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Manipulative Insincerity

Feedback, the Law, and Mandated Manipulative Insincerity

I spend a lot of time these days showing people how to put the Radical Candor framework of “Care Personally + Challenge Directly” into practice by providing frequent feedback, and how to use the framework as a way to guide difficult conversations to avoid falling into Ruinous Empathy, Obnoxious Aggression, or Manipulative InsincerityWhen it comes to difficult conversations, some of the most difficult are around gender.  I have found that gender politics and fear of tears pushes men away from being as radically candid with women as they are with other men. This is bad for men, women, and the truth.

Gender bias also pushes women away from being radically candid, which is bad for women, men, and the truth. I have, unfortunately, all too much experience with sexual harassment in the workplace, and with gender bias in general. So much experience I’m writing my next book on it! I also have a lot of experience with cross-cultural communication challenges and how things can easily get “Lost in Translation.”

Manipulative Insincerity

Bill Murray sings karaoke in Japan in the movie “Lost In Translation.”

A few decades ago I was working in Russia. My alarm clock didn’t go off, I overslept, and was a little late for an early morning meeting. I rushed in a few minutes after it had begun, and apologized.

“I’m sorry. I overslept,” I said. At least that is what I thought I had said. I was speaking in Russian, and I could see from the amused looks on everyone’s face that was not what I had said at all.

One man explained, “Prospat is how you say oversleep.”

“What did what I say actually mean?” I asked, curious.

“Well, it sort of implies…” the man coughed and was silent.

Somebody else helped him out, “You said you were late because you were having sex over and over again this morning.”

We all burst out laughing and moved on. I never made that mistake again. More awkward than telling someone they had spinach in your teeth, but really not that big a deal.

It’s hard to imagine this simple exchange happening today. And yet now more than ever it’s important we find a way to give each other this kind of feedback, even when it’s awkward.

So I recently got this note from “John”:

In the ‘small world’ category, I met a friend yesterday and they told me that they’d been in a meeting recently where you presented.

You’ll get an email soon from him to address a language culture difference in your presentation that is very rude in the UK, but not at all in North America.

He is modeling Radical Candor, as he is one of the most caring leaders I’ve ever known…so he will be sharing out of care!”

Naturally I was curious and more than a little nervous about what I had said. I wondered if it was my salty language. I sent the people who’d organized the talk a note asking if it had been a problem. No, they hadn’t heard any complaints. I wrote to “John” to ask what I’d said. He told me that the guy who wanted to give me feedback on my feedback presentation (very meta!) had to run the email through two layers of approval. What??? I now felt a sense of despair. How could this company build a culture of feedback if they had to run any feedback through several layers of approval before talking to someone?

Manipulative InsincerityA few weeks later, I still hadn’t heard anything. Evidently compliance had put the kibosh on the idea of telling me what I’d done wrong in the presentation they’d paid me to give on how to tell people when they are making mistakes.

The irony was painful. And by now I was dying to know what I’d said wrong. So I scheduled a phone call with John to ask him. He said he couldn’t quite remember what it was I’d said. I told him I wouldn’t be able to rest until I knew. He promised to ask his friend, who was from the UK (not where the talk was held.)

A couple days later I got the answer:

Checked back with my friend. You used the phrase ‘blowing someone off.’

In UK English, that is ‘brushing someone off,’ roots being brushed off the shoulder of your jacket, etc.

‘Blowing someone off’ means…umm…it is…umm…fellatious 😉.”

DOH! I knew exactly when and how I’d used the term. I’d been describing the various reactions one gets when giving feedback. Sometimes, people will be grateful. Sometimes they’ll be sad, other times they’ll be mad — but most often they’ll “blow you off.” Er. Brush you off. Then you have to work more hard to be clear.

I learned a couple of important things from this exchange. First, an important nuance about British English vs. American English. Especially since feedback is measured at the listener’s ears, not the speaker’s mouth, this was really helpful for me to learn! But I also learned how poorly feedback, the law, and sex mix these days. It became really clear to me why the person who had seen my presentation didn’t just come up to me afterwards and tell me what I’d done wrong. Even the layers of approval, which I’d been dismissing as ludicrous — dare I say, brushing them off — made a little more sense.

Manipulative Insincerity

In today’s climate, the use of sexually-charged language at work (like what I said, unknowingly, in my presentation) feels dangerous. So both the man who saw my talk on Radical Candor and the company that paid me to give it preferred to be “Manipulatively Insincere” with me when I made an embarrassing mistake. They didn’t tell me, leaving me to repeat it with other audiences. On the Radical Candor scale, this behavior falls under Low “Care Personally,” low “Challenge Directly.”

In this case, this behavior is also self-protective and totally understandable. Given the state of the law around these things, I’d call it a case of Mandated Manipulative Insincerity. Of course I would not sue them for discussing this topic with me. But how could they know that? This is all the more reason why it’s so important that we give Radically Candid feedback (instead of falling into  Ruinous Empathy, Obnoxious Aggression, or Manipulative Insincerity) to help others avoid future mistakes, like the kind I made!

And this is why I’m writing this post, even though it feels risky. Because I think it’s a risk worth taking to make the point that we have to help each other out so we don’t continue saying, or doing, inappropriate things. Especially when we aren’t aware it’s inappropriate. How can we make it safer for people to have these conversations? I can imagine only too well the nightmare scenarios the people from HR compliance have not only imagined but actually lived through. So I don’t blame them for stopping feedback in its tracks.

But if we let our worst experiences dictate how we communicate in ordinary circumstances and fall into Mandated Manipulative Insincerity, we will basically quit talking to each other. Let’s not let this happen …

Work Martyr Compete

Keeping it Real

The good news is that the term “Radical Candor” has entered the lexicon. The bad news is that there’s a risk it becomes a meaningless buzzword.

We need your help to fight this. Please let us know which ideas in the book or the podcast you have rolled out with your team. What’s working? What’s not? If you’re willing, we will feature your stories in our blog and email newsletter. If you want it kept confidential, we will honor that and still use what you’ve learned to help others.

Radical Candor on HBO’s Silicon Valley

One of the most amusing but simultaneously painful examples of Radical Candor as meaningless buzzword was the way it was recently featured on the HBO show Silicon Valley (Season 5/Episode 3).

The real moment of Radical Candor on the show came when Jared told Richard, his boss, “If you’re really going to start working with Ben, at least give Dana [Ben’s current boss] the common courtesy of telling him the truth about what you are doing. Because if you don’t tell him, you’re the dog.” But that didn’t get called out as Radical Candor.

Silicon Valley Radical Candor

HBO’s Silicon Valley “Radical Candor”

The Asshole's Journey

“In the spirit of Radical Candor…”

Instead, COO wannabe Ben claims he’s being Radically Candid when actually he’s just acting like a garden variety jerk, kicking down and kissing up. I call this the Asshole’s Journey from Obnoxious Aggression to Manipulative Insincerity. Now I’m being obnoxiously aggressive towards Ben but since he’s a fictional character it’s legitimately instructive :).

This was funny, but it was also painful because I’ve seen it happen in real life. I’ve been in a meeting where someone said, “In the spirit of Radical Candor…” and proceeded to be really cruel.

Also, I recently got this email from one of you: “I gave some feedback – with a specific example – to my boss that the way he is addressing the team (in large team settings) is making them fearful to speak up. A harsh/dismissive tone that shuts a conversation down and often embarrasses the team member that spoke up. Many on the team have shared this sentiment with him already. After the director received this feedback, he responded by saying that he’s using radical candor. I feel this is the wrong application of radical candor, specifically finding your quote that ‘Radical Candor is kind and helpful.’”

Unfortunately, this is a pretty common experience, so I’ll share the articles I suggested this person send to the director to explain the difference between Radical Candor and Obnoxious Aggression.

Are you seeing examples of people confusing Obnoxious Aggression with Radical Candor? Let us know, and thanks for Caring (Personally).

Video: A Manipulative Insincerity Story

Manipulative Insincerity is the worst of the quadrants in our Radical Candor 2×2 because you don’t Challenge Directly or show you Care Personally. Unfortunately, when you or those around you behave with Manipulative Insincerity, it’s often reciprocated and difficult to break out of.

We shared a story from Joe Dunn last year about Obnoxious Aggression. Now here’s a continuation of that story, when Joe found himself in a meeting surrounded by Manipulative Insincerity.


Have you experienced something like this? Share your story with us!

Video: Kim’s Manipulative Insincerity Story

Remember that the labels that we use for the Radical Candor framework (Radical Candor, Ruinous Empathy, Obnoxious Aggression, Manipulative Insincerity) are not labels for people. They’re ways to describe specific interactions, to help make Radical Candor easier. By sharing stories that show how these types of behaviors come about, we hope to remind you that we all make mistakes and help you learn from ours.

Last month we shared a story from Kim about Obnoxious Aggression, and as you know if you’ve been following our stories, realizing that you’ve been Obnoxiously Aggressive often leads to Manipulative Insincerity. In this video, Kim tells her story of making this shift:


Have you found yourself in a similar situation? We’d love to hear your stories!

Video: A Journey to Manipulative Insincerity

We’ve shared a couple of stories from Russ, telling about a time he was Ruinously Empathetic with his feedback, and then how he shifted to Obnoxious Aggression. What happened next is a common path; his Obnoxious Aggression led to Manipulative Insincerity. You may remember it from Stephanie Usry’s story a couple of weeks ago.

Watch this video to see Russ’s full journey through each of these areas of the Radical Candor 2×2:


It’s easy to see how we could all experience similar situations and fail to Care Personally or Challenge Directly. Can you relate? Remembering stories like this can help spur you to Challenge Directly and show you Care Personally in these types of situations in the future.

Share your stories with us, too!

Video: From Obnoxious Aggression to Manipulative Insincerity

Most of us don’t consider ourselves to be jerks or rude people. So if we discover that we’ve been Obnoxiously Aggressive, we’re chagrined! Unfortunately, the natural tendency then is to back off the Direct Challenge. Obnoxious Aggression turns into Manipulative Insincerity.

In our latest video, Candor Trainer Stephanie Usry tells her stories about following this journey.


Next time you find yourself being Obnoxiously Aggressive, remember this story. Instead of backing off your Direct Challenge, push yourself higher on the Care Personally axis. This will help you move in the right direction, towards Radical Candor.

We hope that by sharing stories like Stephanie’s we can help you feel less alone in these challenges and help you avoid making these same mistakes. We’d love to hear your stories, too! Reach out in the comments below, or send us a note.

Fighting Bloviating BS with Radical Candor

Radical Candor can be applied not just in feedback conversations, but in all interactions. Think for example about Radical Candor during meetings, brainstorming, public relations, etc. Each of these types of communications have their own unique challenges related to Radical Candor. For example, here’s a tricky situation sent to us by a reader:

As an entrepreneur, pre-funding, having invested a great deal of life-savings into our young business, putting it all on the line to pursue my dream, I am immersed in three types of conversations in which radical candor is particularly challenging:

1) As I complete my funding presentation and begin to meet potential investors & make a case for why they should support us;

2) Simultaneously, reaching out to potential key members of a senior team, seeking an agreement to come on board when funding is secured;

3) At the same time, continuing to encourage current fans to spread the word about our games and tell others to buy them.

Conventional entrepreneurial wisdom is all about “faking it ’til you make it”, which is really just a euphemism for lying. I’m not talking about outright financial misrepresentations or the like, even though most advice about that is given with a wink and a nudge. It’s more a matter of how you frame things – “selling the dream”.

I am determined to make this triple-bottom line company work without sacrificing moral integrity.

The challenge is, potential investors & potential team-members (I’m talking to industry veterans who have been “around the block”) actually expect entrepreneurs to lie, exaggerate & gild the lily, so, if you start w the truth, you start w a big disadvantage.

How best to deal with that?

And, wrt one’s public face, how to keep fans close & the media happy without pretending one is rolling in profits and fighting off Google & Apple at every turn?

— David Galiel, Founder and CEO, Elbowfish


Thank you for a GREAT question. One of the most depressing things about our world is that, all too often, bloviating BS (as I call what you describe) really does work, even when everyone knows it’s nonsense. As Harry Frankfurt wrote in his fantastic essay On Bullshit,

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves…The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.”

In his effort to provide a “theory” of BS, Frankfurt distinguishes it from a lie. He says the essence of BS is that it is: “unconnected to a concern with the truth.” BS exhibits a kind of mindlessness, a disconnection from reality, that is in many ways even more insidious than a lie.

The problem with BS, according to Frankfurt, is that it:

“offers a description of a certain state of affairs without genuinely submitting to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate representation of reality imposes. [The] fault is not that [it] fails to get things right, but that [it] is not even trying.”

Unfortunately, bloviating BS works especially well in a “hot” market where it’s less likely to get challenged.

Bloviating BS is a particular type of Manipulative Insincerity.


“BS” is way on the wrong end of the “challenge directly” axis. It’s not a just about hiding what one thinks or even actually lying about what one thinks, it’s totally unconcerned with what the best answer might be. In the worst cases it simply ignores objective reality.

The fact it’s “bloviating” both worsens its value on the “challenge directly” axis and means it’s way on the wrong end of the “care personally” axis. The people spouting it are more focused on making themselves look good rather than caring personally about the person/people they’re talking to.

In extreme cases, the bloviator is preying on the emotions of the person/people they’re talking to. Bloviating entrepreneurs, for example, are usually preying on greed and the fear of missing out. At its best, bloviating BS (like all cases of Manipulative Insincerity) is harmless. At its worst, it can be very dangerous.

You don’t need bloviating BS.

The good news is that Radical Candor works better than bloviating BS in the long run, even though the long run can seem a long time coming sometimes.

L.J. Rittenhouse, CEO of Rittenhouse Rankings, is the inventor of Candor Analytics. Her financial linguistic research over the past 15 years shows that companies led by CEOs who ranked highest in Candor, significantly outperformed the market and also those ranked lowest in Candor. Her book Investing Between the Lines (McGraw-Hill 2013) was endorsed by Warren Buffett, and it describes the methodology used to score key words, phrases and concepts and identify positive and negative value indicators. A total Candor score reveals the amount of truth and BS in executive communications. Her research is so solid she’s in discussions to create the first ever Candor Investment Fund. It will find companies with leaders who are more candid, more trustworthy and achieve better overall performance.

It can be scary to try Radical Candor when it feels like you’re swimming in a sea of exaggerated nonsense. However, I’ve found that in hiring some truly amazing people, in raising money from shrewd Venture Capitalists for two start ups, and even once working with Seth MacFarlane in Hollywood, Radical Candor won the day. Here are three tips for navigating:

Call BS

If you suspect the last ten people have claimed a market is $10 billion and you believe it to be $100 million, say so. Announce your intention to play a different game.

Be generous with information

Establish your credibility by sharing information the person you’re speaking to may not know. Use this credibility to focus on facts and a quest for the truth than a big story.

Establish a shared human connection

Don’t prey on the insecurities and weakness of the people you’re meeting with. Show that you understand what they care about, and prove that you care about it too — if you really do. Appeal to their better instincts, and don’t be afraid to show your own.


Hopefully these tips are helpful and inspire you to stick to your instinct for Radical Candor. Readers, if you have additional tips for David, please share them in the comments!

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

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.

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