For years, the standard advice for correcting people has been to start with something positive, proceed with the negative feedback, and end with something else positive. This has always felt wrong to me: you are tainting the positives with a negative. Finally, someone with some research to support it has articulated why this is a bad approach. According to Roger Schwarz in the HBR Blog Network,
Effective leaders are transparent about the strategies they use when working with others. The sandwich approach is designed to influence others without telling them what you’re doing — it is a unilaterally controlling strategy — in other words, a strategy that revolves around you influencing others, but not being influenced by them in return.
Schwarz has another system for sharing concerns that could work well in a lot of situations, but it feels clunky for everyday feedback. If there is a good relationship between boss and staff, it doesn’t need to be this complicated.
The trick is to feed people legitimate praise on a regular basis. If the only time you praise someone is in conjunction with criticism, how long is it going to take them to figure it out and discount the praise? Instead, catch them doing things right and tell them, immediately or as soon as possible. Let them know when you appreciate their work or extra efforts. It doesn’t need to take a lot of effort or time, or even elaborate I statements; a simple “I appreciate that you stayed last night to get the report finished” will go a long way, especially if it isn’t a rarity.
Once people know that you appreciate them and their work, they will be a lot more confident about accepting criticism or corrections. Then you can say, “Hey, we have a problem with this. Let’s talk about it.” We, us: because you are a team and you appreciate their work, and they know it. When they trust you to be on their side, they don’t need to be defensive about criticism and there is no need to defuse it with random feel-good (and possibly meaningless, at least in context) praise.
Best of all, you are more likely to start finding solutions if you focus on one topic, the correction, without confusing it with praise. And if you aren’t looking for solutions, there is no pointing in criticizing someone in the first place.