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How to properly serve a sh*t sandwich

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

-Henry G. Bohn, A Hand-book of Proverbs, 1855
  • So, you’ve been put in charge of giving one of your team members a review, have you?
  • So, you’ve been asked to give someone some feedback, have you?
  • So, you’ve been asked to judge a talent show, have you?

You’re not scared. You’re totally ready for this. You know exactly what to do.

You are 100% ready to serve a Compliment Sandwich…or as it is colloquially known “The Shit Sandwich.”

This method is as old as father time. You start with two slices of the savory untoasted white bread of positive feedback. Then generously but not lavishly spread a reasonably thick layer of “constructive” and corrective feedback. After you’ve spread that shit on there, close up the sandwich with the other slice of positive feedback and quickly exit the situation.

Despite all of your sandwich making wizardry, few people seem to walk away from the table satisfied with the meal you’ve made them.

What gives?

There are two reasons why your shit sandwich isn’t working.

Your bread is thin and tasteless

Your layers of compliment bread are thin (almost transparent–pun intended) and flavorless. When everyone can see that your cutesy compliment is an obvious tactic to soften the blow of harsh criticism, they ignore the compliments and focus solely on, the shit.

In short, most people make a compliment (shit) sandwich the way a Jewish deli makes a “sandwich,” too much meat.

Jewish deli sandwich with an absurd amount of corned beef.

This is not a sandwich. This is a pile of meat and two slices of bread.

Your sandwich needs integrity which means it needs balance. Any good sandwich has a reasonable meat-to-bread ratio. Further, great sandwiches rely as much on the bread as what’s in between the bread. A great grilled cheese might use a savory sourdough. An amazing cheesesteak might be on a classic Amoroso’s roll, a hearth baked Liscio’s Italian Bakery roll, or possibly even a Sarcone’s seeded long roll. Can you even imagine eating a pastrami reuben on anything other than griddled rye bread? Don’t even get me started on the deliciousness of Texas Toast.

My point is, stop overlooking how important the bread is in this sandwich, just so you can get to the “what I need you to do better” center of this feedback meeting.

The center still needs to be edible

Here’s the other thing, no matter how good your compliments are, you need to have something delicious to put between those buns.

Giving someone the obligatory compliment only to turn into a raging maniac of criticism on the other side, means that your ending compliment may as well go in the trash.

Criticism and corrective feedback still needs to be delivered in a way that people can hear and absorb. So even if your compliments are thick cut brioche, your feedback still needs to be lean with a generous helping of special sauce.

If you want to give effective criticism, it’s suggested that you—metaphorically—get up and walk around to the other side of the table, and sit next to the person you are talking to. This way, you’re both facing the same direction, you’re both in the booth together. I call this sitting on the same side of the table, and it’s a mindset for framing whatever you are saying to someone else in the context of being on the same team, working toward the same goals. At the same time, it requires you to be close enough to someone (again, metaphorically) to understand their wants, needs, and ambitions. Effective feedback isn’t about your isolated opinion, but rather observations that are inclusive of the other person’s reality.

The center of your sandwich isn’t actually shit. If you focus on what the other person wants, it actually tastes great.

Stop serving shit and make a better sandwich

If you’re going to use the old compliment sandwich, stop following the recipe and start respecting the technique. The compliments need to be authentic and generous. The positive feedback needs to be genuine appreciation designed to truly let someone understand that they are important.

The criticisms aren’t about you being right and them being wrong…it’s about where you’re going together and treating the other person with respect.

When you give feedback, I can assure you the the other person would rather have this grilled cheese than a shit sandwich.

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