Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Most employees prefer to receive fair and accurate constructive feedback from their managers, and employees who do receive regular feedback that is delivered appropriately perform better.
However, most managers avoid giving constructive feedback and when they do give feedback they don’t do it well. Too many managers have not been trained to give performance feedback. In fact, if you have been trained, it’s likely you’ve received bad advice. For example, common advice is to use the “sandwich approach” depicted below:
Share something the employee is doing well.
Share an area where the employee can improve.
Share something else the employee is doing well.
If you have ever been on the receiving end of feedback of what some call a sh*t sandwich, you likely wished the person delivering the feedback was more direct. Kim Scott, in her book Radical Candor, provides a framework to help us learn how to give kind and clear feedback to others.
Scott, shaped by her experience as a manager at Google and Apple, says we need to care personally and challenge directly. These two dimensions speak to what it means to be radically candid.
Care Personally: “The first dimension is… about giving a damn, sharing more than just your work self, and encouraging everyone who reports to you to do the same. It’s not enough to care only about people’s ability to perform the job. To have a good relationship, you have to be your whole self and care about each of the people who work for you as a human being. It’s not just business; it is personal, and deeply personal.”
Challenge Directly: The second dimension involves telling “people when their work isn't good enough - and when it is; when they are not going to get that new role they wanted, or when you’re going to hire a new boss ‘over’ them; when the results don’t justify further investment in what they’re working on. Delivering hard feedback, making hard calls about who does what on a team, and holding a high bar for results…. Most people struggle with doing these things.”
Let’s look at what happens when your feedback does not achieve both dimensions. As you read through the three descriptions, consider whether any depict familiar patterns of behavior in your life.
Obnoxious Aggression: “When you criticize someone without taking even two seconds to show you care, your guidance feels obnoxiously aggressive to the recipient.” Obnoxiously aggressive behaviors include belittling, embarrassing publicly, freezing out, and backhanded compliments. Managers exhibiting these behaviors should focus on being more kind and sincere.
Manipulative Insincerity: This “happens when you don’t care enough about a person to challenge directly…. When you are overly worried about how people will perceive you, you’re less willing to say what needs to be said… The resulting praise and criticism feels to employees like flattery and backstabbing.” Managers exhibiting these behaviors should focus on being more kind, clear, specific, and sincere.
Ruinous Empathy: “Being nice is prioritized at the expense of critiquing, and therefore, improving performance… Praise is not effective because its primary goal is to make the person feel better rather than to point out really great work and push for more of it…. When ruinous empathy prevents bosses from soliciting criticism, they have no idea anything is wrong until the person quits.” Managers exhibiting these behaviors should focus on being more clear and specific.
In what might be my favorite point from the book, Scott emphasizes the importance of listening, asking questions, and learning:
"A leader’s ability to achieve results has a lot more to do with listening and seeking to understand than it does telling people what to do… more to do with learning than with knowing."
Scott says the question managers should ask but usually don’t is: “I just hired several new leaders on my team. How can I build a relationship with each of them quickly, so that I can trust them and they can trust me?” Many things get in the way of establishing trusting relationships including:
Fear of conflict
Worry about boundaries of what’s appropriate
Fear of losing credibility
“Bosses guide a team to achieve results,” writes Scott. Relationships are at the core of what it means to lead others. Employees who trust you and believe you care about them are much more likely to:
Accept and act on your praise and criticism
Tell you what they really think about what you are doing well, and more importantly, not doing so well
Engage in the same behavior with one another, meaning less pushing the rock up the hill again and again
Embrace their role on the team
Focus on getting results
What kind of feedback do you give? Here’s a simple scenario that Scott shares to help you tune into your natural tendency. Imagine your colleague walks out of the restroom with their zipper down. What would you do? Be honest with yourself.
You shout, “Look, their fly is down!”
You don’t say anything because you are worried about your feelings.
You don’t say anything because you are worried about their feelings.
You whisper, “Your fly is down. I always appreciate when people point it out to me when I’ve done the same thinking. I hope you don’t mind my mentioning it.”
The first response is obnoxious aggression followed by manipulative insincerity, ruinous empathy, and radical candor. If you are interested in applying the idea of radical candor in your own life or building a culture of radical candor in your organization, Scott suggests you begin by explaining the idea to others and then invite criticism from them.
Schwarz, R. (2013, April 19). The “Sandwich Approach” Undermines Your Feedback. Harvard Business Review (Online).
Scott, K. (2017). Radical Candor: Be a Great Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. St. Martin's Press.
Zenger, J. & Folkman, J. (2014, Jan 15). Your Employees Want the Negative Feedback You Hate to Give. Harvard Business (Online).
Zenger, J. & Folkman, J. (2015, April 30). The Assumptions That Make Giving Tough Feedback Even Tougher. Harvard Business Review (Online).