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Ruinous Empathy and Recruiting, A Story

Seven years ago, before launching Femgineer and having Kim Scott on FemgineerTV, I had to make my first sales hire for my second startup, BizeeBee. I had never hired a salesperson before. Most of my hiring experience had been with technical folks such as engineers, designers, and product managers. I just figured it would be the same. Find someone who is capable, comes with good references, and then give them some time to ramp up.

I decided to hire Adam. Adam had requested a pretty steep salary for a startup. I figured he’d end up paying for himself with sales, so I didn’t balk at his salary.

Building a Relationship and Caring Personally

Adam’s first month in, I wanted him to feel like he was part of the team because he was one of two non-technical people on it. I made sure to communicate that I was happy to have him on the team. I didn’t know how to onboard Adam but figured he had enough experience, so he didn’t need me to onboard him. And I made myself available to answer any questions or concerns that came up.

Adam reached out to prospects daily. At the end of the week, he informed me of how things were going. I helped him understand the product and work through customer objections.

By month two, I noticed that Adam hadn’t made any sales. My co-founder and I were starting to get nervous. Adam was the highest paid person on the team, and his salary had almost doubled our burn rate.

My co-founder suggested that I talk to Adam. However, I didn’t want to step on Adam’s toes. I reminded my co-founder that we gave our technical team lots of autonomy and we should do the same with our sales team. I went back to praising Adam and making sure he felt like he was a part of the team.

Realizing the Need for Challenging Directly

Month three crept upon us rather quickly. By then, other people on the team, who weren’t particularly skilled at sales, were closing customers. Meanwhile, Adam hadn’t closed a single customer. Those who had closed sales became more vocal about Adam. They came up to me and expressed their concern, which quickly evolved into frustration.

I wasn’t sure what to do. My co-founder and I had a conversation. We talked about how I could coach Adam.

The next day, I pulled Adam aside. I told him that we weren’t happy with his performance and needed to see more sales within the next month. Adam was shocked because I had been giving him nothing but praise. I realized what I had done. I had been Ruinously Empathetic and held back on giving Adam the feedback that he needed to do his job.

Adam didn’t know those were our expectations. He thought he was doing a good job educating prospects. Given how young the product was he really didn’t think he was capable of closing sales. He told me we needed someone who was much more experienced with selling new products and it wasn’t him. So at the end of our conversation he concluded that it would be best for him to leave.

I felt terrible. Because I hadn’t had this conversation earlier, both Adam and the company had lost valuable time. After Adam left I took some time to reflect on what I had done wrong.

Practicing Radical Candor Means Giving and Receiving Feedback

My first mistake was not taking the time to fully understand what goes into hiring sales people and helping them be effective. I made up for it with my second mistake by not challenging directly. Showering Adam with praise that was unspecific, and thinking that if I was just nice to Adam, everything would work out. The third and final mistake was not listening to the others on my team. I dismissed their early feedback, thinking that they were being too harsh, but they weren’t. They were looking into the best interest of the company and bringing to my attention that I was failing to do my job.

After the experience, I took the time to educate myself on what it takes to hire and train sales people. I also let my team know that I appreciated them for having the courage to practice Radical Candor, to Challenge me Directly while showing that they Cared Personally. Had they not spoken up, I would have just kept going. I made sure that they knew going forward I’d do a better job of listening when they gave me feedback, and even do better with asking for their Radical Candor.

Withholding feedback that can help someone do their job better because we’re afraid of their reaction is an act of Ruinous Empathy. In the end, we set them up for failure.

We also have to learn to listen to feedback that is directed towards us, even if we don’t initially agree with it or understand it. Otherwise, we set a bad precedent that our behavior is right and theirs is wrong.

When was the last time you failed to Challenge Directly because you were trying to be nice? How did others around you take it? And what did you do to course correct it?

Let us know in the comments below!

Video: A Ruinous Empathy Story

Kim shares a story about a time that she describes as the worst moment of her career. She learns a hard lesson after being Ruinously Empathetic with one of her employees for a period of several months. Although she Cares Personally and tries to be “nice,” her lack of Direct Challenges causes issues for her, for the employee, and for her whole team.

Watch her story:

 

Listen to episode 4 of the Radical Candor podcast to hear Kim and Russ discuss this story and provide tips for avoiding Ruinous Empathy.

Have you found yourself in a position like this one? We’d love to hear your story! Reach out in the comments below or on Facebook.

Video: A Ruinous Empathy Story

Have you ever held back from saying what you really thought at work because you didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings? Have you seen something that needed improvement but didn’t tell the person, figuring they would realize and fix it on their own?

If you said yes to either of these questions, you may be exhibiting Ruinous Empathy. But don’t despair! So many of us have made these mistakes. We care about the people we work with, and we don’t want to hurt their feelings. Sometimes we aren’t sure our perspective is right, and we don’t want to be arrogant or tell people what to do. So rest assured that you’re not alone. Here’s a story from Candor trainer Joe Dunn about a time when he behaved with Ruinous Empathy.

 

If you’ve noticed that you sometimes do this, you’re on the right track! Knowing is half the battle. Next, read our advice for stopping your Ruinous Empathy when you know you’re being “too nice.”

Video: A Ruinous Empathy Story

Stephanie Usry cared personally about her co-worker — she was one of her best friends! Because of this, Stephanie found herself in a tricky situation. She was so focused on showing that she Cared Personally that she missed the opportunity to help her friend by giving a Direct Challenge.

Her story is a reminder why it’s important to Challenge Directly, especially when you care about someone. Watch the video of her story to find out what happened.

 

More stories about Ruinous Empathy

 

Video: A Ruinous Empathy Story

Many of us struggle with Ruinous Empathy. We want to build and maintain relationships with people, so we don’t want to say things that upset them. But if you focus too much on caring personally and don’t offer directly challenges when you see something that isn’t right, it can lead to far worse outcomes.

Reading and listening to stories about Ruinous Empathy will help you understand that others have the same struggles that you have. Hearing how these situations turned out will hopefully help inspire you to Challenge more Directly!

This story from Candor, Inc. co-founder Russ Laraway describes a time when he withheld a direct challenge.

 

Find out what happened next in the continuation of the story!

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

Video Tip: Move away from Ruinous Empathy

Do you think your feedback is often Ruinously Empathetic? If so, you’re not alone. In our experience, most feedback mistakes fall in the Ruinous Empathy quadrant. People tend to back down from their Direct Challenge because they want to be “nice.” But don’t despair, we’ve got advice for moving away from Ruinous Empathy and towards Radical Candor.

Listen to a story and a simple piece of advice in this video of Kim answering an audience question at Slack HQ earlier this year:

 

There’s a point that Kim makes at the end of this clip that we want to reiterate. She clarifies that “Just say it” is advice for those who exhibit Ruinously Empathetic tendencies. For those who fall in Obnoxious Aggression, this isn’t the right reminder — they are already saying it, and they need to focus more on showing that they Care Personally. But the reason we summarize our message as “Just say it” so frequently, including in our recent Radical Candor video, is that most people are more likely to behave with Ruinous Empathy than Obnoxious Aggression. However, not everyone is, which is why we introduce the Radical Candor 2×2 framework with two axes. Challenge Directly AND Care Personally. We hope that even though we simplify our message in some situations, you won’t lose sight of the spirit of Radical Candor. Radical Candor ≠ Front-stabbing.

But… all that said, you’re most likely behaving with Ruinous Empathy and not at risk of front-stabbing :)

For more detailed tactical tips than what’s covered in this short video, read our full post about how to stop behaving with Ruinous Empathy and our post about how to give Radically Candid feedback.

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.

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