Good feedback is hard to find.
Part of the problem is that it’s hard to give good feedback. Great thinkers and managers have proposed various strategies for cracking that particular nut, and today I’d like to focus on one of these approaches, a concept called radical candor.
Kim Scott, a former Google director and professional career coach, believes that good feedback requires two components: caring personally and challenging directly. Combined, these elements create radical candor: meaningful, personal guidance that’s honest, bold, and straightforward. When one or both of these elements is lacking, our well-intentioned feedback leads to interactions that fall short of our goals, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
Visually, we can represent caring personally and challenging directly as the axes of a quadrant graph:
We want to be in the green zone — radical candor — which combines caring personally with challenging directly.
Scott calls the vertical axis, caring personally, the “give a damn” axis. Although this description may be colloquial, it’s also apt. Think back on guidance, suggestions, and reviews you’ve received recently. Then picture the person who gave you these pieces of feedback. Consider how often you’ve worked with that person. Ask yourself if you believe this person really cares about you.
Do you tend to listen best to feedback from people you already have strong relationships with? Scott certainly thinks so, and I agree. When challenged to change our behavior, pushing back is simply human nature, an emotional defense mechanism against any deviation from the comfortable and known. But intellectually, knowing that someone is truly invested in your development makes it that much harder to reject their feedback, and that much easier to accept it.
Beyond building trust and rapport with your feedback subject, caring personally also matters for the feedback giver. Giving a damn makes it that much easier to fulfill the other requirement for radical candor, challenging directly — or, as Scott calls it, “being willing to piss people off.”
To illustrate challenging directly, Scott shares the story of a time when her own boss, Sheryl Sandberg, gave Scott a dose of radical candor. After Scott gave an important presentation with top executives at Google, Sandberg invited Scott on a walk around the office. Sandberg began with things she liked about the Scott’s presentation (a strategy that might sound very familiar from your own feedback sessions). And although Sandberg’s praise was genuine, Scott could feel a “but” coming on.
Eventually, Sandberg got to her actual point: “But, you said ‘um’ a lot.” Reflecting back, Scott admits that she, reflexively, brushed off Sandberg’s concerns. Even after Sandberg tried to address the issue from multiple perspectives — was it nervousness? should we hire a speaking coach to help? — Scott kept finding excuses to justify her current behavior and negate Sandberg’s guidance.
Finally, Sandberg said: “You know, Kim, I can tell I’m not really getting through to you. I’m going to have to be clearer here. When you say ‘um’ every third word, it makes you sound stupid.”
That’s the essence of challenging directly. It means meeting your subject in a place where your feedback can be most effective, wherever that happens to be. It’s not just about what you say, but also how you say it. And while this shouldn’t be equated simply with being rude or dramatic, it does require being willing to really push people to understand the problem.
At least for most of us, challenging directly is incredibly difficult to do. We’ve been raised and socialized with the mantra of “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” While I could describe Sheryl Sandberg’s conversation with Scott in a number of ways, one word I wouldn’t use is nice. And yet, delivering that guidance was actually one of the kindest things Sandberg could have done for Scott. As Scott reflects, “If Sandberg hadn’t said it just that way, I would’ve kept blowing her off. I wouldn’t have addressed the problem.”
So how do we overcome our social conditioning towards “niceness” to engage in challenging people directly and, from there, radical candor? I believe this is one area where the judge program generally has a step up on the rest of the world. We have built a culture that preaches self-improvement as one of our primary virtues and where feedback is welcomed. These traits are fertile soil upon which the idea of radical candor can blossom.
Yet, in spite of these strong foundations, having honest conversations with each other is challenging. But I know and believe that, like any habit, radical candor is something that gets easier over time. After ruminating on this idea for about a month, I’ve already noticed myself more frequently sharing difficult pieces of feedback with other judges, even with close friends.
Radical candor isn’t a magical solution to all our problems. Nonetheless, it provides a helpful framework for evaluating whether our conversations are as helpful as they possibly could be, through two straightforward questions: Is it clear that the other person knows I’m invested in their success? And am I having a direct conversation about the real issue? By asking ourselves these questions before, during, and after our feedback sessions, we can make sure we’re really helping each other be better.
(Coda: There’s a lot more to say about radical candor…like the other three quadrants of the graph, the HHIPP criteria for helpful feedback, and why we should probably say “guidance” instead of “feedback.” Look for these in future posts. Until then, if you liked this post, read the article that inspired it! Check out “Radical Candor — The Surprising Secret to Being a Good Boss” on FirstRound, and make sure to watch Kim Scott’s video. You can learn even more from the official Radical Candor website.)