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Video: Why to Avoid “Don’t Take it Personally”

It’s hard to take general management and feedback advice and visualize how to apply it in real-life situations. Some Radical Candor readers have mentioned to Kim that it would be helpful to see various feedback and management scenarios acted out. So she and Eleanor Scott did this fun improv role play to help with one of Kim’s pieces of advice:

Eliminate the words “Don’t take it personally” from your vocabulary.

Here’s why it’s such a bad idea to say, “Don’t take it personally” when someone gets upset after you’ve given them some critical feedback:

For more tips, check out Chapter 2 of Radical Candor, and read this highly popular article from last year about giving feedback that’s not about personality.

Candor’s “Give Feedback” Playbook

We’ve been so excited about all the engagement we’ve gotten from our podcast listeners. We are getting great, thoughtful questions after each episode, and we know they’re questions that others have as well! So we’ll be sharing some of the advice we’re giving to individual listeners here on the blog.

Here’s a question from Kathryn:

My question relates to how one can challenge directly regarding inflexibility. I have a staff member that really struggles with his daily responsibilities I think due to being inflexible. He appears to not be able to break the habit of black and white thinking, be open to change in process or suggestions on how to be more efficient. Anytime a request is made or even a suggestion for improvement is made there seems to be a wall that goes up or there are a million questions (about a simple task) or he is agreeable but then I receive a super long resistant email. Is it possible to be candid about this behavior in order to assist this individual to achieving his true potential within the organization?

I penned a response to Kathryn and realized we have lots of advice about giving feedback in a few places, and I wanted to bring them together to help Kathryn solve her specific problem. I then realized that this is probably a pretty darn useful “playbook” to help you think about giving feedback.

TLDR for Kathryn: You can and must give this guy the feedback and you really should do it ASAP. This behavior is clearly getting in his way, and the longer you wait to offer him critical feedback, the longer he continues to confound his own success.

And I’ll go one step further: I’ll bet anything that this guy has faced this problem at his other jobs, and I’ll bet previous managers and peers never bothered to give him the feedback – perhaps they’ve been worn down by the behavior, perhaps they’ve feared an adverse response, perhaps they didn’t care. Someone has to help this guy, no matter how painful and difficult it is. Kathryn, you can be the one to end the cycle for him and help get him on the right track for today and for the rest of his career.

This is, in my view, a five-alarm feedback situation.

I think some helpful framing for the feedback and the conversation is the Center for Creative Leadership’s SBI Model. SBI means:

  • Situation: context or a specific situation in which a behavior manifested
  • Behavior: the behavior you are seeing that is not ideal (in this case) or the behavior you are seeing that is leading to success (in the case of praise)
  • Impact: the articulation of the Impact of the behavior

For future reference, we also espouse a derivative of the SBI model that we invented, which is the SWI Model, which is Situation, Work, Impact. It means:

  • Situation: context or a specific situation in which work was performed
  • Work: the specific work product, project, deliverable, performance goal, etc.
  • Impact: the articulation of the impact of the work product or specific performance

In Kathryn’s case, we’re talking about mostly behaviors, so we’ll stick primarily with SBI. A simple, clarifying practice can be to quickly write down the feedback. How this might look in Kathryn’s notebook:

SBI example

Kathryn will of course have to do the hard work of thinking through all of this, but you get the idea. One small execution detail: Kathryn should certainly be armed with a couple examples, but I recommend withholding the examples until after she’s discussed the impact of the behaviors. It’s a nuance, but I think it can be a bit easier for someone to hear the examples in the context of the impact of the behavior.

 

Candor's Give Feedback Playbook

The Playbook

When you’ve got feedback to give, follow these guidelines to give it as kindly and clearly as possible.

1. Write your feedback down

Write down what you want to say – it helps clarify. Also, write down your objectives. Being clear about what you want to happen as a result of the conversation makes it more likely the conversation will be helpful. You don’t need to write a federal case, just enough to clarify your thinking.

2. Practice

Find a peer or an HRBP (Human Resources Business Partner) type and practice actually giving the feedback. We often think we are much clearer in our heads than we are in actuality when we speak. Tell this person “I want you to help me refine and clarify this message.” Recognize that as a human being you are naturally predisposed to the following: the more difficult the message, the less clear you will be. Practicing on someone helps you hold the line and remain clear.

3. Be HHIIPP

Think about these six ways to be kind and clear: helpful, humble, immediate, in person, public praise/private criticism, not about personality. If these ideas of HHIIPP are new to you, it can be useful to just focus on one or two HHIIPP principles at once, until you master them. I think “Humble” is often difficult and important to practice early on.

4. You don’t need to have all the answers

All too often, managers hold off on giving important feedback because they think they need to be “solutions oriented” which gets defined in their heads as “I can’t just bring a problem, I need to bring a solution.” That’s an impossibly high bar. Instead, offer to work with the other person to figure out how to help them improve in this area. In Kathryn’s case, this might mean providing resources to help this person be more open to feedback, like this article about taking feedback well.

5. Carefully assess emotions

You cannot control someone’s emotions, and if they become emotional – angry, crying, defensive… this does ***not*** mean you did something wrong. In Kathryn’s example, there is a decent chance the guy’s brain will move into threat zone given his regular behavior. How you react when someone is emotional is what matters far more than whether they’ve become emotional: Recognize they are not in a “teachable moment” if they are emotional or defensive. If you see this, you have some options.

  1. You can ask simple questions to move the person out of the limbic system/threat zone, such as “tell me how you are feeling right now,” or “how would you like to proceed?” These have the effect of helping someone move out of threat response and into problem solving.
  2. Be prepared to give the person a bottle of water and a :15 minute break (or even a break until the next day) to make sure you can have a discussion.
  3. There is a solid chance the person will only have heard a fraction of what you said, so you will need to check to see that your feedback landed (Gauge your feedback) to make sure you both are seeing this thing similarly.
  4. Be sure to fully understand their perspective, too – this is really what give it “humbly” means.

That’s it for the Give Feedback playbook. Remember – giving feedback – especially critical feedback – is hard, but that doesn’t mean we get to skip it. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet that if you say it in just the right way or just the right time, the other person will magically, certainly be able to hear it well. Use the tips above to get to good outcomes – delivering feedback that is kind and clear in the case of criticism and specific and sincere in the case or praise.

Video Tip: Radically Candid Criticism is Not About Personality

Radically Candid criticism is not about someone’s personality. When you give criticism, it is best to talk about how the work product could be improved, not about (alleged) flaws in the person’s character. Saying things like “You’re a jerk” or “You are sloppy” is neither kind nor helpful. And it’s almost always an imperfect analysis of the situation. So whenever possible, focus your feedback on the work.

Now, this isn’t always possible, and Russ shares some tips for how to approach criticism when it’s about the person’s behavior, rather than the work product.

 

Get more tips in our article on giving feedback that doesn’t focus on personality, and let us know if there are tricky feedback situations that we can help with!

Video Tip: Praise in Public, Criticize in Private

When thinking about how to best deliver feedback, think not only about the manner in which you give it, but also the setting you choose. Radically Candid praise is delivered in public and Radically Candid criticism is delivered in private. When you share specifically what was great and why it was great publicly, not only does it have more meaning for the person being praised, it helps the whole team learn something new. 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.

Russ shares some tips for how to remember to give criticism in private and praise in public.

 

Read our article about scenarios that might call for reconsidering public praise and private criticism.

Video Tip: Radically Candid Criticism is Humble

Radically Candid criticism is humble. When you Challenge Directly, you don’t have to be right. And when you are open to learning that what you think is dead wrong, you show that not only are you willing to Challenge Directly, you are willing to BE challenged directly. This builds trust. Be 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.

Watch this video for more thoughts about approaching criticism with humility:

 

Read more about giving humble feedback.

Video Tip: Radically Candid Criticism is In Person

Radically Candid criticism is delivered in person. Remember, Radical Candor gets measured at the listener’s ear, not the talker’s mouth. Since communication is mostly nonverbal, 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.

Watch the video to get Russ’s tips for giving criticism in person:

Here’s one more tip to keep in mind:

Read more about giving feedback in person.

Video Tip: Radically Candid Criticism is Immediate

Our goal is to help you improve your impromptu feedback. And that word “impromptu” is key. We think it’s extremely important to give feedback immediately, rather than saving it up for a scheduled meeting, or even worse, for an annual performance review. So today’s tip is that Radically Candid criticism is immediate. It’s easier to be specific when the details are fresh and it’s also more kind because it gives the person an opportunity to fix it faster.

In this video, Russ explains why you should give criticism immediately and shares some tips:

 

Read more tips in this article about giving immediate feedback or check out additional video tips.

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.

Don’t Give Feedback about Personality

There is a big difference between Caring Personally and giving praise or criticism about somebody’s personality. The final tip in our HIP approach to feedback is that Radically Candid praise and criticism is not about personality. It’s about the work, not the person.

People can’t alter their personality, so saying things like “You’re a jerk” or “You’re sloppy” is neither kind nor does it provide specifics to make the direct challenge clear. Saying “you’re a genius” when somebody does great work also has an unspoken, dangerous corollary: if the work is bad, “you’re a bloviating buffoon” (or maybe more commonly, “you’re a dummy”). The result of personalizing somebody’s work and calling them either a dummy or a genius is that they quit taking risks, quit learning, and quit growing.

Saying that great feedback doesn’t personalize isn’t the same as saying that it isn’t personal. People care about their work, so they may react emotionally to criticism. You can’t control another person’s emotions, but you can help make criticism easier by not personalizing.

Here are some tips that can help you avoid personalizing your feedback:

Focus on specifics, not attributes

When you give feedback, it’s best to focus on the specifics of the work, not the person’s attributes.

Personalizing feedback clouds both the other person’s thinking and your own. It clouds the other person’s thinking because if the problem actually is that the person is a dummy, then there’s nothing they can do about it. If that isn’t the problem, then they’re unjustly accused.

Name-calling clouds your thinking because when you indulge in it, you are generally falling prey to the fundamental attribution error. This is the tendency for people to use personality attributes to explain someone else’s behavior rather than considering their own behavior or situational factors that were probably the real cause of the behavior. This makes personalized feedback a problem because it’s a) inaccurate and b) renders an otherwise solvable problem unsolvable. It’s usually easy to change one’s own behavior and situational factors, but almost impossible to change core personality attributes.

When people screw up, it doesn’t mean they are morons. It just means they screwed up.

Avoid the fundamental attribution error by focusing on specifics, not attributes. Instead of saying (or thinking) “What a moron,” be very clear about what went wrong. Try the Situation, Behavior, Impact and Left Hand Column techniques from our post about giving humble feedback. Focus on helping the person fix the problem by providing specifics they can act on, rather than criticizing personality traits that they can’t alter.

Beware of your ego

A brilliant man I worked with, who was actually a really good guy, had a reputation for being a complete a-hole. He managed to turn it around by simply rephrasing something he said pretty often. He quit saying, “You’re wrong.” Somebody suggested he say instead, “I think you’re wrong.” That was better because it was humbler, but still didn’t solve the problem. When he started saying, “I think that is wrong,” people started to be more receptive to his criticism — paying him, in fact, to criticize them as an advisor.

All too often an argument over something simple becomes a contest of egos and people start thinking (or saying behind others’ backs) phrases like “You’re a moron” or “You’re an arrogant jerk.” When an argument is about an issue, keep it about the issue. Personalizing unnecessarily will only make it harder to resolve the issue.

Eliminate the phrase “Don’t take it personally” from your vocabulary

When giving feedback, you should expect emotion. Even when you don’t personalize, it’s personal. That’s why you should eliminate the phrase, “Don’t take it personally” from your vocabulary.

emotional-reaction

If I tell Bo there were ten typos in a presentation, and they left a bad impression in the client’s head and contributed to losing a deal, Bo is going to feel BAD, deep down. Bo is probably going to be SAD. Bo may have stayed up all night working on the presentation because it was a last-minute thing and feels MAD to have been put in a position where sloppy work was inevitable. Maybe I worked hard not to personalize the issue when I criticized Bo. Still, if I react to Bo’s emotional response by saying, “It’s not personal,” I’m just being insensitive.

People pour themselves into their work, and when the work is not up to snuff, it sure feels personal. When we advise not to personalize issues, we mean, don’t say to Bo, “You are sloppy,” or even, “You did sloppy work.” But even if you depersonalize the feedback, and offer all the situation-behavior-impact specifics, and say, “when the client saw a presentation with so many little mistakes, they thought we didn’t really want the business,” you need to expect that Bo is going to have an emotional response. It’s futile to say in response to his emotional response, “Don’t take it personally!” Part of your job as a boss (and as a human being) is to deal with emotional responses, not to dismiss them or pretend they’re not there or avoid them.

How not to personalize even when it really IS personal

It’s easier to avoid personalizing feedback when you’re talking about a person’s work. But when you’re talking about something that is more personal, it’s even harder. One guy I worked with was less effective than he would otherwise have been because he just stood too close to people when talking to them. A woman I worked with had terrible body odor, so people didn’t want to work with her. Few things are more personal than personal space or body odor. Saying “you stink” would clearly have been personalizing. But how can you raise the issue? I tried hard to make the conversation about her colleagues’ noses, not her armpits, and I tried not to be prescriptive about the solution. Most deodorants contain aluminium which some studies associate with increased risk of cancer and alzheimer’s. I didn’t want her to feel she had to choose between effectiveness and disease. But I did have to let her know that if she chose to ignore the problem it would make her less effective at work.

You have to find your own way to talk about these things, but describing the impact of the issue is a great way to avoid personalizing. It can also help to go way up on the Care Personally axis and offer the feedback in a spirit of helpfulness.

You can read more about this in Radical Candor. Pages 10-16, Chapter 2, and Chapter 6, especially pp 146-148 are especially relevant.

Do you have tips about not personalizing feedback? Or stories about giving feedback on personal matters? We’d love to hear them!

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