Years ago, in a bar in London, a friend’s acquaintance regaled a small group of us with stories from the front lines of management. He worked at a consulting firm, where he had recently taken on a handful of direct reports and was expected to critique them when they weren’t measuring up.
My friend and I were arguably well practiced at criticizing other people, but we agreed it was a terrible fate to be put in a job where you had to do this to their faces. We were reporters. We had never managed anyone and had never been exposed to anything resembling management training—and neither, we were pretty sure, had our editors.
The consultant at our table was jazzed about a brilliant strategy he had just learned from a senior manager at his firm, guaranteed to make any criticism go down easy. It was called the shit sandwich, he told us, and it goes like this: First, you compliment the employee on some aspect of their work. Then you draw their attention to this other thing they’ve done, the thing you need to point out was not up to snuff. And finally, to smooth it all over, you say something encouraging, like, “That said, I’m certain you have what it takes to succeed here and I know your next project will be great.”