DILEMMA: Providing criticism to senior executives can be a daunting undertaking. How do you practice Radical Candor with executives, especially if you know they haven’t been receptive to criticism in the past?
We received this question from one of our readers:
How do you solve the problem of senior executives who tend to shut down and adopt an Obnoxious Aggressive position when faced with criticism?
I’ve found that the Obnoxious Aggressive ones are often challenged internally by feelings of embarrassment and/or shame. Over the course of their career they have been incredibly successful. And then they finally meet a situation that forces them into a place of realizing they have little or no skills and experience to solve an interpersonal management problem. All too often they bury the problem, and then they bury the fact that they have buried the problem making it really hard to bring to the surface without a total nuclear blow up.
What can make this harder is if there is a corporate culture of behaviors designed to avoid shame and embarrassment. These behaviors take the form of policies or actions which prevent individuals, groups, and organizations from experiencing embarrassment or threat. Moreover, as I mentioned above, these defensive routines are “self-sealing.” Because if an action that helps to reduce embarrassment is made public, it would be ineffective. Therefore, it must also be hidden.
For an individual executive do you just put on your body armor and just do it? Or do you have another way? When it’s systemically a part of the corporate culture, what then?
This is a GREAT question, and a hard one. Here are my thoughts.
Step 1: Tread with caution
Somebody recently tweeted at me “Tried Radical Candor with my boss. Got fired.” I offered to help the person get a new job, but he had already found one, happily. But when I say it’s not just your job but your moral obligation to offer Radical Candor, I’m speaking to people who are the boss, or who are in a position of authority. When it comes to being Radically Candid with your boss, it’s OK to proceed with a little more caution.
Step 2: Build a culture of self-criticism on your team, with your direct reports
It’s a lot easier to lead by example than it is to change other people’s behavior. Here are some specific things you can do to achieve this:
- Criticize yourself publicly.
I once bought a 3 foot tall “you were right, I was wrong” statue and gave it to somebody each week. If that’s too corny for you, find some other way to show people when you know you’re wrong and that you appreciate being told so.
- Explain to your team why you are criticizing yourself.
To help explain why being open to one’s own mistakes is so vital for long-term success, one of the executives at Apple whom I worked with bought a copy of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset for all 3,000 people on his team. Maybe do the same for your team?
- Make it easier and safer for the people on your team to admit to mistakes.
I have used a simple technique, “Whoops the Monkey,” to do this. Basically, I just bought a stuffed monkey and put it in front of me at every all-hands meeting. I asked people to nominate themselves for “Whoops.” In exchange for confessing to some mistake, they would be granted instant forgiveness and help prevent others on the team from making the same mistake. I would always come prepared with my own story. And for the first few weeks I had to put $20 on Whoops’s head to get others to share their stories. It wasn’t really that they wanted the money, but the cash gave them “plausible deniability” for playing along. Tom Tunguz, who was on the AdSense team I led, wrote a post describing why he felt this technique was effective.
Step 3: Describe what you’re doing to your boss and to your peers
Show the executive why being open to criticism works better than shutting it down. In an environment that is culturally unaccepting of criticism, people will probably think you’re crazy when you criticize yourself publicly, so be prepared.
- Tell some stories that show leaders who admit it when they are wrong are STRONGER than those who don’t. Too many execs fail to see how petty bullying makes them look ridiculous. Somehow, they think they are supposed to shut down criticism instead of being open to it. Take some of the stories out of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. Or, take a look at Steve Jobs’s reaction to antennagate. You could argue that the song at the beginning was maybe a little Obnoxiously Aggressive or defensive, but it was just so funny I’ll give it a pass. But, when he starts talking, the first thing he says is “We’re not perfect.” Another example is CEO James Burke’s handling of the Tylenol poisonings.
- To demonstrate the benefits of being open to criticism from your own team, come in with some stories of what happened when you started driving a culture of self-criticism on your own team.
And, as you say, keep your body armor on!
I hope this helps. I wish you the very best in your efforts to change the culture and am here any time for follow-up questions. Do let me know how it’s going.