When Richard Farson came to speak at High Tech High about eight years ago, he talked about the sandwich technique, which he also mentions in Management of the Absurd (p 66):
“Praising people does not motivate them. . . Praise can come to be associated mainly with criticism. The happens when we use praise to sugarcoat blame, or employ the ‘sandwich technique,’ whereby praise is followed by reproof, then repeated. ‘I’m very pleased with your work, Fred, ‘ says the boss. ‘You’re really getting the work out, but . . . ‘ Fred then hears the unhappy part of the story, the reprimand. The boss finished up with ‘Keep up the fine work.'”
When Farson talked about this, all eyes turned to me, because I had encouraged teachers to use the sandwich technique in their comment writing. I’m not sure what I think about this.
When I was a new teacher and advisor at a school outside Washington, D.C., someone had the wisdom to pair me as an advisor with this amazing Dean of Academics. She used the following “technique” in parent meetings. The student, family, teachers, and advisor would gather in a room. She would say, “First, let’s go around the room and say something that Suzie is doing well.” I have been in so many meetings where that technique is used or not. When not used, almost invariably, most people in the room immediately launch into the laundry list of things that Suzie is not doing. When the technique is used, almost invariably, Suzie and her parents beam with pride at all the nice things that are being said about Suzie. And importantly, they always seem to be in a better place to hear the unhappy part of the story, because they see that these adults know Suzie, recognize her strengths, and care about her.
I have always wondered about this “technique,” because it is so transparent, just what Farson is talking about. By saying, “Let’s say something nice about Suzie,” it always seemed to me like people would think, “Well, they’re just saying that because they were prompted to.” But I have never seen it not improve the quality of the meeting.
Similarly, I have seen teachers write comments about Johnny that merely focus on the negative. And I have always felt that it is important to also celebrate Johnny’s successes. It reminds me of a workshop for new school leaders that I went to where Michael Thompson told us all to think about what we are good at and then figure out how to spend more time doing more of that. As opposed to feeling guilty about the things that we’re not good at. He actually made us turn to our neighbor and say out loud, “I’m not working on that right now.”
So I think that Farson raises a good point about using praise as a motivator, yet my experience tells me that there is a benefit to pointing out what is going well. Are these two ideas in conflict?