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The Secret to Giving Great Feedback

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HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. Some managers give meaningless positive feedback. Others are unreasonably critical. But Kim Scott, cofounder of the executive coaching firm Radical Candor, says good leaders can give honest feedback in the moment, as long as it’s rooted in a strong relationship. In this episode, Scott explains the steps that managers can take to challenge their employees more directly while also communicating empathy. She also offers advice for how to solicit useful feedback on your own work. This episode originally aired on HBR IdeaCast in February 2020. Here it is.

CURT NICKISCH:  Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review.  I’m Curt Nickisch. Who is the ideal boss?  Some people strive to be the leader with the iron fist, take no prisoners, hold up a high bar.  If workers can’t hack it, well, it’s just not a good fit.  Or maybe you tend the other direction.  You lead with love, nurture your team, make sure people feel fulfilled and taken care of, maybe even to a fault, even when they don’t deserve it. Today’s guest wants managers to be both demanding and compassionate.  They should care personally and challenge directly.  She believes that effective leaders can balance constructive feedback and compassion in a way that helps workers improve and organizations succeed. Our guest is Kim Scott.  She’s the co-founder of the executive education firm, Radical Candor and she’s coached CEOs at Dropbox, Twitter and others.  She’s the author of the book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss without Losing Your Humanity.  Kim, thanks for joining us.

KIM SCOTT:  Thanks for having me.  Great to be here.

CURT NICKISCH:  Now you spent a good deal of your career in tech startups.  You worked early on at Google where Sheryl Sandberg was your boss.  You probably had a lot of bosses over that time.  You were also one yourself.  When did you realize that most bosses were kind of in one camp or the other?

KIM SCOTT:  You know it’s interesting.  I have found in my career as a boss, but also with my bosses that it’s not that people are in one camp or another, we often bounce between all of the camps, often on a daily basis.  So let me explain for a minute what I mean by radical candor.  It’s caring personally, challenging directly. Now when you remember to challenge directly, but you forget to show that you care personally, I call that “obnoxious aggression”.  That was sort of the iron fist boss you were describing in the introduction.  Other times however, we sort of remember to show we care personally, but we forget to challenge directly.  And that I call “ruinous empathy”.  And of course the very worse place of all is where you neither care nor challenge and that is “manipulative insincerity”.  And the truth is all of us bounce between all three of those mistakes on a daily basis.

CURT NICKISCH:  Did you have some of those bosses, either bouncing around or really occupying one strategy or another that got on your nerves?  Like what caused you to get to this place?

KIM SCOTT:  Yes.  Absolutely.  So I’ll start with a story about radical candor.  Early on in my career, right after I had joined Google, I had to give a presentation to the founders and the CEO about how the AdSense business was doing.  And I walked into the room, and there, in one corner of the room, was Sergey Brin on an elliptical trainer wearing toe shoes, sort of stepping away.  And in the other corner of the room was Eric Schmidt who was CEO at the time so deep in his email it was like his brain had been attached to the machine. And I felt a little bit nervous.  How in the world was I supposed to get these people’s attention?  Luckily for me the business was on fire and when I said how many new customers we had added, Eric almost fell off his chair and he said, what did you say?  What do you need?  How can we help you?  Do you need more marketing dollars?  Do you need more engineering resources? So, I’m feeling like the meeting’s going all right.  And as I walked out of the room past my boss who was Sheryl Sandberg, I was expecting a high five or a pat on the back and instead Sheryl said, why don’t you walk back to my office with me?  And I thought oh wow.  I have screwed something up and I’m sure I’m about to hear about it.

CURT NICKISCH:  What made you think that?

KIM SCOTT: There was just something about the way she said why don’t you walk back to my, I knew she wanted to talk. So Sheryl started the conversation by telling me what had gone well from her perspective, not in the feedback sandwich sense of the word.  The sort of kick me, kiss me, kick me.  But really she didn’t mean what she said. And eventually Sheryl said to me, you said “um” a lot in there.  Were you aware of it?  And at that point I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  Because as far as I was concerned, if that was all I had done wrong, who really cared?  I had a tiger by the tail.  And so I sort of made this brush off gesture with my hand and I said, “it’s a verbal tick.  It’s no big deal really”.  And then she said “I know this really good speech coach and I bet I could get Google to pay for it.  Would you like an introduction?”  And once again I made this brush off gesture with my hand and I said “No, I’m busy.” And then Sheryl stopped.  She looked me right in the eye and she said, “I can see when you do that thing with your hand that I’m going to have to be a lot more direct with you.  When you say “um” every third word it makes you sound stupid.”  Now she’s got my full attention.  And some people might say it was mean of Sheryl to say that I sounded stupid, but in fact it was the kindest thing she could have done for me at that moment in my career. Because if she hadn’t used just those words, I never would have gone to see the speech coach.  And I would not have learned that she was not exaggerating.  I literally said “um” every third word.  And this was news to me because I had been giving presentations my whole career.  I had raised millions of dollars for two startups, giving presentations.  I thought I was pretty good at it. And so this got me to thinking, why had nobody told me?  It was almost like I had been walking through my entire career with a giant hunk of spinach between my teeth. So, I wondered why did nobody tell me and also what was it about Sheryl that made it so seemingly easy for her to tell me?  And I realized as I thought about it, no matter how much she cared about my short-term feelings, she wasn’t going to let that momentary upset get in the way of telling me something that I really needed to know.  So that was the sort of challenge directly part.  She never hesitated to tell you something if you were better off knowing it.

CURT NICKISCH:  Yeah. Why didn’t, why do you think other people never told you all those years?

KIM SCOTT:  Yeah.  So, I think part of the reason that it’s hard is it sort of begins around the time we’re 18, 19, 20 years old.  We get our first job and we’re right at that moment in our lives when our egos are maximally fragile and our personas are beginning to solidify.  And right at that moment, someone comes along and says to us, be professional. And I think for an awful lot of people that gets translated to mean leave your emotions, leave your humanity, leave everything that’s best about you at home and show up at work like some kind of robot.  And so you can’t possibly care personally if you’re showing up at work like some kind of robot.  So that’s part of the problem. But I think the bigger problem actually is along the challenge directly dimension.  And I think the problem here begins not when you’re 18 years old, but when you’re 18 months old and you have a parent who says some version of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”.  And now all of a sudden, you’re a leader.  You’re, or you’re a colleague and it’s your job to say it and this is hard.  It’s hard to undo training that’s been pounded into your head since you were 18 years old and 18 months old. We as social creatures are, we have a strong negativity bias.  Especially when it comes to social interaction.  So, let’s say nine times out of 10, radical candor is really going to strengthen your relationship and actually immediately, even in the moment, make things better.  But one time out of 10 you might have a radical candor train wreck, right? But why are, why do we optimize for the one time out of 10 and not the nine times out of 10?  I think it’s this negativity bias.  I mean for most of human evolution if you got thrown out of the tribe you were dead.  And so I think we’re very, probably excessively conservative.

CURT NICKISCH:  So reading the book I thought back a lot to my own experience with bosses or editors who had critical constructive feedback for me.  And I think it’s true.  There are a lot of times where I remember very kind of notable times when somebody said to me something that I really remember and took to heart.  But a lot of times it’s just, you’re kind of reading clues and you’re just trying to pick up on things that people are not saying totally and you only realize later, oh in that meeting I maybe should have spoken up more.  Or I should have spoken up less.  And maybe that’s why we value emotional intelligence so much today because that is required to sort that out and build that feedback for yourself.

KIM SCOTT:  Yeah.  I say in the book there’s an order of operations to radical candor.  You want to start by soliciting it.  You don’t want to dish it out before you prove you can take it.  And then you want to focus on the good stuff.  You want to focus on praise.  Having solicited criticism for yourself, you want to offer praise for others.  And then you’re in a much better frame of mind to offer some criticism to them and they are in a better frame of mind as well. And once you’ve offered the praise or the criticism, guidance as I like to call it rather than feedback, I think it’s so important that you gage how it’s landing.  Radical candor doesn’t get measured at my mouth.  It gets measured at your ear.  But how can I learn to know what’s happening at your ear?  So it’s much more about listening than it is about talking actually.  And last, but not least you want to encourage it between others.  You don’t want to sort of stir the political pot and talk badly about others behind their back. I think if you’re listeners do only one thing as a result of listening in on our conversation, I think the most important thing they could do is to think about what question they’re going to use to solicit feedback.  For example Fred Kaufman who was my coach when I worked at Google recommended that I use this question and I loved it.  His suggestion was to ask “what can I do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” It’s so important to set hierarchy to the side, to the maximum extent possible.  There’s nothing that’s more damaging to a relationship than a power imbalance.  And so, the more quickly you can get on an equal footing with people, the better.

CURT NICKISCH:  How much of this leadership style relies on empathy?

KIM SCOTT:  So it’s really interesting.  I think in my experience when we talk about work, we tend to tell stories about obnoxious aggression and about manipulative insincerity.  But the most common mistake, the mistake that 85 percent of us make 90 percent of the time is what I call “ruinous empathy”. So empathy can be a great asset.  I’m not saying it’s unimportant.  But it can also paralyze you when you’re so concerned about the other person’s feelings in the moment that you fail to tell them something that they’d be better off knowing in the long run.

CURT NICKISCH:  Negative feedback can be hard for people to take.  You know, whether it’s sugar coated or not, because a lot of people like to just focus on positive feedback, or you know, rewarding behavior that they think is good and not addressing the negative stuff?

KIM SCOTT:  I certainly agree that you should focus on the good stuff.  One of the mistakes I think that people make about radical candor is they think it’s all about the boss criticizing the employee.  But that’s not what radical candor is.  Radical candor is about soliciting critical feedback in particular because you’re reluctant to get it, but also it’s about giving praise and giving more praise than criticism. There’s all kinds of research that shows you should give three times as much praise, five times as much praise, seven times as much praise.  The danger of trying to manage your conversations by some kind of ratio like that is you wind up giving praise that is kind of a giveaway, that is insincere.  And so you want to make sure that your praise, like your criticism, is high on the care personally dimension, but also really strong on the challenge directly dimension. So, really good praise tells people what to do more of so it challenges them to do more of what is good.

CURT NICKISCH:  On the other hand you don’t want to go too far with positive feedback either right?

KIM SCOTT:  There’s no such thing as too much positive feedback, but there is such a thing of too little critical feedback.  So for example, I’ll tell you a story to explain what I mean by ruinous empathy.  It’s probably the worst moment of my career.  I had just hired this guy, we’ll call him Bob and Bob was smart.  He was charming.  He was funny.  This was the one problem with Bob.  He was doing terrible work.  Absolutely terrible work.  He would hand stuff into me and there was shame in his eyes. I learned much later in fact that the problem was that Bob was smoking pot in the bathroom three times a day. I didn’t know any of that at the time.  All I knew was that Bob was doing terrible work.  And I would say something to Bob as he would hand this stuff into me, shame in his eyes.  I would say something to Bob like oh Bob, this is such a great start.  You’re so smart.  You’re so awesome.  Everybody loves working with you.  Maybe you could make it a little better.  And of course he never does. And eventually the inevitable happens and I realize that if I don’t fire Bob I’m going to lose all my best employees.  So I sit down with Bob to have a conversation that I should have started frankly 10 months previously.  And when I finished explaining to him where things stood, he kind of pushed his chair back from the table.  He looked me right in the eye and he said “why didn’t you tell me?”  So painful.  And as that question is going around in my head with no good answer, he says to me, “why didn’t anyone tell me?  I thought you all cared about me.” And now I realized that I had failed Bob in a bunch of different important ways.  I failed to solicit feedback from Bob.  I never asked him what was going well from his perspective.  And worse, I never asked him what I might be doing that was contributing to his problems.  Maybe, maybe I was doing something that was frustrating Bob so much he was forced to toke up in the bathroom three times a day.  I don’t know because I never asked him.  I never solicited criticism from Bob. I also failed to give Bob praise that was meaningful.  The kind of praise I gave him was just kind of a head fake, or an ego sell.  It didn’t mean anything.  And I failed to tell Bob when his work wasn’t nearly good enough.  And probably worse of all, I failed to create the kind of environment in which everyone would tell Bob what was genuinely great about his work and working with him, but also would tell him when he was going off the rails.

CURT NICKISCH:  I want to ask you about one on one meetings too because you have a little bit different take for how to run these if you’re trying to be a manager who will challenge, but also care for their reports at the same time?

KIM SCOTT:  Yes.  I think the one on one meeting is a time for you to listen to your direct report.  They should own the agenda.  It’s a time for you to help them clarify new ideas.  It’s a time for you to help them, to really be a thought partner. It’s a great idea to save five minutes at the end of your one on one.  Wait until the person is getting their stuff together so you know they’ve gotten all their agenda items off of their chest.  And then solicit feedback.  Ask your question.  And after you ask your question, whatever it is, what can I do, or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me, or tell me why I’m smoking crack, whatever.  Or, what could I have done in that meeting?  I think often for people it’s easier if you’re specific about what you’re looking for feedback on. So now you dragged this poor soul out on a conversational limb that they never wanted to go on.  It is vital that you listen to whatever it is that they say with the intent to understand not to reply.  Not to respond.  And this is hard.  It can be tricky because you often will either be defensive or you’ll jump to conclusions.  You’ll assume you know, you know what they meant. So you want to make sure you’re really asking clarifying questions, understanding what the person is telling you.  And last, but not least you want to reward the candor.  When someone, especially someone who works for you offers you some critical feedback, they are taking a risk.  And if you do not reward the risk, they will never take that risk again, ever.  And thank you for the feedback is not a reward.  To a lot of people that sounds like a brushoff or something less polite. So how do you reward the feedback?  I think if you agree with the feedback, if you agree with the criticism then what you want to do is you want to fix the problem and you want to be sort of theatrical about the fact that you fixed the problem, you want to tell others that this person told you about this thing and you addressed it and you want to ask, did I go far enough?  Did I go too far?  You want to make sure that your fix is good.

CURT NICKISCH:  Are there differences between how men or women respond or adapt to this leadership style?

KIM SCOTT:  Yes, absolutely.  I have a lot of thoughts on gender and radical candor.  In fact, one of the things that happens very often is that when a man has a woman on his team, so a man has a direct report who’s a woman.  He will often pull his punches when giving her feedback.  He won’t tell her as directly as he’s telling the men on his team when they screw up. Remember that you owe this kind of feedback.  You owe it to everybody directly.  Just remember, women are tough.  I mean this might say more about me than about men, but I have found in my career anyway that the men cry just as much as the women, so.  So don’t be so afraid that the person is going to cry just because she’s a woman. So I think that’s part of it and I think if you’re a woman working for a man and you sense that he’s reluctant or afraid to give you feedback, it’s your job to drag it out of him.  You got to really, and you, sometimes you think that you’ll solicit feedback by making people more comfortable, but usually you have to embrace the discomfort.  You have to really drag it out of people. Now, very often when a woman is radically candid, she gets unjustly called abrasive or some other less polite word, other than obnoxious aggression.  What can a woman do in that situation?  I think the worst thing that a woman can do in that situation is move the wrong direction on the challenge directly dimension.  Because if you back off your direct challenge you wind up in a quadrant that is even less effective than obnoxious aggression.  You wind up in either a manipulative insincerity or ruinous sympathy.  So you don’t want to back off your challenge.  Instead you want to take a moment to move up on the care personally dimension. But you don’t want to get dragged up unfairly high on the care personally dimension.  You don’t want to get stuck doing all the emotional labor in the office.

CURT NICKISCH:  Well for somebody who buys this argument, but it maybe feels unnatural to be honest and, or to give direct feedback.  What are some first steps that they can take?  How do you start changing your behavior as a manager without it coming as too much of a shock to you?

KIM SCOTT:  So I think one of the most important things you can do is to think about, to tell yourself some stories and then to tell your team the same stories and to put them in a context.  So, what do I mean by that?  For example, think of that moment in your career where someone told you something that stung a little bit in the moment, but stood you in good stead for the next 10, 20 years. So if, if every single listener can think about what’s your “um” story?  What’s the story of the time when someone told you something that was very helpful?  And then you tell your team that.  Then you’re doing a couple of things.  You’re making yourself vulnerable.  You’re showing that you know you don’t know it all and more importantly, you’re sort of demonstrating why this kind of critical feedback is actually a gift.  It’s not a kick in the shins.

CURT NICKISCH:  What about somebody who has the other problem?  They’re very tough and frank with people and they need to learn to —

KIM SCOTT:  Be a little more gentle?

CURT NICKISCH:  Yeah.  Be a little more gentle and also just how to communicate the caring?

KIM SCOTT:  Yeah.  It is tricky communicating the caring because I think very often people think it has to take forever to show that you care and the truth is, very often it can just be a momentary, seeing the other person as a fellow human being in the moment. So I think it’s really important to remember that it can be as fast as a sentence.  And also, I think if you, very often people who tend to get accused of obnoxious aggression are maybe actually are obnoxiously aggressive, objectively speaking, sometimes.  Nobody is all the time.  I think that very often they think that focusing on the good stuff is kind of a waste of time.  So another thing that I think can help remember why you want to show that you care personally and why you want to focus on the good stuff, is to realize that your job as a leader is to paint a picture of what success looks like.  You want to show what the possibilities are. And when you realize, when you think about it, praise is really a much better and more effective tool to show what the possibilities are than criticism.  Criticism shows what the possibilities are not.  And so, if you realize that praise is not just sort of an ego self, but actually a productivity tool, then I think you wind up giving much more effective praise. So, when you show people the impact of something that they did on, not just on their work, but on the whole team’s work, not only do you make them quote unquote feel good, you show the whole team what success looks like and what they should do more of.  So, it’s a really important productivity tool.  So I think that can be really helpful for people who find themselves in the obnoxious aggression quadrant.  Realize that when you say something to another person and they have some kind of emotional response.  Let’s say they get, they get sad, or they look like they might cry, or they get angry and they start yelling at you, those are the moments where for a lot of people we tend, we want to just run away. We tend, when we experience strong emotion from another person, a lot of us kind of shut down.  And I think if you can learn to understand what is the human need in those moments, and just sort of eliminate the phrase, don’t take it personally from your vocabulary, you can learn in those moments to take a second to show that you care.  I’m not saying back off your challenge, but take a moment to sit with the emotion in the room and not to reject it.

CURT NICKISCH:  Kim, thank you so much for coming on the show to talk about this.

KIM SCOTT:  Thanks for having me.

HANNAH BATES: That was Kim Scott, co-founder of the executive coaching firm Radical Candor – in conversation with Curt Nickisch on the HBR IdeaCast. Scott is the author of the book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity — and she also hosts a podcast with the same name. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review – if you want more articles, case studies, books, and videos like this, find it all at HBR dot org. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe, Anne Saini and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Rene Barger for his notes and his support. And thanks, as always, to Adam Buchholz, Rob Eckhardt, Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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