Quick poll: Who here loves giving feedback? Who loves getting it?

(Yeah, not a lot)

If you’re like most folks, you don’t love the feedback process, but you also know it’s an essential part of being on a team.

At its core, feedback is good for us: it helps us grow and be more effective. But unfortunately, it’s a prickly subject in many workplaces. It’s even a prickly subject in the English dictionary! Look up synonyms for feedback and you’ll get suggestions like, “criticism,” “rebuttal,” and “comeback.” Yikes. Since when did feedback become such a negative word?

My hunch says it has something to do with our experiences of feedback up until now. Nearly everyone has had a negative experience with giving or getting it, and these experiences become little chips on our shoulders we carry around into our professional (and personal) experiences. Human nature doesn’t help much either. Did you know humans are hardwired to remember negative experiences more vividly than positive ones? Turns out, it probably takes two or three spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicine go down.

Fixing feedback

During the course of her career in tech, Kim Scott became fascinated with feedback — how it’s done well, how it’s done poorly, and how we can get better at giving feedback. After many years of studying, she wrote a book called Radical Candor in which she gives the formula for healthy feedback in our workplaces. She boils it down to just 2 things:

“Care personally and challenge directly”

That is what Kim defines as radical candor: giving feedback to your coworkers in a way that shows you care about them while still being direct and forthright. This is a classic example of speaking the truth with love. If you go too far on either axis of caring personally or challenging directly, you’ll land in dangerous territory. It’s all about achieving that balance.

To help people get closer to caring personally and challenging directly, Kim has come up with a simple grid that maps out what healthy feedback looks like, and what it doesn’t look like. (I’m sure most of them will be familiar to you).

The 4 types of feedback

Radical candor

Care personally and challenge directly.

This is what you want to aim for in your feedback, that perfect balance between caring and challenging. In many ways, it’s completely intuitive. If you care about someone, you’ll want them to succeed. When you care, you will be motivated to give direct feedback for their benefit, not for any other reason.

Challenging directly means not sugarcoating or hedging your feedback. It’s most helpful when you can be as direct as possible. Part of being direct also means getting your timing right. According to Kim, radical candor is best given immediately while still fresh in everyone’s mind, instead of weeks or months later.

However, caring personally about someone can often blindside you when it comes to giving feedback. If this is the case, you may be heading into this next element, ruinous empathy.

Ruinous empathy

When you care personally without challenging directly.

You know that person in your office you just love to pieces? They’re fun, they make you laugh, they’re a ball to be around. How could you possibly say anything negative to them?

Sometimes the strength of the personal relationship can get in the way of honesty. You think, “Yeah, I see some obvious mistakes this person is making, but they’re so great I don’t want to burst their bubble.” Don’t fall into that trap, because it usually doesn’t go well for the person you care about.

If you fail to give important feedback to this coworker, you may be contributing to their own eventual downfall. Think about it this way: If your coworker were to suddenly get fired for something and came back you asking, “Why didn’t you tell me?” that would indicate you had been operating in the realm of ruinous empathy.

But what about those coworkers that you just don’t jive with? It may be easy to call them out on things, but then you’d be falling into another unhealthy category: obnoxious aggression.

Obnoxious aggression

When you challenge directly but fail to care personally.

Just because something is true doesn’t mean it won’t hurt. This is where your personal relationships come into play. The person receiving your feedback needs to know that you actually care about their success and well-being and that’s what’s motivating you to offer feedback. The question to ask yourself to avoid this pitfall is: Is the feedback I want to give to this person appropriate for my relationship to them? In all honesty, you may not have the relationship with everybody in your office to be able to give feedback in a caring way.

The final element of radical candor is one that few of us would freely admit to doing, but it can easily come out when you’re trying to save face: manipulative insecurity.

Manipulative insecurity

When you both fail to care personally and fail to challenge directly.

This one you probably know it as “lying through your teeth” and takes the form of flattery or passive aggression. A lot of people resort to manipulative insecurity when they need to cover up a misstep or cover up their anger, but people easily see through the lie. To know if you are doing this to your coworkers, ask yourself, “am I lying?” and take the steps to address it.

Make feedback work for your team

Bringing these elements of feedback to life can be so helpful to your own understanding of how you tend to give feedback, and how you’ve experienced it. Is there a dimension discussed here that you usually fall into?

Think about your own career and the feedback that you’ve been grateful for. What elements of radical candor did that person express in that moment? What about feedback that made you feel attacked or judged — how did that interaction not dig deeply enough into caring deeply or challenging directly?

Understanding and embracing the dimensions of radical candor can change your work life and company culture completely. But it won’t happen overnight. It takes a team of people committed to giving better feedback to change a culture, so if you’re excited about the elements of radical candor you’ve seen here, be sure to share this article with your team, and get the conversation going.

Email this article to your team

Visit RadicalCandor.com to get the book and learn more about Kim’s work. To watch the entirety of Kim’s talk at Atlassian Summit, check out the video (minute 26).


Also published on Medium.

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