The Compliment Sandwich Must Die, and Other Lessons on Leading From Your Level

“Hey, Eric! Nice bow tie. By the way, your performance at last week’s meeting was terrible. That’s a sharp suit you’re wearing!”

What you just read is known as a “compliment sandwich.” And Virginia Hill from the Partnership for Public Service explained in the session she led with Jonathan McGee on leading from your level that this is one of the most outdated management techniques out there, and definitely not an effective technique for supervisors giving feedback to employees or vice versa.

Virginia and Jonathan shared a number of feedback techniques that work much better than the compliment sandwich, along with insights on requests and agreements in the workplace, the differences between givers, takers, and matchers, and how work ethic can build your influence.

Jonathan stressed at the outset, however, that techniques and insights only become effective when they are coupled with self-awareness on the part of the person using them. One proven way to increase your self awareness is to give yourself a quick diagnostic. First, think of a leader you want to emulate (For Jonathan, it’s President Obama). Next, write down three to five attributes that leader has. Finally, ask yourself how you are living these attributes now. This is likely to alert you to some areas needing improvement.

Another quick diagnostic to help you get clear on your situation and your state of mind is to assign it a score using a continuum like the one below:

+3: Joyful, Unstoppable, Strong
+2: Happy, Energized, Optimistic
+1: Content, Pleased, Rested, Relaxed
-1: Frustrated, Annoyed, Melancholy
-2: Exhausted, Cynical, Stressed, Angry
-3: Hopeless, Hostile, Defeated, Desperate

The participants in the session agreed that states of mind at the extreme ends of this continuum can be contagious, so it’s best to judge what score you would give your state of mind today before jumping into interactions with your colleagues, subordinates, and superiors.

And when you do go to those you work with to ask for something, Virginia and Jonathan recommended making sure that your requests are real requests, meaning that they make clear what you are asking (being specific, actionable, and time-bound) and give the recipient the opportunity to accept, decline, or renegotiate what is being asked. Firing off an email saying “Get me the memo ASAP” is not a real request, and is less likely get you what you really need.

Virginia also shared a fantastic technique for giving feedback in a way that avoids defensiveness when those you work with are not getting your team what it needs. The technique is known by the acronym SBI-DR:

S – Situation: What is the context?

B – Behavior: What was the specific observable behavior?

I – Impact: What was the impact on the project, other employees, or stakeholders?

D – Desired Outcome: What should happen differently next time? What is the standard?

R – Role: What is my role in this? How can I contribute to the desired outcome?

Here’s an example of how this could work in a situation where the person giving feedback may not be in a position of authority: “Beverly, at the meeting last Friday, you rolled your eyes when I shared my idea, and it made me feel like my idea wasn’t welcome.” [Pause for Beverly’s response]. “I feel like our team will generate more and better solutions if we hear everyone out when they share their ideas, and I’m going to commit to holding back my judgments when you and others share thoughts in upcoming meetings.”

As you read that example, perhaps you were thinking of your own experiences with giving and receiving feedback where you work. Virginia and Jonathan also shared the concept of givers, takers, and matchers in the workplace. We all can think of people who are consistently generous givers in our life, and perhaps we know a few takers. Jonathan explained that matchers are those who are willing to give, but only when they can expect to receive in return, and most of us find ourselves in this category at least some of the time at work. But he explained that givers actually have been shown to be the most successful group when their giving is within pre-determined boundaries, although they become the least successful group when they lack those boundaries. Takers and matchers usually are found in the middle realm of mediocrity.

Virginia closed the session with some thoughts about work ethic. If the buzzwords “managing up” feel a little strange to you, Virginia suggested focusing on managing your situation, then working with those above you, below you, and across from you to improve that situation, always striving to keep a learning mindset. Being humble and reliable will make it easier for you to find a champion within your organization, and your circles of control and influence will increase. No compliment sandwiches required.

From July 20th – 21st we’ll be blogging from GovLoop and YGL’s Next Generation of Government Training Summit. Follow along @NextGenGov and read more blog posts here.

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