How To Criticize Without Being Hated For It

How To Criticize Without Being Hated For It

It’s been a warmer than usual February. It almost feels like spring is right around the corner. That feeling spurred in me a desire to make some chili. I associate chili with cold weather and figured now would be a good time. Who knows if the cold air will return?

I craft this chili. I don’t just cook it. It’s a four hour adventure. The longer you let it cook, the more it absorbs the flavor of the spices. It’s like a chili heaven.

The next morning, I got this email:

That was delicious. I love the mix of spices. Maybe a bit more Allspice than I would have used. Super delicious though”

 Ah, the old sandwich technique. An attempt to level criticism in a veiled attempt to spare my feelings. They force this training on you in almost every Fortune 1000 company. Not familiar with it?  The sandwich approach provides a simple framework for delivering criticism

  1. Open with something positive
  2. Deliver your criticism
  3. Close with something else positive

In a perfect world, the recipient feels better because the positives that sandwich the criticism, soften the blow.

The Problem With The Sandwich Approach

Here’s the problem. It feels fake. The recipient knows the “compliments” are merely a way of softening the criticism. Let’s look at my example. Was the Allspice comment a way of saying he didn’t like it? Or, was it a way of saying he liked it but here’s how it could have been better? I don’t know. Maybe he just wanted to get in a snide remark?

In doing some research for this article, I was happy to find a Harvard Business Review Article that denounces this approach. Unfortunately, it’s still common practice. My personal opinion is that it makes the giver of criticism feel more comfortable.

A Better Way To Criticize

Giving criticism is tough, especially when it’s unsolicited. I go by two basic approaches. In the first approach, your recipient did something well but not great. You’re merely offering a way to make it great. Here’s an example:

“Jay that was solid. I love the way you used the win-win strategy in your close. On a scale of one to ten, I’d give it an eight. Here’s what would make it a ten…”

In this case I give a genuine compliment. I back it up by offering specific evidence. I follow up with “one to ten” ranking and specific examples to make it better.

In the second approach, your recipient totally missed the mark. On a scale of one to ten they hit a four or worse. A mentor of mine from twelve years ago gave me great advice here. Follow this simple rule when you need to deliver bad news.

Make sure the recipient perceives that YOU feel more uncomfortable about giving the news than he feels about receiving it. It makes it easier on both of you.

“Ted. This makes me really uncomfortable. I fall to pieces when I talk about this stuff. Your piece was not what we were looking for. The instructions may have been a little vague. Here’s what we were specifically looking for.”

The important part is the first two sentences. Your recipient will likely act less defensive when they see you feel uncomfortable about giving criticism.

Does Anyone Really Welcome Criticism?

Of course, everyone is different. Some people welcome criticism. Most say they welcome it and really do believe what they say. Still, they have a hard time accepting it. I would put myself in that category. I believe that good criticism makes me better and I desire to get better. It still tugs at my ego a bit even when I ask for it.

Whatever approach you choose, just make sure it isn’t the sandwich technique.


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