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The Sandwich – Not Positive Reinforcement

Posted by Douglas A Wick on Sun, Oct 7, 2012

Most of us enjoy a good sandwich.  You probably even have your favorite sandwich, and favorite place to eat it.  A favorite method of constructive criticism that is widely taught in basic supervisory training is called the “sandwich.” 

sanwich resized 600The sandwich is really putting a negative between two positives, thus its name.

Here’s an example of the sandwich in action:

Positive:  Bob you’re one of the best employees we have.

Negative: However you’ve been late for work a lot recently and if you don’t improve getting here on time I’m going to have to dismiss you.

Positive: Bob, you’ve got more potential in your little finger than most people have in their entire body.  I’d hate to have to lose you.

Aubrey Daniels in Bringing Out the Best in People indicates that psychologist feel “the sandwich” preserves the person who is being corrected self-esteem.  However he’s found no experimental/scientific data that supports this.  In fact his belief is that this method of constructive criticism supports the punisher more than the person being punished. 

Imagine you received a message like this from your boss.  How would you respond?  Would you feel good that you’ve been complimented on being one of your companies best employees and that people see you have a great deal of potential?  Or would be afraid, frustrated and possibly angry that being a late a few days is enough to get you fired despite your stellar performance?

Sandwiching is confusing.  It is not a good practice.  According to Daniels, criticism should be short and to the point.  You should be clear regarding which behavior must increase or stop, and what will happen if it does or doesn’t.   Positives should be saved until there is some improvement in performance.

The Rule to Remember here is:  Do Not Pair positive reinforcement with Punishment.

How should you handle a situation like this?  “Bob you’re being late is putting your position in jeopardy.   If you’re late even by just a few minutes again this week you will be terminated.  I hope this will not be necessary.  If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.”

Later in the day, when Bob is doing his job you could approach him and say, “Bob, I hated to have to get on you this morning.  You’re one of the best employees I’ve got….”

This may seem like a minor difference, yet it should produce a vastly different result.  Showing a concern is usually a positive to most people.  Pairing concern with good work acts as a positive reinforcer for more productive performance.  When concern is only paired with problem performance, you generally get more problem performance.

Business is Behavior.  The principles of Strategic Discipline require that you increasingly improve receiving feedback from customers and employees.  By improving our understanding of human behavior we can tell what works and what doesn’t simply by looking at the affect any intervention has on the behavior of people.  Did the behavior increase or decrease, change or stay the same?

Want to improve your workforce’s performance?  Use scientific method to manage behavior including:

  • Precise specifications of what you want to improve.
  • Development of a baseline of current performance against which progress can be measured.
  • A precise intervention and evaluation of its impact on performance.

Remember the rules and this quote from Sherman Roberts, Harvard University.  “The best way to run an organization is also the best way  to treat people.“

Next blog I plan to have an update on my health and the value Strategic Discipline continues to play in my recovery. 

Topics: Bringing Out the Best In People, Aubrey Daniels, positive reinforcement, human behavior

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