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Sitting across from the other party, your heart races, sweat begins to form in your palms. You hope they don’t smell your fear, but you just want out of this situation. In a panic, you deploy the most convenient technique in your arsenal; the compliment sandwich.

1. Compliments Associated With Criticism

In the 1890’s Russian Psychologist, Ivan Pavlov found that canines can associate a sound with an upcoming meal; simply put, this is classical conditioning.[2] If dogs make this association to seemingly unrelated stimuli, your educated professional employees can quickly figure out that when you compliment, a critique is not far behind. This leads to confusion[3] for all parties involved, inadvertently puts the employee in defensive mode, and as a leader, you lose the initiative.

2. Praise Appears Fake

Praise and encouragement are critical development tools for leaders. It offers leaders the opportunity to reinforce a particular behavior, and most importantly, shows appreciation for your teammates’ efforts. When used as part of the compliment sandwich, employees are quick to realize that any praise given was merely an attempt to soften their defenses and were most likely disingenuous statements.

Therefore, the problematic issue has been inadequately addressed and you have created an environment where praise and encouragement can’t even be trusted.

3. Constructive Criticism Lost in Translation

When an employee is called to a meeting with their supervisor, this can be an anxiety-inducing event. When opening a counseling session with heaps of praise, discussing an employee’s strengths or accomplishments, the nervous employee quickly focuses on the positive words at the beginning and end of the conversation.

This natural tendency aids in relieving the stress of the interaction. But, with your employee’s attention orbiting the praise you just offered, any impact of your attempt to address a problematic issue has gone out the window.

4. A Leader Lacking Confidence

Many people avoid confrontation, especially in the workplace. But leaders don’t get this luxury. On the contrary, often the best method of handling a difficult issue is to address it head on and definitely don’t sweep it under the rug.

Using the compliment sandwich can give your team the inadvertent impression you are afraid of facing difficult issues, having frank discussions, or worse, lacking confidence in your leadership ability. A compliment sandwich is a convenient supervisory technique, but definitely not effective. Next time you need to address an employee issue, take a breath, gather your facts, and face the concern head-on, as a professional.

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Joe Gurumendi
Joseph Gurumendi served 13 years as an Intelligence Officer for the US Department of Defense, executing and leading Information Acquisition Operations throughout the US, Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Currently, he is an Army Instructor, and the Co-Founder of Principal Agent Consulting Solutions (PACS), specializing in writing marketing content for Private and Government sectors, including blog posts, copywriting, and ghostwriting.
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