How to Help Someone Change with PIE

A Three-Step Framework to Give Constructive Feedback

You’ve probably heard that the best way to give constructive feedback to someone is to sandwich it between two compliments:

  1. Tell them something they’re doing well.
  2. Tell them how they can improve.
  3. Tell them something else they’re doing well.

There’s some doubt as to whether the Criticism Sandwich is even a good technique—it may undermine your feedback. Nevertheless, it’s pervasive. You’ve probably been on both sides of the conversation.

I just learned another method that I like better: give them some PIE.

Photo courtesy of © Adobe Stock / Lisa F. Young

This is how the Criticism Sandwich conversation usually goes:

You’re really great at doing A, and I appreciate it. I need you to get better at B, though. But you’re awesome at C, too, so good job!

The second compliment always struck me as being out of place, somehow. It usually wasn’t even relevant to the problem at hand.

PIE is a little more structured:

  1. Praise. Tell them what they’re doing well. Be sincere. We can sense insincerity, and it will set your conversation off on the wrong foot.
  2. Instruct. Tell them what they could do better. Be specific. Make sure they understand why they need to change and why the new behavior is better.
  3. Encourage. Tell them they can do this—they can change! Be supportive. Discuss the expectations going forward. How quickly do you expect the change to take place? How will you measure progress? What support can they expect from you?

The PIE approach keeps the positive-negative-positive structure in place, but it changes the nature of the second positive. Instead of saying something unrelated—but positive—for the sake of saying something positive, you’re turning your attention forward.

One more thing to be clear on: the follow-up. Nobody likes being left hanging. No matter how good your PIE is, if they don’t know how to close the loop and verify the change they’re working on, they’re going to feel like you’ve pulled the floor out from under them. Schedule an appointment to circle back and assess their progress. If they’ve changed, they’ll love to hear it. If they haven’t, you’ll have more to discuss.

The ideal ratio of praise-to-criticism is 5:1. For every one thing that someone needs to change, be sure to tell them what a great job they’re doing at least five times. If you only criticize, they’ll start tuning you out. If you praise what they do right, they’ll be much more receptive to your input.

Have you ever had someone praise you, and you stopped listening to the praise and started waiting for the other shoe to drop? It’s what happens when you only praise when you want something. Praise becomes manupilation, and you lose your influence. You can’t even compliment them effectively any more.

Personally, I’m not going to worry about getting the 5:1 ratio exactly right. I’m going to err on the side of giving sincere, deserved praise for a job well done. The more deposits I can make into the emotional bank account, the more influence I’ll have with them.

But when it’s time to offer criticism to adjust someone’s behavior, no more sandwiches. I’ll give them some PIE. Everybody loves pie.

Question: How do you give effective feedback, especially when they haven’t asked for it? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. For more information, see my comments policy.

  • Dirk Benjamin Johnson

    Colter, I agree with the principles behind PIE. I believe most everyone wants to do better but it is often hard for them to see how to do it, or perhaps to know where to focus first. When we approach PIE with a attitude of helping others do better, the P and the E at once becomes natural and sincere and I becomes less critical and more constructive.

    In I, they have a clear understanding of what success looks like. However, how to get there can be daunting. I have always thought of E not only as an opportunity to encourage, but also as an opportunity to help create a plan to succeed (perhaps “E” for “Engage”?). A plan helps the encouragement feel justified and motivational, and the entire exchange to be viewed as a positive experience.

    Additionally, as part of the plan, where appropriate, I also include what my part is in the plan. Letting other’s know what your expectations are is only one part of being a mentor. The other is doing everything you can (and should) do to help them meet those expectations. That is what mentoring truly means.