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Tips to Avoid Obnoxiously Aggressive Criticism

If you think you’ve given criticism that was Obnoxiously Aggressive, check out these tips for moving towards Radical Candor!

Criticize kindly

This doesn’t mean sugar coating. It means seeing your criticism as an act of kindness, meant to help the person improve. If others have rated your criticism as Obnoxiously Aggressive, you’re not showing that you Care Personally. Try to pause for just a moment and imagine the face of somebody you really care about. Bring the kindness you’d show that person to this conversation.

State your intentions

Try to offer a story about a time when you made a similar mistake, and show how somebody’s criticism helped you. Offer your criticism as a gift intended to help the person improve. Help them see it’s not a punishment intended to humiliate.

Criticize HUMBLY, expecting to be challenged and sometimes proven wrong

You want to offer CANDOR (“Here’s what I think, what do you think?”) not the TRUTH (“Here’s what I know, you don’t know shit from shinola!”)

Criticize IMMEDIATELY to keep it quick and light

Don’t save up criticism and then pile on a person in a 1:1 or a performance review. Small, quick course corrections are kinder and easier to take than a pile-on well after the fact.

Don’t hide from emotion

Often people avoid giving feedback in person because they are afraid of confronting the other person’s emotions. That’s a big mistake. Reacting to emotion with compassion is a good way to move up on the “Care Personally” axis.

Don’t “front-stab!”

To show you care personally, criticize IN PRIVATE, praise in public. It’s fine to debate or disagree in public, but when you are criticizing a person’s work or behavior, do it privately.

Don’t criticize personality

Don’t say “You’re wrong!” Instead say, “That’s wrong.” For bonus humble points, say, “I think that’s wrong, and here’s my rationale for why: [data point 1, fact 2, theory 3]”

Tips to Avoid Manipulatively Insincere Criticism

If you think you’ve given criticism that was Manipulatively Insincere, check out these tips for moving towards Radical Candor!

Criticize kindly and clearly

Just say what you really think. It’s not mean if it’s clear enough. If others have rated your criticism as Manipulatively Insincere, you’re not showing you care or challenging them directly enough. It’s hard to break free from the “if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all” advice that was pounded into your head since you learned to talk. But now it’s not just your job to say it — it’s your moral obligation.

Don’t triangulate

If you have criticism for somebody, it’s helpful to tell the person directly, but really unhelpful to talk about the problem with others.

People almost always know what you think even if you don’t say it

When you are thinking one thing and saying another, it’s not kind, it’s confusing, and it erodes trust.

Unspoken criticism doesn’t age well

It sours over time. Remember that ex who’d bring up small things you did wrong six months ago? You don’t want to be THAT person.

Just say it, in person

It can feel risky to tell somebody what you think right to their face. But, saying in person “I think this is screwed up, and here are some ideas for how to fix it” is FAR safer than saying nothing and thinking, “you’re screwed up.” Be humble (“I think”) and focus on specifics, not attributes (“this,” not “you”), and be ready with ideas to help. Then, it’s not so risky.

Don’t “back-stab!”

Criticizing a person behind their back is much the same thing as using a bullhorn and doing it publicly, only worse. It’ll get back to them, and it will earn you the reputation for back-stabbing.

Focus on specifics not attributes

When people screw up, it doesn’t mean they are morons. It just means they screwed up. But when you think, “What a moron,” you are falling prey to the fundamental attribution error. If you are very clear about what went wrong, you’re more likely to be able to verbalize what’s bothering you in a way that is kind.

Praise And Manipulative Insincerity

Praise & Manipulative Insincerity

Manipulatively Insincere praise is given not because it is genuine, but for another motive or agenda.

Here’s a story about how realizing you have been Obnoxiously Aggressive can lead to a worse place, Manipulative Insincerity — a not uncommon path.

A couple months after joining Google, Kim had a disagreement with Larry Page about his approach to an AdSense policy and wrote an openly critical and arrogant email (watch the video here).

Kim still didn’t understand why her assessment of Larry’s new policy was wrong. But she let fear drive her behavior. The next time she saw Larry, she stopped him and apologized, then offered him some praise that she didn’t really mean: she said she knew he was right (even though she didn’t). Apologizing was reasonable, but insincerity was exactly the wrong move. Larry had a finely tuned BS meter, and Kim isn’t a very good liar. He glared at her. A colleague standing nearby smiled in sympathetic solidarity as Larry walked away and muttered, “He likes it better when you disagree with him.”

Fear drove Kim to say something she didn’t really believe, in the hopes of gaining approval. Just remember that being under pressure can make anyone act like a jerk. And when one is called out for being a jerk, it’s an all too natural instinct to become less genuine and more political — to move from Obnoxious Aggression to a worse place, Manipulative Insincerity.

More about this story and others is included in “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” published by St. Martin’s Press. Learn more

Praise And Ruinous Empathy

Praise & Ruinous Empathy

Praise can be Ruinously Empathetic when bosses try to be “nice” and get things wrong. Below are a few cautionary tales of how trying to make a person feel good without taking the time to understand the details of their work to challenge them appropriately can go astray.

Wrong assessment

Perhaps the most famous example of praise gone wrong was when Bush said on national television to the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during Hurricane Katrina: “Heck of a job, Brownie!” What was so horrible about that? Brown was under enormous stress, and Bush was trying to be a supportive boss.

Problem was, FEMA was doing a disastrous job, and everybody knew it. Still, wasn’t Bush right to be supportive in the midst of a crisis? No! By publicly praising a person who was failing, Bush inadvertently highlighted what a terrible job Brown was doing and made him a laughing stock. Just because you’re the boss – or even the President of the United States – doesn’t mean that anyone will believe your assertion that somebody is doing a good job when in fact they are not. And your assertion will make you look either ignorant or soft-headed.

A boss’s job is not to win popularity contests. A boss’s job is to point out to people as clearly and with as many specifics as possible when they are doing a bad job, AND when they are really doing a good job. It’s generally a good idea to point out the good things in public and the bad things in private. But telling somebody in public they are doing a good job when in fact they are doing a bad job is far worse than just saying nothing at all.

The key is to avoid pat phrases like “good job,” or other things you’d say to your dog, and to be specific.

Wrong Thing

Another point to keep in mind for praise is to make sure to remark on something of substance.

A friend worked extremely hard on some analysis for the CEO of his company, and the only thing that got praised was the formatting of the presentation. No amount of criticism of his ideas could have been as discouraging as the flip praise of something he thought was unimportant.

When giving praise, it’s important to praise what is in fact best and most important. Be specific about what’s most relevant.

Wrong Person

One boss tells a cautionary tale about a time he praised the wrong person right after a major launch. The team was working all night, and very late he bumped into an engineer, “Anatoly,” and asked him about a particular feature. Anatoly answered his question, and told him about several important aspects of the feature. A couple days later, when celebrating the launch, this boss, wanting to praise Anatoly, congratulated him on his excellent work on the feature. But Anatoly hadn’t worked on that feature. All the engineers who had worked on it now thought Anatoly had claimed credit for something he hadn’t worked on. Chagrined, Anatoly sent an email out to the whole company, explaining that he hadn’t worked on it and listing the people who had. The boss realized that, trying to make Anatoly happy, he’d accidentally thrown him under the bus by not being deep enough in the details when he gave praise.

In short, when giving praise, take just as long to get your facts straight when giving praise as you would when criticizing. Be specific.

More about this story and others is included in “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” published by St. Martin’s Press. Learn more

Tips to Avoid Ruinously Empathetic Criticism

If you think you’ve given criticism that was Ruinously Empathetic, check out these tips for moving towards Radical Candor!

Criticize clearly

Don’t try to spare people’s feelings by leaving out the details — that is not nice, it’s just unclear. If others have rated your criticism as Ruinously Empathetic, you’re not Challenging Directly enough. Try clearly explaining what you think directly to them.

Just say it!

When you don’t say it, you rob the person of a chance to fix what’s wrong, or to push back and convince you that actually YOU are wrong. Not saying it is unclear and unhelpful.

Criticism is not arrogant

When you challenge somebody, you expect them to challenge you back. When you say, I think that’s wrong, you give them a chance to prove to you that it’s actually right. If somebody disagrees with your criticism, it’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

Criticism has a short half life

Just say it right away. The longer you wait, the less clear you are because you remember fewer details about what actually happened.

Criticize IN PERSON

Don’t hide behind email or chat to avoid negative emotions. If somebody gets upset and starts to cry, it’s hard but it’s not the end of the world. Neither of you is water-soluble. If the person yells, it won’t kill you; if the person gets defensive, the fact you’ve already proven that you care will help you get through.

Criticize in private, debate in public

You would never criticize a person in public, and that’s a good thing. But you probably could do a little more disagreeing and debating in public.

Remember that telling people when something is wrong is not a personal attack

In fact, not telling somebody when they have spinach in their teeth is actually like saying: “You are not even capable of removing spinach from your teeth, so I won’t bother telling you it’s there.” When you are clear about something that is wrong, it is a gift, an act of kindness.

Praise & Obnoxious Aggression

Praise can be Obnoxiously Aggressive when it is given without any care for the recipient. Belittling compliments are one of the best examples of this.

Below is a perfect example: an email that a boss at a legendary Silicon Valley company sent out to his team of about 600 people, 76 of whom had just gotten bonuses. It sort of screams, “I’ll praise you if it gets more work out of you but I really couldn’t care less how you feel.” The names & email addresses have been changed, but the text, grammar errors and all, is word for word what was actually sent out.

From: John Doe
Date: Tue, Oct 27 at 9:53 AM
Subject: Spot Bonus Winners!
To: giantteam@corpx.com

Dear Giant Team,
In Q3 there was a number of you that really excelled and went above and beyond the rest of us to deliver significant impact to Corpx. These team members and their accomplishments have been recognized with the Q3 spot bonus attributed by the Management Team. I want to take this opportunity to share who these extraordinary people are and provide you an overview of their accomplishments in the list below.

–John

John Doe
Vice President, Giant Team
Worldwide

  • 33rd Name: Level 5 seller, he drove the highest QTD revenue of any seller: $7.5M in Q3. His comp at $70k base and OTE of $116k is 50% below market; retention risk.
  • 39th Name: she has done all of the dirty work in getting XYZ off the ground with endless spreadsheets, updates, legal calls, security calls, financial modeling, fallback matrices and has done a great job (well above her level 3 status)
  • 72nd Name: Exceptional effort in the past 4+ months. Additional responsibility covering John Doe.

Imagine how Person 33 felt when he saw his salary had been sent out to 600 people, along with the fact he was being paid half of what he should have been and was probably looking for other jobs! Just think how motivating it must have been for Person 39 to learn that she did all the “dirty work.” It probably wasn’t any consolation to learn she did such a great job that she was considered to be “well above her level 3 status.” At least there was some comedy in the fact that Person 72 had to be given a bonus for “covering John.” In other words, John Doe was such a jerk the company had to pay people a bonus if they worked closely with him.

This was Obnoxiously Aggressive. John Doe was plenty specific about what had gone well, but he had clearly gathered this information by asking all the managers who worked for him to send him a justification for the bonus. He cared so little about the people he was praising that he didn’t even bother to edit (or ask an assistant or an HR partner to edit) the justifications. He just copy-pasted them and fired off this email.

More about this story and others is included in “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” published by St. Martin’s Press. Learn more

Tips for Radically Candid Criticism

Giving criticism is hard! Check out these tips for offering Radical Candor:

About CriticismRadically Candid criticism is kind and clear

Easy to say, hard to do. Being kind means caring about what’s best for the person long term, not just what feels easiest right now. Being clear means leaving no room for interpretation about what you really think — while also being open to the possibility that your opinion is wrong.

Be helpful

When you are really clear about what’s wrong and why, you help the person fix the problem. Offer criticism in a spirit of helpfulness, even if you don’t have actual help to offer.

Be humble

Your ego is in check; you are always open to learning that what you think is dead wrong. You’re not just open to being wrong, you’re happy to be proven wrong. What you care about is helping others do the best work of their careers, and getting to the best answer.

Give criticism immediately

If somebody makes a mistake, you tell them right away. That’s more kind because pointing it out right away gives the person an opportunity to fix it faster, and it’s more clear because the details are fresh.

Deliver criticism in person

Remember, Radical Candor gets measured at the listener’s ear, not the talker’s mouth. Since 90% of communication is non verbal, it’s really hard to know if your criticism is Radically Candid — or not — if you can’t see how it lands. The only way to know if you’ve been kind and clear is to see how the other person is reacting.

Give criticism in private

Debates can happen in public, but if you’re criticizing a person, it’s much kinder to do it in private. It will also be more clear, because private criticism is much less likely to trigger a person’s defense mechanisms.

It’s not about personality

It’s saying, “I don’t think that’s true,” rather than, “You’re a liar!” People can’t alter their personality, so saying things like “You’re a jerk” or “You are sloppy” is neither kind nor helpful. And it’s almost always a flawed analysis of the situation.

Praise & Radical Candor

Radically Candid praise acknowledges the good work that someone has done and challenges them to do even better.

Kim learned that praise can be Radically Candid from Sergey Brin, Google co-founder, one day in front of the Executive Management Group (“EMG”). Google’s “EMG” spent hours every day listening to presentations — some new ideas, some updates on old ideas, some requests for additional resources — from various teams.

Kim was presenting details about how the size of the business was continuing to grow at a staggering rate, and she was hoping for extremely positive reactions.

Instead, Sergey commented, “That’s pretty good, but have you thought of…” and had a great idea for a couple of things Kim’s team could do that would help their customers make a lot more money with AdSense. Kim quickly got over her need for praise because she was excited about Sergey’s idea.

Sergey was giving praise that was Radically Candid. He was challenging Kim to do even better, which is the highest praise there is. “What you did is great, but I believe you can make it even better” is a more productive way to praise somebody than just saying, “You are a genius!” Saying “you are a genius” would be to make the same fundamental attribution error that saying “you are a moron” would make. If you say, “you’re a genius” when the business is going well, what does that make the person when the results are bad (which they inevitably will be, from time to time)? It makes the person a moron. It’s important to remember to praise the work, not the person’s intelligence.

The best way to show people you Care Personally and Challenge them Directly at the same time is to praise them in a way that inspires them to do the best work of their careers.

More about this story and others is included in “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” published by St. Martin’s Press. Learn more

Tips to Avoid Manipulatively Insincere Praise

If you think you’ve given praise that was Manipulatively Insincere, check out these tips for moving towards Radical Candor!

Praise specifically and sincerely

The more vague your praise is the less genuine it feels. If somebody has rated your praise as Manipulatively Insincere, you’re not showing you care or challenging them directly enough. Try saying “I like the way you ___” It’s hard to be non-specific after that opening. And when you’re precise about something you admire and why, your sincerity will shine through. If you try to sound sincere without the specifics, you’re likely to sound fake.

The more specific you are, the more helpful your praise is

Your praise is helpful because you’ve explained exactly what’s good and why; also, your sincerity shows through naturally.

It’s arrogant to think that people don’t sense what you really think

Offering praise that you don’t really mean will backfire. Try being more aware of the discrepancy between what you are saying and what you are thinking, and figuring out a productive way to say what you are really thinking.

Nobody likes a “shit sandwich”

Offer praise right away and only when something has genuinely impressed you; don’t save it up and then use it just to soften the blow of criticism.

Praise in person so you can notice if the person seems skeptical that you mean it

If so, offer more specific details about what was good and why it matters, and your sincerity will show through naturally.

Make sure your private statements don’t contradict what you say in public

Any discrepancies will come back to bite you!

Flattery will get you nowhere

Telling somebody “you are a genius,” is problematic for the same reason saying “you are a moron” is: it personalizes. Besides, people see through it.

Criticism & Ruinous Empathy

When bosses care too much about hurting their employees’ feelings, they will avoid giving criticism. Eventually, it becomes too late to fix this Ruinously Empathetic situation.

Here’s an example:

Bob joined Kim’s team at Juice with glowing references, an amazing career at two of the world’s greatest technology companies, and a quirky, charming personality.

There was just one problem: Bob’s work was terrible. After a few weeks of working diligently, he finally made a presentation that was essentially a “jargon salad.” His slides were riddled with sloppy mistakes — whole sections were cut and pasted, and he hadn’t even bothered to make the fonts consistent.

Kim didn’t say a word to him after he showed it to her because she was so mad she was afraid she might say something “mean”. So she procrastinated. For ten months. It got so bad that several of her best employees said they’d quit if Kim didn’t fire Bob.

Kim scheduled a meeting, took a deep breath and told him, as gently as she could, that she was firing him. She was so gentle as to be incoherent. Bob sensed something was wrong, but mostly looked puzzled. He reassured Kim he was going to buckle down and work harder, how he would focus on making fewer sloppy mistakes.

“No, no, you don’t understand. It’s too late to fix,” Kim said.

He reassured her that he loved Juice, that he had never seen a product he was more excited about, that he was committed to our collective success. Kim was trying to fire him, but there he was talking about love and commitment. She felt terrible.

To try to make things clear, Kim described not only what was wrong with Bob’s projects, but how his bad results had caused the whole team to lose faith in him. She explained that his poor work had cost the company months, and that now they would have to raise more money from VCs, diluting everyone’s stock and bringing them one big step closer to failure.

Again, he didn’t seem to understand. He was busy sketching out on a napkin an aggressive plan to address his many delayed projects.
Kim realized she was going to have to be much, much more direct. “Bob, today is your last day. I am firing you.”
He shoved his chair back from the table with a screech that made everyone look up from their steaming mugs.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” The question rolled around in my head slowly and heavily, with no good answer. “Why didn’t anyone tell me what I was doing wrong?”

He was right. Part of a boss’s job is to give guidance. Kim’s silence had hurt Bob much worse than any criticism could have. Even if Kim had been too upset at the time to phrase it artfully, if she’d told him what she really thought of his first presentation, he would have had two options. Either he could have fixed the problem and kept his job, or he could have moved on to a job that was a better fit. Instead, he’d wasted ten months of his career in a job where he was slowly failing. Also, by letting his poor performance slide for so long, Kim had hurt Juice’s odds of success and been unfair to everyone on the team who was doing truly amazing work. Kim thought her silence made her “nice,” but in reality her empathy made her a ruinously bad boss.

Kim realized that she always needed to Challenge Directly the people who worked for her, no matter how much it stung. It was her job, her moral obligation even.

More about this story and others is included in “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” published by St. Martin’s Press. Learn more

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