Constructive Criticism & the Praise Sandwich

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Influence, Management

Ata Boy! The Praise Sandwich

Bianca Ryan is a rising star. If you’ve never heard of her before go here for a little introduction.

If only we could all display her poise under fire! Although Bianca gets high praise for her abilities, this young girl also receives blistering criticism. She accepts it gracefully, incorporating it into her next performance, but that doesn’t solve her problems. If you think the critique after the first performance is scathing try the second one, starting about 1 minute in.

What does Bianca do? Perfectly poised, she responds with “I appreciate all the criticism because then I can take it and I can fix it.” And she does. Check out her winning performance here. Scroll forward to 1:45.

Why am I showing you this, and what does it have to do with running a business?

Try criticizing your subordinates and colleagues this way, no matter how well-meaning, and you’ll start World War III. Yet we do it all the time.

These clips illustrate what NOT to do, because most receiving such a critique are far more devoted to protecting their ego than to accepting painful feedback in the pursuit of excellence. We’re not nearly as mature as that 11-year-old girl. People typically respond to unvarnished criticism in one of two ways:

Some people are driven to defend and debate their position. By virtue of their natural style, they’ve typically done their homework and believe they’re doing things right. Ironically, it isn’t that they aren’t interested in your feedback, but without all the guts and feathers it’s hard for them to take it in. Be prepared to offer several different specific examples of the behavior you’d like to see corrected, being ready to discuss not just what needs to be done differently but why. If they can’t follow your reasoning they may change their behavior but they’re unlikely to own it.

Further, realize they may defend their position fiercely in the moment, but weeks or even months later display the new standard of behavior and defend it just as vehemently. Allow for some “digestion” time for such individuals to make the new standard their own.

On the other hand, some people become completely demotivated when quizzed or criticized over past behavior. Rather than becoming energized through vigorous debate they will tune you out, often listening in stony silence and offering no response of any kind. For them, the litany of examples only makes it worse, discouraging them even further – especially if it’s all been brought up before. To them the past is past, and their whole drive is focused forward into the future.

Rather than dwelling on past mistakes and misdeeds, what they need from you is encouragement, the confidence of knowing you believe in them, and suggestions for what they might do differently or better next time.

The praise sandwich delivers constructive criticism so that it lands favorably for others regardless of natural style. It’s called a sandwich because it has three layers, with the criticism sandwiched between two layers of positive feedback:

First, acknowledge what the other does well or correctly. By establishing your recognition of their talents and accomplishments, you make it easier for them to take in the constructive feedback coming next.

Second, deliver the critique, connecting it with “and” rather than “but.” When we hear “but,” it psychologically undoes everything that came before, whereas “and” gives equal weight to both the praise and the critique. “You are our top salesman, but I need you to pay more attention to turning in your reports on time,” has a completely different psychological impact for the recipient than “You are our top salesman, and I need you to pay more attention to turning in your reports on time.”

If they need more data this is where they’ll push back. Be prepared with examples, keeping in mind that only some people benefit from piles of evidence.

Third, ask for what you’d like in the future, explaining why it matters, and expressing confidence in the other’s ability to deliver. It isn’t enough just to tell the other to stop misbehavior. Suggest what they might do differently, explaining what the benefit is to them – which may be very different from why it matters to you.

“I need your paperwork no later than the 28th so it’s in my report to regional at the end of the month. Your performance evaluations and commissions depend on that report being accurate. I know there’s a way to get your input in on time so you get the recognition you deserve,” creates a concrete example of what success looks like, and pretty compelling motivation for change.

If you want guidance in delivering constructive criticism more effectively, contact me to explore how I can help.

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E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.
Managing Partner
The Cogent Executive LLC

Ann Hollier provides strategic consulting and performance coaching to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Constructive Criticism & the Praise Sandwich