The Hamburger Method of Constructive Criticism

September 5, 2007

 
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It’s funny what things stick with you in life. Back when I was in college, one of my professors somehow got onto the subject of constructive criticism and decided to teach the class the method he uses for offering “critical” advice to people.

hamburgermethodcontructivec.jpg

It’s called the hamburger method, and here’s how it works:

When offering a critique, you begin with a constructive compliment on something the person does well (Otherwise known as the fluffy bun part). You then get to the meat of the matter, which of course is the constructive criticism part. Finally, you end with another constructive compliment (i.e. the other half of the fluffy bun).

Basically, you’re sandwiching the constructive criticism between two constructive compliments. In my experience, it’s been an extremely effective technique, largely due to its disarming effective. It helps people let down their guard, and receive the criticism without being as defensive.

Here’s an example:

“Hey Defensive Dave, I noticed you went out of your way to submit your expense report on time every month for the last three months – that’s great! I do, however, think it’s a bad idea to call Jane in accounting an “ignorant slut”. She may not be familiar with that old 1970’s Saturday Night Live Television skit and may be offended by your comment. But overall, your interaction with the team has been great – thanks for making the effort.”

I once suggested the hamburger method to a client who quickly dismissed the technique as “candy coating.” Maybe it is, but if it gets a better result, isn’t that the whole point? Medicine manufactures candy coat medicine all the time for two reasons:

1) So people will take it, and

2) because it tastes like crap if they don’t.

If given the choice between cherry or crap flavored medicine, which would you chose?

Also, I think a 2 to 1 ration of constructive compliments to constructive criticism makes sense because it affirms the desired behavior or practice.

So here are a few things to consider before offering criticism:

1. Is the criticism truly constructive? Here are some synonyms for “constructive”: Positive, helpful, productive, useful, beneficial, and practical. Antonym: Destructive.

2. Why am I offering this criticism in the first place? Is it because I’m trying to be helpful or just because I’m an a**hole?

3. Is the criticism necessary and appropriate? Does it have a great impact on the “grander scheme of things”, or am I just being nitpicky. Will focusing on this issue be worth the time and effort in the long run?

4. Do I have the right, or better yet - have I earned the right to speak into this person’s life? The difference between “management” and “leadership” has a lot to do with the relationship you have with your team. “Managers” tend to focus on control, whereas real leaders take people to the next level.

5. Finally, have I noticed at least two things to compliment before commencing with the criticism?

If you’ve run through the list and are satisfied that the criterion is met, then give the hamburger method a try. I think you’ll find it’s a great tool for offering truly “constructive” criticism.

About the author: Nate Just is a corporate trainer, productivity coach, speaker, and founder of Competitive Edge LLC. You can find more information about Competitive Edge at the company’s official site at Edge Up.

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56 Responses to “The Hamburger Method of Constructive Criticism”

  1. How To: Give Constructive Criticism · TechBlogger on September 7th, 2007 1:32 pm

    […] practice is highly touted in most professional public speaking courses and very easy to remember. The Hamburger Method of Constructive Criticism [Nate’s Productivity […]

  2. manager guy on September 7th, 2007 1:33 pm

    you have made a great effort here with this article. your intent is to help managers provide better feedback. but you have a technique here that IS candy-coated. this defeats some of the purpose. nice effort though, so keep up the good work.

    LOL

    seriously, i think this comes up short. people have a natural defensiveness to hearing feedback. one of the biggest issues of providing feedback is provide a CLEAR description of the issue…AND…and way to improve it.

    in this method things are sugar coated and it sounds like a boss in the movie “office space” that is too unassertive to be clear with negative feedback. lots of employees will bounce the negative off and ignore it using this method.

    the other issue…is that unless you are just punishing the person to punish them, an ESSENTIAL piece of the feedback is to identify the issue and offer a suggestion or feedback for how to prevent it or solve it going forward. this is the tricky part. if you’re a micromanager type of boss you need to be careful not to TELL the person what to do. (but the extent to which you are prescriptive probably depends on the nature of the job, the experience level of the employee, etc.). if it’s a more experienced employee and it’s beyond a simple basic task then the discussion is usually more helpful if you say “i noticed an issue with _______. and then describe the issue.” then involve the employee in a dialogue and ask them to take ownership and fix it.

    for things to change the person receiving the feedback has to: 1. AGREE that there is an issue (acknowledgement), 2. have a plan to fix the issue.

    often people think these things are occurring when they’re not which is why the conversations often fail to lead to change. the person hearing the negative feedback simply agrees so the other person will go away. they aren’t bought in and they have no plans for changing. the criticism sandwich method will perpetuate this further.

    just my 2 cents.

  3. » How To: Give Constructive Criticism on September 7th, 2007 2:01 pm

    […] practice is highly touted in most professional public speaking courses and very easy to remember. The Hamburger Method of Constructive Criticism [Nate’s Productivity […]

  4. anothernate on September 7th, 2007 2:02 pm

    Manager guy… I understand precisely where you are coming from. Having said that the hamburger method as mentioned by the author is not exactly candy coating the situation. Candy coating is trying to spin a positive on the issue (or “meat”) at hand.

    The hamburger method properly executed immediately lowers any defense that the subject may have. You will know from your experience that when the majority of people get defensive, anything that is said is in one ear and out the other.

    I’ve seen it time and time again when a manager or supervisor swings by gives some criticism (or what some like to call feedback) and floats off. That is what I call seagull management.

    “Provide a clear description of the issue” … that is an utterly ludicrous statement, the reason is because if it is a true “issue” then the person wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. Providing a clear description of the issue is simply babying someone who clearly should know better.

    That leads me to my final comment, which is if a manager has certain expectations then those expectations should be communicated clearly in the first place thus to avoid situations like these
    If anything the only part that I would stress the most about the hamburger method is that the “meat” is clearly described and that you get a “ya, or I see”, some kind of acknowledgement out of the subject.

    -other NATE

  5. manager guy on September 7th, 2007 2:19 pm

    ““Provide a clear description of the issue” … that is an utterly ludicrous statement, the reason is because if it is a true “issue” then the person wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. Providing a clear description of the issue is simply babying someone who clearly should know better.”

    nate…sorry you’re way off on this point. people often see issues differently. getting on the same page has to come first…otherwise the feedback is often ignored b/c the employee doesn’t perceive a problem. so whether the feedback comes via your criticism sandwich or other method, it’s ignored.

  6. Mike on September 7th, 2007 2:43 pm

    This is a very helpful article!

    Next time I interview someone, I will try to find out how they handle criticism. If they come up with the Hamburger method, I won’t hire them. Obviously you can’t just ask them “How do you handle criticism.” That’s too easy — you have to throw them off the scent by asking them something like, “When have you found it necessary to criticize an underling, and how did you go about doing it?”

    I hate criticism as much as the next guy, but I recognize that being adult means not overreacting to perceived insults.

    Thanks again for being awesome though!

  7. NateJust on September 7th, 2007 3:02 pm

    Hey Manager guy,
    I understand your point about the necessity of clearly defining the “issue” at hand. However, my main point of the article was not to suggest that the hamburger method will work if it’s applied without a great deal of thought … I just want to get people to think about how to offer truly constructive criticism.

    Yo other Nate,
    I like your description about “seagull management” that’s one of the reasons I wrote the post. A good friend of mine is BEYOND exceptional at what he does for a living, yet he recently was assigned a new manager who nitpicks him to death about the most miniscule of details (that in the grander scheme of things makes almost no difference). This sometimes causes him to doubt himself, which is crazy. His manger is not bringing the best out of him … his manager is just that, and not a true leader. Oh, and cool nombre bro LOL

    Mike, I am totally awesome, dude :) Again; I just want people to think before offering criticism. If one has a good relationship with their manager, who has a good track record of offering 2:1 compliments to criticism … than they can just cut to the chase. But again, think before criticizing … think about what the objective is, and then plan an appropriate strategy. I meant the post to be more of a perspective than a mechanical formula (so at least more compliments than criticism)

    What do you guys think of the check list at the bottom of the article? Nobody, mentioned them … not helpful?

  8. Michael Vanderdonk on September 7th, 2007 4:06 pm

    I’m not a fan of the sandwich technique. As I’ve stated before, almost everyone expects this format. So when you offer someone positive feedback they ask “… but?” or “yes, and?”.

    I prefer an ‘open topped sandwich’ method (continuing the metaphor :-) giving what improvements can be made first, then adding the positive aspects leaving them on a high note.

  9. baiguai on September 7th, 2007 4:29 pm

    manager guy, it sounds like you are talking about negative criticisms, whereas this article is discussing constructive criticism. We aren’t dealing with ‘punishable’ behavior per se (in the situation above, Jane in accounting hasn’t filed a complaint or anything), but behavior that is misguided or needs improvement (changing his behavior will help avoid any possible offense to Jane etc) - I think this is a great technique and it is the EXACT method I am being taught to use in helping martial arts students when I am given the responsibility of helping to teach them.

    I will actually be pointing my blog’s readers to this article, I think it is a smart way to help others improve their productivity, interactions - or martial arts.

    Thank you!

  10. Chris Mikaitis on September 7th, 2007 4:31 pm

    I have to say that this is a lot like a shit sandwich… no matter how good the bread is… if the inside is disgusting, it ruins everything around it… I think a better model is honesty. Honesty doesn’t require you to trump up a persons skills… hopefully you’ve already shown that you appreciate what they do well. The problem with employees these days is that they want to be coddled… that is an unhealthy practice that leads to a bunch of yes-(wo)men. Tell the truth always and you will be rewarded with service to match.

  11. Kung Fu Artistry » Blog Archive - kung fu (wushu), martial arts, fitness, health, history and cultural discussions on September 7th, 2007 5:39 pm

    […] not at all related to martial arts, or even fitness. In fact, the illustration given is that of a hamburger (while hamburgers are a weakness of mine, I wouldn’t consider them […]

  12. anothernate on September 7th, 2007 5:48 pm

    managerguy :

    You are obviously a “type a” manager.

    The work force now a-days is far to smart and educated to be talked to be some guy who speaks just to manage.

    I’ve taken management training from many, and I do say many companies. The message to me was clear in all of them… communicate before anything becomes a problem. If a problem does come up speak to the topic right away in terms that the other person can understand. People do NOT understand having proverbial finger pointed at them.

    The hamburger method even has its space in day to day communications with people we communicate with on any level.

    It goes to some of the things Andy Andrews speak about in his 7 decisions seminar. I saw him live in a presentation of this and it was outstanding.

  13. Constructive criticism « Life Restructured !!! on September 7th, 2007 6:02 pm

    […] Posted on September 8th, 2007. In the current business scenario, it is extremely important to accept and receive criticism. However, there are ways in which criticism needs to be delivered. The following article gives a comprehensive look at how criticism can become constructive if delivered in the right manner. Constructive Criticism : The Hamburger Method […]

  14. eatingorange on September 7th, 2007 9:21 pm

    I do this all the time and it really does disarm people and helps them open up to discuss your critique. One of the worst things you can possibly do is ask “can I offer some constructive criticism?” People immediately become defensive before you’ve even said anything.

    Nice article. Keem ‘em coming!

  15. Midas Oracle .ORG » Blog Archive » The alternative to bombastic commenting: CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM. on September 7th, 2007 9:24 pm

    […] alternative to bombastic commenting: CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM. Via LifeHacker, the Hamburger Method of Constructive Criticism: Read the last blog posts by Chris. F. Masse:Yet another bombastic statement by Monsieur […]

  16. SearchEngines WEB on September 7th, 2007 10:10 pm

    Unfortunately in this society of fragile egos and vindictiveness - one has to use these time wasting tactics just to keep people from retaliating or stop speaking to you

    They care less about the effect their behavior has on others, than they do about living in their fool’s paradise

  17. Big Davey on September 8th, 2007 12:37 am

    I’ve always used this method in the office - my first boss taught me it the day I got promoted, although he called it the sh*t sandwich. Bread on either side, sh*t in the middle. Snag is, everybody who reads a blog like this or who works with a leader who’s transparent about his/her processes will immediately see through this formula, and will start expecting the sh*t every time you compliment them.

  18. Jeff on September 8th, 2007 4:30 am

    I have used this method for years. The goal is to get the person you are talking with to hear you so offering a *credible* compliment as you begin helps that process.

    I like the name you’ve given it. But I have used “PNP Sandwich” to describe this to others (positive-negative-positive).

  19. natejust on September 8th, 2007 7:18 am

    Hey Michael – I like you “open sandwich” suggestion … I know I’m sounding redundant here, but the whole idea is the result we’re trying to achieve. Like that old saying goes; “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” (although I’m not sure why one wants to catch flies in the first place).

    Baiguai: Exactly, you tell him! :-P

    Yo Chris: How is the hamburger method dishonest? It seems that you’re implying that working on one’s skill set is dishonest; I think it’s about personal development, and progress, no?

    Kung Fu Artistry: Honored for the mention on your blog … especially considering it’s “off topicish” for you, thanks!

    Eating Orange: I agree that if the message is used as a mechanical formula it defeats the whole purpose … BTW, what rhymes with orange?

    Midas Oracle: Thanx for the mention!

    Search Engines Web: I don’t think this has anything to do with, “This society of fragile egos” … I think it’s about competent managers who know how to bring the best out of their team … true leaders. Why make this about fragile egos?

    Big Davey: Again, if this is used solely as a mechanical formula, it WILL fail! It seems the flaw you mentioned is what I’ve been pointing out - If the leader is “transparent” while using the method that’s a flawed leader … why blame the method?

    Jeff: EXACTLY, IT’S NOT A FORMULA … It’s a reminder to be purposeful in one’s communication!

  20. anothernate on September 8th, 2007 8:30 am

    We just need to keep in mind that the the “meat” part of this method does not have to be positive. Furthermore both the top and bottom part of the bun absolutely must be real and apply to the situation at hand if possible.

  21. Dope on September 8th, 2007 9:55 am

    You people are retarded. “Methods” are nothing more than creative ways to keep incompetent managers employed. Good managers don’t need kitsch.

  22. crazy cat lady on September 8th, 2007 12:14 pm

    The exact same method is used in peer art and writing critiques as well. I wonder if Dope thinks that makes us bad artists and writers? It’s my experience that this is a very effective technique to deal with most people when delivering criticism.

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  26. JayZee on September 11th, 2007 6:15 pm

    Ha - I think just about every worker in the western world recognizes when they’re getting played by this technique. It’s commonly referred to as “The Shit Sandwich”

  27. Bethy Lou on September 27th, 2007 12:52 pm

    I found this blog by looking for the Hamburger Sandwich method because I wanted to use it in a traing and I wanted to be sure I had it right…
    I use it when I am afraid of the reaction of a person to me, someone who is otherwise considered unapproachable.
    It works so well for me. So it isn’t always a management technique, but a personal one as well.

  28. lxrichter.com » Blog Archive » Constructive Criticism on October 7th, 2007 9:46 am

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  46. Emily on December 14th, 2008 10:37 pm

    at a leadership seminar they referred to it as PSP

    positive, suggestion, positive

    works pretty well as long as it’s sincere. bullshit is bullshit, no matter the form.

  47. Oretunrerve on December 19th, 2008 1:32 am

    Hello

    As a fresh n8tip.com user i only want to say hi to everyone else who uses this board 8-)

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  50. Wicked Anbo on January 13th, 2010 7:59 pm

    I’m gonna go with the “crap sandwhich” guy on this one…… If you were giving out the props during the correct time to do so, like when someone IS doing something wonderful, there wouldn’t be the need to fluff them before being frank about an issue. I also feel that more often than not this method comes off as extremely insincere, and there is nothing constructive about that.

  51. osiyemi omotola joshua on March 17th, 2010 8:14 am

    this ia a nice site…… keep up the good work
    at least you’ve given solutions to some of the things bothering me

  52. Stever Robbins, Get-it-Done Guy blog » Blog Archive » Giving feedback: is the "sandwich" valuable, or trite and ineffective? on April 21st, 2010 8:33 am

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  53. Tanssiva Karhu on May 4th, 2010 12:13 am

    Your list of things to consider before giving feedback is very useful. However, I struggle with applying it to my own context. I am interested in using “hamburger feedback” in an evaluation business, where negative feedback and related improvement proposals are the main content of an expert service.
    This comes to the bullet *3. Is the criticism necessary and appropriate?* For a consultant, it is hard to know what is necessary and appropriate for a customer, as he is supposed to be a neutral judge and thus not in close collaboration with the customer. Relevancy is also related to the customer’s business decisions. Business decisions should done by the customer, not by a consultant who tries to guess what the customer wants.
    However, thanks for the excellent article, illustrative, fun examples and additional checklist of when to give feedback at all.
    Do you notice the method “baked into” my comment above :D

  54. Fredrik on May 25th, 2010 11:48 am

    The hamburger method WORKS.

    I just wrote that to have something to write - now to the meat of the matter: that hamburger looks disgusting

    Cheerio

  55. Mike on June 17th, 2011 1:00 pm

    Lots of good ideas on this Blog. To the question “Is the criticism truly constructive? Here are some synonyms for “constructive” From a management point of view, it seems to me it is more valuable if it’s in the context of “coaching” the employee. The more useful and specific the criticism, the more it will be taken in the right context.

  56. ledsasia on July 22nd, 2011 9:41 am

    Hello there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I genuinely enjoy reading through your articles. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that deal with the same subjects? Thanks for your time!

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