Is It Ever Okay For Bosses To Use "Stupid" When Giving Feedback?
When is it ok to give tough feedback?
Giving constructive negative feedback to your employees can get tricky. How do you find the balance between honesty and tact? Or should tact even be an issue? When can you be blunt and use the word “stupid”?
At First Round Capital’s CEO Summit, professional business coach and Kim Scott shared a way to give constructive negative feedback effectively.
When Scott was a new employee at Google, she had just given a presentation to the founders and the CEO. The presentation went well, and she was feeling pretty good about herself.
After the presentation, Scott’s boss, Sheryl Sandberg, told her what she liked about the presentation, then added: “But you say ‘um’ a lot.” Sandberg suggested that Google could hire a speech coach to help Scott.
Scott didn’t think that it was a big deal, and brushed her boss’s suggestions off. Then, Sandberg said: “When you say ‘um’ every third word, it makes you sound stupid.”
That got Scott’s attention.
Scott knows now that Sandberg’s bluntness was exactly what she needed. “If she hadn’t said it just that way, I would’ve kept blowing her off,” she says. Scott eventually saw the speaking coach, and got rid of her pesky um’s.
Being blunt doesn’t always work: How to give constructive negative feedback
Bosses don’t have to choose between being tough and caring. You can be both. In fact, being both is the ideal. This is what Scott calls “radical candor”.
Radical candor is the skill to give negative feedback effectively. To help visualize it, Scott created this graph:
The vertical axis = The “give a damn” axis.
The reason why Sandberg could tell Scott that she sounded “stupid” was because Scott knew that her boss actually cared about her. Sandberg had encouraged Scott to take time off for family matters, and showed her that she was invested in Scott not only as a professional, but also as a person.
“Caring personally makes it much easier to do the next thing you have to do as a good boss, which is being willing to piss people off.”
If you don’t care about your employees and all you do is give them negative feedback, you’ll only demoralize them. (See: the Obnoxious Aggression quadrant.)
And if you don’t care about your employees and you don’t challenge them directly, you’ll not only come across as disingenuous, you won’t get things done. (See: the Manipulative Insincerity quadrant)
The horizontal axis: The “willing to piss people off” axis
Once you’re a boss, you have to be able to tell your employees when they need to shape up. This is where things get difficult — giving positive feedback is easy, but giving negative feedback is often uncomfortable.
But if you’re a leader, you have to give clear directions. What’s going right? What isn’t?
“I would argue that criticizing your employees when they screw up is not just your job, it’s actually your moral obligation,” Scott says.
If you don’t challenge your employees directly, even though you care about them, you’re putting their careers in jeopardy by not fostering their growth.
What does radical candor actually look like in practice?
Scott created an acronym to help people remember: HHIPP. Radical candor is:
H – Humble
H – Helpful
I – Immediate
P – In person (in private if it’s criticism, in public if it’s praise)
P – Doesn’t personalize (“My boss didn’t say, ‘You’re stupid.’ She said, ‘You sounded stupid when you said um.’ There’s a big difference between the two.”)
Scott says that bosses should focus on guidance: to give, receive, and encourage it. While the word “feedback” makes most of us reel, guidance is something we all want.
Once bosses foster an atmosphere of radical candor, workplaces can be more transparent, productive, and harmonious.
What do you think of Scott’s advice on giving constructive negative feedback?
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