Is the sandwich method an effective conflict management tool? I recently presented on conflict resolution with a wonderfully engaged group at Leadership Hendricks County. The group offered insights, ideas, and questions about conflict resolution that got me thinking, should I revisit the sandwich method?

If you’re unfamiliar with the sandwich method, it’s the analogy of creating a sandwich when doing a one-on-one critique. The first piece of bread is a compliment, the meat is the critique, and the bottom piece of bread is again a compliment.

The sandwich method can be effective, but only if used with empathy, emotional intelligence, and understanding of the recipient’s needs.

The Sandwich Method

It Must Come from the Heart 

“The sandwich’s purpose is to give constructive criticism without causing the employee to become defensive, angry, or close-minded. When introduced to this method years ago, I considered it a trick to be used against employees. However, I learned that if it’s honest and coming from help, it’s not a trick. You begin by sharing what you respect about the team member. It must be real, or don’t use this method. For example, the first slice of bread could be a character trait that you truly appreciate about that person. It could be their dependability, hard work, dedication, enthusiasm, diligence, responsibility, etc.” — How to Take Disciplinary Action Without Creating Animosity.

One of the attendees, Abigail who works in HR, shared an interesting approach, which works well for her.

“If a full sandwich doesn’t seem appropriate for the person, I give a “warm fuzzy” and a “cold prickly.” This has helped me to be more direct with people as well (I used to use a lot of mitigating language) because they know that the “cold prickly” is feedback with the intention of helping to improve, and the “warm fuzzy” is what they should continue doing.
I try to make sure they’re related, so it’s not completely out of the blue, for example I would avoid saying, “I like your hair today, but your customer service sucks.”
I’d try for “I want to give you two pieces of feedback. This warm fuzzy feedback is that I think you’re doing well at greeting customers when they enter the store. Your smile and friendly ‘hello’ is great! But the cold prickly feedback is that I need you to work on being more friendly when answering customer questions as well. Let’s have you try phrases like ‘happy to help!’ or ‘is there any other way I can assist today?”

Wise Ideas

Suzanne, the wisest person in the room, shared this with me in correspondence after the event.

The BEER Method

B = this is the behavior I’ve noticed.

E = the effect it’s having.

E = the expectations for what needs to be helped, changed, or given up

R = these are the results we expect.

I like it. I’ll  have my sandwich with a beer please.

Not Everyone Likes the Bread 

The sandwich method is only effective with some. To Know if it will be effective, you must know the person. Some people don’t like or need the bread. They only want the meat. These carnivores prefer a critique to be straightforward and to the point.

The Open-faced Sandwich

Another approach to the sandwich is the open-faced sandwich. Start with the meat on top. Never be accusatory, angry, or threatening. The best approach is to come from help. For example, “There’s something I’d like to share that could help you.” After you offer your help, place it on a bottom piece of bread, sharing what you truly appreciate about your teammate.

The Meatless Sandwich

I can’t take credit for this, my friend Chris, who attended the LHC seminar, called me that night. He owns a small business. After the workshop, he brought two individuals separately into his office. Both can be defensive, and when he called them to his office, he told me you could see they thought they were in trouble. They weren’t. Chris complimented them on their recent achievements. Chris told me he did this so in the future, they wouldn’t be fearful of coming to the “boss’s office” and could sit down to discuss how to improve the business and their contributions – coming from help.

Should You Use the Sandwich Method?

Should you use the sandwich method? Yes, no, maybe. Whether you use the sandwich or not isn’t what’s important. What’s important is not to ignore when someone needs help for fear of conflict, burying your head in the sand and hoping it will go away. It probably won’t. It’s not conflict and confrontation if you’re coming from help.

If you liked this post, you might appreciate, How to Use the Pinch Theory of Conflict Management.

How Can I Help You?

I like to help people and organizations, but I have three criteria I consider before taking an assignment – I believe in what the organization stands for, I know I can help, and it looks like fun. If you have any questions, Contact Me. 

Does your business have a management training plan? Businesses and universities use my book, The New Manager’s Workbook, a crash course in effective management, as the basis for their leadership development program. I’m also available to conduct training.

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay