“I really admire your hard work on this project…” Then, there’s that excruciating looooong pause. You know that the next statement is going to be targeted feedback that is long overdue — “but we expect you to use updated metrics instead of recycling last quarter’s presentation file”.
These “admire your hard work” niceties are the bread of the sandwich model of criticism — which you are probably familiar with, where criticism is “sandwiched” between two compliments. It follows this format: Dear [feedback recipient], I wanted to point out that [insert compliment here] but [add criticism here]. In conclusion, [compliment]. The premise of the technique, used by everyone from urban educators in Philadelphia like myself to Tim Ferriss, is that people will be more receptive to criticism once they have been primed with platitudes. The bready compliments are not supposed to be lies, but we all know over-exaggeration for an ulterior purpose usually borders on deceit.
As a child of the 90s, I understood the sandwich criticism generation: I have received participation ribbons since preschool and received stickers for a B+ (which I am convinced stands for “BUT you could do better”). I have been taught that they are one-of-a kind, a snowflake of inimitable design. Our generation has been continually shielded from any authentic assessment that could spark actionable growth. It is as though our whole lives have been one constructive criticism sandwich — authentic critique veiled by the breadiness and palatability of compliments. What if the nature of our feedback took a new form? A form that does not veil our intentions? What if our criticism took on the form of… avocado toast?
Let’s explore the anatomy of avocado toast, AKA the American Smor bread. With over a million Instagram posts and 1.2 million hashtags to date, it is the official food of Millennials. Besides being a great photo op, this open-faced brunch staple leaves no room for surprise. I know if my local diner has skimped on the avocado to bread ratio on account of the overhead resulting from Trump’s tariffs on Mexico. The avocado itself is soft and palatable but packed with unsaturated fat, potassium, and 20 odd-vitamins and minerals. The creamy quality of the avocado toast is highlighted by the burst of chipotle pepper that packs a punch between bites. This creamy, Millennial wonder is all supported by the presence of a single piece of toasted bread.
What would criticism in the form of avocado toast look like? First, like open-faced avocado toast, devoid of a top layer of bread, we would skip the pretense of compliments that border on deceit, or at the very least, confuse recipients of our true intentions. So Jude, no, your pitch isn’t “a good start” but rather grossly inadequate. This transparency sans introductory compliments would help set the tone for criticism, ensuring the recipients will not be caught off guard by the hard conversations that follow. What is more, this directness will cause the recipients to focus on the criticism itself — rather than the inconsequential slices that characterize sandwich criticism. This open-face quality brings us to the heart of the avocado toast method — the criticism. Like an avocado, our criticism needs to be soft and mild so that it is palatable to the listener. Is your critique simple enough that the recipient fully understands what you are talking about? What good are your Lebanon bologna, pancetta ham, and Vermont cheddar criticisms, if your recipient is lost in the layers of examples and hypotheticals? Like an avocado, the criticism should be substantive and fatty. One must aim to nourish the listener and even help them self-actualize. Depending on the circumstances, this criticism should sting the recipient a bit, not unlike the addition of peppery substances such as chili flakes or chipotle mayo typical of a quality avocado toast. Note the mild pepper condiments recommended. If your heat level is that of a ghost pepper or scotch bonnets, you are bordering on insult or HR involvement. Skip the garnishment of language — feta, parsley, tomatoes, and anything else that occasionally makes an appearance on your Instagram brunch story — garnishment becomes a substitute for lack of a critical avocado.
If sandwich criticism were to be diagrammed, the bread slices pieces would be beautiful Wonder Bread slices. Sure, they are fluffy and capable of toasting to golden perfection, but the carb is complicated and provides little in nutritional subsistence; much like our compliments in sandwich criticism. However, in this avocado toast construct, the whole-wheat, made from ancient grains toast embodies the evolutionary purpose for carbs to energize the body. In this way, the artisanal toast of your open-faced sandwich ought to be thought of as the relationship and the reputation that you hold with the recipient to be able to“energize” the recipient to action. It is this understated foundation of reputation that holds the avocado and chili together in perfect harmony.
Like avocado toast purchased during weekend brunch, this new form of criticism is costly. But what has all of our sandwich criticism gotten us? Empty carbs that provide no nutritional value. If we begin to critique others using the avocado toast method, we will have feedback that is transparent, substantive, packs a punch, and is long-lasting. Utilizing the open-face sandwich criticism will transform our feedback with more transparent, open-faced dialogue that is palatable stings at times, but is characterized by a foundation of trust. Use it next time you’re in the boardroom or at brunch.