Harsh or Helpful? How to Give Feedback That Sticks

Radical Candor occurs at the intersection of “giving a damn” and “being willing to piss people off.” But you aren’t pissing them off for the hell of it. There’s a purpose: to help them improve, not to belittle them.

Basically, radical candor is an approach to communication. In my book and on the Radical Candor blog, I mostly write about radical candor between a boss and employee. But recently when I gave a talk, a man from the audience said to me, “If I’d heard your talk five years ago, I wouldn’t be divorced right now!” It’s just as relevant in personal relationships as it is at work. It works just as well at a small non-profit as it does at a big company with formal feedback systems. And it’s not hierarchical—radical candor should go both ways, no matter what kind of relationship you have.

Radical Candor axis

Radical candor is not a personality type; it’s a measure of whether a particular communication between two people was effective. It gets measured at the other person’s ear, not at your mouth. That means you have to adjust what you’re saying based on how it’s landing for the other person.

I’ve found that when giving feedback to people who are more introverted than I am, going too far too fast up the “care personally” axis can actually backfire. In extreme cases (I would not consider myself extremely extroverted), the kind of loud, glad-handing, slap-on-the-back yukking it up that might seem merely friendly to an extroverted person will often feel jarring, if not downright obnoxious, to a more introverted person. The different ways of showing appreciation for extroverts and introverts means that when giving feedback to introverts, challenges can be offered more directly, without as much emotional energy put into either cushioning the blow or getting past defenses.

I’ve also found that when giving feedback to people who are more extroverted than I am, I need to push myself further up the “care personally” axis than I am comfortable doing. And I need to be more attuned to their emotional reactions in order to get through. Sometimes, I’ll say something gently, and it will crush an extrovert. Or the opposite can happen: I have to say things so directly that it pains me before I can get through to them.

I once worked with a somewhat introverted engineer, “Karl,” who found himself leading a team of millennial salespeople. Karl was a quiet but intense guy, who was having a hard time winning over his team of about 250 people. To make a long story short, the people who worked most closely with him really loved working with him, but the broader team found him to be negative and intimidating. They thought he disapproved of them.

To get ready for our conversation and to make it really clear to Karl why he needed to change his approach, I pulled a lot of anecdotes of things I’d seen. I worked hard not to personalize but instead use specific stories of times when he’d inadvertently discouraged his team with something he’d done or said. He seemed to get it, but nothing changed. Perhaps he didn’t understand? I started pointing out to him after every meeting what he’d done that was perceived negatively. Then one day, Karl clutched his head and rocked back and forth. “I know, I know. Everybody always thinks I hate them. This has been a problem my whole life, and I don’t know what to do about it!”

I realized Karl had been taking what I’d told him to heart—too much to heart. In fact, I realized that I’d been doing exactly what I was telling him not to do: I’d been very negative, and I’d discouraged him without meaning to. I hadn’t realized it because he was so… well… quiet. I changed my approach totally.

First, I said that all my feedback to him was going to be centered around one thing: positive target identification. When skiing through the trees, it’s important to look for the way through the trees. If you focus too much on any particular tree, you’re more likely to crash into it than if you focused on where you wanted to go. I reminded him that I loved working with him and that everyone who worked closely with him felt the same way. It was a matter of translating that to the broader team. And from here on out, I was going to be very specific about what he was doing well when it was working. I wasn’t going to even mention when it wasn’t working. He was profoundly skeptical of my approach but, trying to be positive, agreed to give it a try.

Next, I spent some time trying to understand why I enjoyed working with him so much. He was a great problem solver. I could bring him my hardest problems, and the harder the problem, the more energized he seemed to be to fix it. He was also totally focused on getting the best answer for the team—I’d never seen him exhibit a trace of political behavior. He also loved it when his team proved him wrong because he was interested in getting to the right answer, not in being right. I pointed these things out to him, and we talked about the fact that the more closely people worked with him, the more clearly they appreciated him for these reasons.

The next time I watched him give a talk, I realized he was describing the difficulties that lay ahead in great, gory detail. As he described these difficulties, I could see he was getting more and more energized—and losing his audience. Mission Impossible might seem exciting to him, but to his team, it sounded just impossible.

“You are a problem-solver!” I told Karl. “The harder the problem, the more interesting from your perspective. When you talked to the team about how you were going to solve the problem, and how you were going to help them, you had them. When you talked to them about why it mattered, they were excited to work on it. Try doing more of those things and less of why it’s a hard problem.”

“I can do that,” he said.

It wasn’t a silver bullet, of course. But over time, he got better and better. Over the course of a couple of years, he improved to the point that his boss remarked, “Wow, you have really connected with your team better than any other VP I know. What’s your secret?”

There’s no one formula for being radically candid with introverts or extroverts. The key is to take the time to understand how your feedback is landing. Don’t make the mistake I made with Karl. I assumed that because nothing was changing, he wasn’t listening, so I kept challenging him harder and harder. Instead, what I should have done was to attend to the “care personally” axis, and focus more on the “personally” part.

Of course, it’s hard to know how what you’re saying is landing, especially when you’re talking to an introvert who thinks greatly before they speak, like many introverts are wont to do. One thing that can help you gauge your feedback is to explain the Radical Candor framework above and then simply ask the person to point to the quadrant where your feedback has landed for them.

Giving feedback is hard, but it is the atomic building block of management and, indeed, of most relationships. Understanding when you’re pulling your punches or punching too hard is key. Once you know how what you’re saying is landing for the other person, you will probably course-correct automatically.

For more on radical candor, check out Kim Malone Scott‘s forthcoming book Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.

Radical Candor cover