The Guide To Giving Good (And Bad) Feedback

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giving-and-receiving-feedback
Photo: Pixabay/ Muhammad Hassan

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Kim, you started and taught the course Managing at Apple. And I'm curious, how big was effective feedback in that curriculum or in that course?

Kim Scott: Effective feedback was about a third of that class. Really helping people, and it's funny, we struggled so much just with the word feedback because it makes you want to put your hands on your eyes. And so we thought about it just in simple terms, good news and bad news. And how can you deliver the good news and the bad news to the people on your team in a way that helps them do more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff.

Kruse: And why is that so important? Given the good news of the bad news. Why did you deem, like, “This should be a third of what managers here at Apple are focusing their training on”?

Scott: Frankly, if we could have made the whole class about what I call guidance, about praise and criticism, that's what I would have done. I think that it is the atomic building block of management, of being a good boss. Is being able to tell people when they're headed in the right direction, to help the whole team, not just the individual, but the whole team know what success looks like and feels like. Because it's often not as clear to people as you think. And also just focusing on giving voice to what's going well.

And also letting people know when they're going off the rails. When their work isn't really good enough. And it's hard, because we're taught from a very young age if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all. And voila, now it's your job to say it. And undoing training that's been beaten into your head since you learned to speak, well hopefully not beaten, but has been impressed upon you since you learned to speak, is really hard.

And I think there's another aspect to this which is worth mentioning. Which is you need to start, as a manager, by soliciting that praise and more importantly the criticism. Actually, the praise, the flattery is going to come at you like a thick and dangerous fog. So you're really soliciting criticism. And before you start dishing it out you want to prove that you can take it. And you want to show that you can be self aware. Because I think often a lot of managers think that it's their job to be omniscient. Omniscient, I'm happy to tell you, is not a job requirement. Because nobody would be a good boss if it were.

Kruse: Yeah. And you actually made me feel a little bit better. I was going to ask, for something so important why don't managers give feedback, or more feedback? And for me, I mean, it made me feel uncomfortable. But I feel guilty that I didn't just naturally lead with giving feedback. But apparently this is a more common problem.

Scott: Oh, it's a universal problem. It is really hard, because we're social animals and we also tend to learn more from negative experiences than positive experiences. And nine times out of 10 when you offer somebody some criticism, if you mean it well, if you're saying this thing to be helpful to them, if you're saying it in a way that's humble, nine times out of 10 people will react actually with gratitude. One time out of 10, and I don't have data on this, this is rough, but one time out of 10 you'll get tears, you'll get somebody screaming at you. And these experiences are so vivid and so painful to us that we start to optimize for the one time out of 10 experience instead of the nine time out of 10 experience.

And that's why I think our parents tell us as kids if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all. Also because kids are quite naturally totally radically candid. So I think that it is really one of the things that managers struggle with almost more than anything else, is learning to overcome this reticence, this reluctance to tell people what's great and what's not great.

Kruse: And if there's a manager who they've got the professional courage where they're going to give feedback, but they really haven't had any training, any frameworks or models yet, where do they get it wrong? Like when someone's trying to give feedback, how do they end up messing it up?

Scott: Right. So let's focus on how to get it right first, and then I'll explain how to get it wrong. So there are two elements to great feedback. And this is true for both praise and criticism. One is caring personally. You've got to see that other person, especially if the person is a direct report, if the person is sort of a peer who you only rarely interact with it's not as intense a relationship. But if the person is a direct report you really need to care about that person as a human being. Not just as an employee, but as a full-fledged human being. So caring personally is one aspect.

And the other aspect is the willingness to challenge people directly. Which is sometimes going to piss them off. And it's kind of hard to piss off the people who you care about. So caring personally and challenging directly are the two ways to get it right.

So let's boil this down to, I spent two years at business school, one summer at McKenzie, and I learned an important thing in that time. All of life's problems can be boiled down to a good two by two framework. So let's take each dimension in turn and figure out what happens when we get it wrong.

So when you challenge someone directly, but you fail to show that you care personally, and maybe you really do in your heart of hearts care personally, but you haven't showed it. And maybe you don't care personally, maybe you're so mad at the person you don't care about them. But anyway, when you do challenge but you fail for whatever reason to care personally or to show that you care personally, I call that obnoxious aggression. And the vernacular for that is asshole, right? The asshole quadrant.

Now, I don't call it the asshole quadrant because it's very tempting for people, as they build out this framework, to start writing names in boxes. And I beg of you, don't use the radical candor framework that way, because if you do you're going to be judging other people, you're going to be judging yourself. And those kinds of judgments make change difficult. So use the framework as like a compass for conversations. Don't use it as a way to hang labels on other people or to judge yourself. We all occasionally behave like jerks. Or we don't intend to, but someone else interprets our behavior as obnoxious aggression.

And this, I think the fear of obnoxious aggression is what leads most managers astray. Because nobody wants their team to think they're a jerk. So then we back off of our challenge. And so when you do care personally but you fail to challenge directly, I call that ruinous empathy. And that is the mistake that the vast majority of managers make, the vast majority of the time. Is they don't want to hurt somebody's feelings, so they don't tell them something they need to know. And in the worst case, the net result of that, just because you tried to be nice, is that you wind up firing the person. Not so nice after all. For things that they maybe could have fixed if you had been telling them all along. So that's ruinous empathy.

There are also times when we neither care nor challenge. And that I call manipulative insincerity. And that is sort of backstabbing behavior, it's political behavior, it's passive-aggressive behavior. And none of us wants to be that person. But sometimes we wind up there, and often we wind up there when we're overly concerned about our own reputations and not worried enough about the people who work for us. So often part of the reason that you don't want to say something to somebody is not just that you're worried about their feelings, but you're worried that if they burst into tears the whole team is going to think you're a jerk, so then you say nothing. And that leads you down the path of manipulative insincerity.

So those are the three ways that we get feedback wrong. And we all make these, I wrote the book and I still make all three of these mistakes all the time. But I make them less often because I'm more conscious of it and because I'm using this compass to help me move in the right direction.

Kruse: I'm immensely amused at your warning not to put names of people into the quadrants. I just assumed that's how you kicked off your workshops. “All right. Name all the bosses. Which quadrant are they?”

Scott: Yeah, this asshole… It's not helpful because we all do all of this stuff all the … And in fact, there's something to be said for being occasionally in all of the quadrants. Just, if you avoid one quadrant all the time, then you're out of balance. But there's a time and a place, like sometimes you're so busy and you just don't have time to help someone else. And that happens to all of us. Just be clear, say, “Look, I don't have time to help you right now.” It's not that you don't care overall, but like you're in a moment where you just need to focus on your own work. And so maybe you're in the manipulative insincerity quadrant for a brief time, but you're there for a reason and you're explicit and you're going to get out.

Kruse: That's interesting. It's almost like that could be an advanced lesson. Like situational leadership, the SL2 model, which I have mixed feelings about. Because yes, we should adjust our leadership, our coaching, I've now learned our feedback, based on the situation and the person. But what I don't like about the situational leadership model is that it feel so contrived. Like, “Okay, what quadrant am I in? What quadrant are you in? So I will apply this.” It just doesn't seem intuitive to flow. But I can see what you mean, depending on the time we need to adjust where we're at.

Scott: Yeah. I think the other problem with the situational leadership model, and it may not be a problem with the model, but it's just a common misinterpretation of the model is that often people who are applying it end up spending all their time with their lowest performers. And that's a huge mistake. Not because I don't care about the lowest performers, but in the same way that you wouldn't pour more money into the low performing investments, you want to pour more of your time … That's what you've got as a manager, is your time. You want to pour your time into the people where you're going to get, not just you, but the whole team is going to get the biggest return. So I'm not saying ignore your low performers, but certainly don't ignore your high performers.

Kruse: Right, right. And then separate from effective feedback, I'm curious what advice you would give to someone who's going from individual contributor to first time manager. What should someone like that, what should she do in her first 90 days to try to get off to the right start?

Scott: So let's take it 30 days at a time.

Kruse: Great.

Scott: First 30 days, what I would do is I would really focus intensely on soliciting feedback. If you talk to your team in a way that proves to them that you really want to hear it when you're screwing up, you're going to lay the foundations for psychological safety on your team.

So four pieces of advice for your first 30 days. First of all, come up with a go-to question. What's the question that you're going to use to ask people to give you feedback? The question that I like to use, but it needs to be authentic, these need to be words that come out of your mouth. So I'm going to give you three different variations. One of the questions that I like to use is, is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me? Simple question. I was working with Christa Quarles, who's the CEO of Opentable, and she said to me, “I could never imagine those words coming out of my mouth. My question is, tell me why I'm smoking crack?” So that's another way to ask, same thing. And that worked for her and for her team.

Another person I talked to about this was Andy Grove, who was the CEO of Intel for many years. And he said the way he like to ask the question is he would go through a one on one, let the employee go through all their agenda items. And then he would say, “There's one more thing.” And I sort of looked at him and I said, “Did you get that from Steve Jobs?” And he immediately got angry with me, he said, “No. We both got it from Columbo, the detective show.” So there's a lot of places where you can get your go-to question from.

Because if you say to your employees, “Do you have any feedback for me?” I can already tell you what the answer is. “Oh, no.” So you gotta figure out the question that's going to most likely elicit a response.

Kruse: I need to follow up on Grove's comment. So when he would say, “Just one more thing,” it's like after everything else he's just pushing for you to give one more piece of feedback?

Scott: No. So his employees would go through their agenda items.

Kruse: Right.

Scott: So it might be, “I need help with this, I want your thoughts on that project,” or, “I have this management dilemma, I need your advice on that.” So whatever their agenda was, he would go through it. And then he would say, “There's one more thing. What I really need,” and that was like the sign to his employees that this was the most important thing to him. “What I really need from you is for you to tell me when I'm screwing up.” I didn't finish the …

Kruse: No, this is great. I'm a big Andy Grove fan, so that's a really great story. Okay, go ahead, I'm sorry.

Scott: So come up with your go to question. Now, the next thing that you need to do is to embrace the discomfort. And this is counterintuitive. I went through most of my career thinking if I just made people comfortable enough they would tell me the truth about what they really thought. And of course, it turns out the opposite. The only thing that's going to make people comfortable is not to give you any feedback. Especially if you're the boss, they really don't want to tell you.

And so what you need to do is you need to make it more uncomfortable for them to tell you nothing than for them to tell you something. You need to embrace the discomfort. Very simple technique here. After you've asked your question, there's going to be an awkward silence. In which the person is hoping that if they say nothing, you'll jump in and keep talking. Don't do that. After you ask your question, close your mouth and count to six in your head. I only made it to three just there and I could tell you were going to say something, right? Almost nobody can endure six seconds worth of silence. And not one, two, three, four, five, six. Like one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, like that. So do that. The person now, you've dragged this person out on a conversational limb they never wanted to go on.

And now it is your job to not get defensive. So the piece of advice number three for soliciting feedback is don't get defensive. You need to listen with the intent to understand, not to respond. So don't react, don't agree or disagree at first. Say, “Just to make sure I understand, what I hear you saying is,” and then repeat it back. Even if you disagree vehemently with it and you can barely stand to hear the sound of these words coming out of your mouth. Repeat it. Repeat what they told you.

And then if the person says, “Yeah, that's about the long and short of it,” you need to reward the candor. So step number four is rewarding the candor. Now, if you agree with the feedback it's pretty easy to reward the candor. You fix the problem, you tell the whole team that, “So and so told me I was screwing this up. Here's how I fixed it.” And then you're beginning to show the team that when they give you feedback, not only will they not get punished, they'll actually get rewarded. And they're not wasting their breath because you're going to act on what you learned. So that is really important.

Now, it's a little bit harder if you disagree with the feedback. And believe me, you're going to get feedback that you disagree with. So I think in those cases the best way to reward the candor is to take a moment and really think about what was said and find the 5% area of agreement. There's 5% of what was said that you can agree with. So for instance, if you told me, “I hate it that you always wear blue jeans. Would you please wear a dress?” The answer is no. I'm not going to wear a dress. I disagree with your feedback. But what I would say is, “You know, I agree with you that I'm not very stylish. I know that I'm not stylist. Let me think about what I can do or not to address it.” And then the next day or the next couple days when you're sure you're not defensive, what you want to do is just offer a fuller explanation of why you disagree with the feedback and you're not going to do what they want you to do. And you know, at some point you have to listen, challenge, commit. You just have to take a course, you can't have these conversations go on endlessly.

But if you can do those four things in your first 30 days as a manager you're really laying an important groundwork for psychological safety.

Kruse: Wow, that's incredible. And as you could tell, I'm like scribbling a lot of notes on this. This is great stuff.

Scott: So the thing you can do to end that first 30 days is you can introduce a stuffed monkey to your staff meeting. Say, “This is Whoops the monkey. And what I want to do is I want to inaugurate Whoops the monkey by telling you all about a time when I screwed up.” So offer some sort of self-criticism. And that will show people again that you're open to criticism, that you want to hear it, right? That you really want to hear it from them and that you're going to tell them when you screw up. So that's around soliciting feedback.

Your next 30 days, next 30 days focus on praise. Praise we think is easy because we imagine, incorrectly, that praise is how you show you care. It's not. Both praise and criticism should show you care and challenge people directly. One of the people who I worked with at Apple, Karen Sipprell, great leader, used to ask people, “How much time do you spend preparing to criticize?” And you know, people would give some non-trivial amount of time. And then she would ask, “How much time do you spend preparing to praise?” And the answer was usually zero.

And the truth is you can get things just as wrong with praise as with criticism. You could be praising the wrong thing, you could tell somebody you love their font but you missed the fact that they did great analysis. I mean, hopefully, it wouldn't be that stupid of an example. But you can often miss what was really good in the work if you don't look hard. Or you could praise the wrong person. That's embarrassing. So you want to make sure that you spend just as much focus on praise as on criticism.

There's a lot of research done on the right ratio of praise to criticism. You know, is it three to one, is it five to one, is it seven to one, is it the feedback sandwich? Here's the problem with the feedback sandwich. The feedback sandwich, that's where you praise and then criticize and then praise. The feedback sandwich will often come across as insincere because you'll spend all your time thinking about the criticism and then you'll just say, “I love you glasses. I hate your podcast. But I love that microphone.” I love your podcast, by the way. Just giving an example. So you don't really care that I like your glasses, right? So you want to make sure that you're really being sincere when you give praise and that you're spending some time focusing on it.

The other problem with feedback sandwich or trying to manage this stuff by ratio is that you don't realize that you need to adjust your feedback to the person. So there are some people who are very self-critical and if you give them a feedback sandwich they won't hear the praise, they'll only hear the criticism. There are other people, I would put myself in this category, who if you give me the feedback sandwich I'm only going to hear the praise, I'm not going to hear the criticism at all. So you need to remember that all of this feedback stuff is very relationally and culturally relative. You have to adjust your style to the way the person, it gets measured not at your mouth but at their ear. So you've got to adjust the feedback so that it's clear to the other person.

So start practicing on praise. The reason to start practicing on praise is not for the feedback sandwich kind of reasons. But because there's usually more good stuff than bad stuff happening. And I think that often people feel smarter when they're criticizing than when they praise. And that's a mistake. You really want to focus on the good stuff. And you want to take a moment to recognize it, to be self-aware, to be aware of the good stuff, but also relationally aware, to share what you're seeing with the rest of the team. So that's your second 30 days.

Your last 30 days, you can weave in a little bit of criticism, but make sure you're continuing to solicit feedback and give praise. So when you think about really both praise and criticism, there are several, sort of six things you want to think about. You want to think about being humble. Again, the reason why I call it candor and not truth is that if you say, “I'm going to tell you the truth,” it's like you think that you have a pipeline to God and the other person doesn't know poop from shine-ola, right? So, I don't know if I'm allowed to curse.

Kruse: Sure. I won't put it in Forbes, but you can curse.

Scott: Okay. You don't know shit from shine-ola, I've got a pipeline to God. So you want to be humble. You want to be helpful. You want to explain to the person, you want to state your intention. “I want to tell you this because in your shoes I would want to know it. I want to tell you this because I want to help the whole team learn from the triumph that you just did.” So both praise and criticism. Humble, helpful.

You want to do it immediately. You don't want to let it pile up. If you can give feedback in two-minute conversations in between meetings, the feedback will be much more useful to the other person and it'll also save you huge amounts of time. Instead of like keeping a list of stuff and then you lose the list and then two weeks goes by and then it's like you can't quite remember all the context. You'll do a better job and you'll save yourself a lot of time if you can just give both the praise and the criticism in these two minute, quick, in the moment conversations.

You want to it, if at all possible, in person. 90% of communication is nonverbal. And so you won't know if you can't see the other person, if you can't look them in the eye, if you can't see their body language, you won't know whether you need to go up on the care personally dimension because the person is enormously upset and you need to take a moment to address their emotions. Or whether you need to hit them a little harder, whether you need to go further out on the challenge directly dimension. So that's why in person is important. There's a hierarchy of medium. If you're managing a global team, use as much video as possible. And talk more frequently.

You also want to praise in public, criticize in private. It seems obvious but a lot of people forget that. And last but not least, you don't want to make either your praise or your criticism about personality. For the same reason you wouldn't say to somebody, “The problem here is you're a moron.” Just going up to somebody and saying, “You're a genius,” is not helpful either. You want to be specific enough about what happened and what the impact was so that the person knows what to change. It's really almost impossible to change your personality, but there's behaviors and work product that you can change. So situation behavior impact I think is a great model. “In the meeting, when you said, ‘um,' every third word, it made you sound stupid,” is very different than saying, “You're stupid.”

Kruse: Right, right. Or you're a poor communicator or whatever. It's hard to know what to do with that.

Scott: Exactly.

Kruse: So it's in that first 90 days, again, it's building that psychological safety, it's practicing and getting into that rhythm of feedback but starting with the praise. And then starting to weave in the constructive feedback along the way.

Scott: Yes, exactly.

Kruse: Wow. Excellent. You saw that I'm writing a lot of notes. I think I may have more than one Forbes article here. So don't be surprised if it's like you name got triggered again in a Google alert. Anything else you feel like I should have asked about feedback or starting the journey of management in this area?

Scott: I think one of the things that is important to think about, is that it's very easy for people to want to want to be radically candid. But usually, people don't actually want to have these conversations. And then they don't have them. So this is about a fundamental behavior change. And it's easy to read about it and the framework is simple and the stories are easy to understand, but it can be really hard to do it.

So I think one of the other things that if you're a new manager can be really helpful to do, is to find another manager and go through this process with them. Hold each other accountable for, “Yes, I'm actually going to solicit feedback.” And when things go wrong you're going to need to talk to somebody about it. And you're not always going to want to talk to your boss about it. If you have the trusting relationship with your boss that you can, that's the right person to turn to. But if you don't feel comfortable, find a fellow peer manager and talk to them.

Not to be self-serving, but get the book Radical Candor, read it. And say, “What's the one thing I'm going to do?” Don't expect that you're going to change your whole approach to feedback overnight. It's hard. And you've gotta learn how to do it gradually. So find a partner. This is very much a relationship thing. So find somebody who can help you change your behavior.

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Kevin Kruse
NY Times bestselling author, Inc 500 entrepreneur, and keynote speaker on Wholehearted Leadership and Extreme Productivity. Download 'How Millionaires Plan Their Day: A 1-Page Tool' at http://kevinkruse.leadpages.co/1page/