opponents feel that it serves to bury constructive criticism in situations where it needs to be clearly and decisively delivered.
While I do agree that the Sandwich Technique can be a cowardly way to address a problem, I also think that it can be effective when used well in appropriate situations.
For example, let’s say that you are a leader introducing an organizational transformation. Transformations involve big change and, if you haven’t heard, people are uncomfortable with big change.
So, the last way that you want to start a conversation is by telling people they need to deal with inevitable and imminent change. Instead, you want to get people fired up about what you envision the future to look like and how it will be great for the organization as well as your audience. Only then will you be able to get them able to understand that change is the price to pay for better days.
But, you also don’t want your audience to walk away with the discomfort of change and the additional work involved occupy their minds and perhaps cause them to lose sleep. So, you don’t want to end with a message of uncomfortable change, either. That’s why you complete the “sandwich” with a reminder of the positivity that the future holds.
That’s an effective use of the Sandwich Technique in leadership. The end goal of that conversation is to motivate employees to help your vision reach fruition, not simply to tell them how difficult life will be for a while.
An ineffective use is reprimanding an employee for mistakes or customer complaints. The end goal for this conversation is to correct a problem.
Imagine that you say to this employee, “Alexa, you’ve been doing a good job. I really admire how you show up for work on time every day, you comply with our dress code, and you always respond to me promptly. However, we have had multiple internal customers complain about you being abrasive with them. I’d really like you to be a little more friendly with them. But, again, I think you’re a great employee and I appreciate what you do. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, that presentation you prepared last week was amazing.”
What’s the employee going to think after this conversation? That she is doing good job? A bad job? A mixed job?
Will Alexa get the message that there’s a serious problem that needs to be remedied immediately? Or did that little “constructive criticism meat” get lost between two thick pieces of “compliment bread?”
Courageous leaders don’t cut off problems at the pass by being so indirect. They nip them in the proverbial bud instead of using the Sandwich Technique.
So, my advice is to have the Sandwich Technique in your tool box. Just be sure to use the right tool in the right situation. You don’t use a hammer to drive a screw.