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Use Feedback to Break Biases and Think More Clearly

When I was a child, my family used to have dinner every Sunday night with my grandparents. My grandfather said grace: “Lord, make us grateful for these and all our blessings, and keep us ever mindful of the needs of others.” When I turned twelve, I was sometimes asked to say grace, and I invariably got the second part wrong: “keep us ever needful of the minds of others.”

thinking-fast-slowRecently, I came to see the wisdom of those mixed up words. Bob Vallone, a great engineer who advised us on building our Candor Coach app, studied with two great psychiatrists, Kahneman and Tversky. He advised me to read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This book reminded me how “needful of the minds of others” we really are as a species, and why Radical Candor is so important for productive collaboration. Somebody in the office who will go unnamed is rolling his eyes at yet another academic reference from me, so I’m also reading Michael Lewis’s new book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds which is about Kahneman’s relationship with Tversky, one of science’s great partnerships.

Thinking Fast and Slow

Kahneman explains that there are two very different mental systems in our minds–the fast-thinking system and the slow-thinking system. The fast-thinking system knows just by glancing at somebody if they’re about to hit you–and prompts you to move out of harm’s way. The slow-thinking system multiplies 17×24. The slow-thinking system also, we imagine, makes calculated, conscious decisions about how we behave and why.

However, our slow, conscious thinking system is hijacked far more often than we imagine by the fast-thinking system. We couldn’t survive without our fast-thinking system, so we can’t reject it out of hand. But it can be problematic because the fast system is also the source of bias and errors of judgment that we’d never make if we just stopped and thought for a moment. Because it’s so much faster and more energetic, it often overrides our slow-thinking system. Since our slow-thinking system is the seat of conscious thought and decision-making, it’s uncomfortable to realize how often it’s hijacked by the faster system with all its bias and poor judgment.

According to Kahneman, when the fast system is in operation in our minds, it’s virtually impossible for the slow, conscious system to kick in without outside intervention. So when our fast system prompts us to do or say something out of line with what our slow system would do, we need other people to see our mistake and bring it to our attention.

As Kahneman says, “It is much easier, as well as more enjoyable to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own. Questioning what we believe and want is difficult at the best of times, and especially difficult when we most need to do it, but we can benefit from the informed opinions of others.”

We Need Feedback

In other words, we ARE ever needful of the minds of others. We need other people to challenge our fast thinking, so that we can pause and give our slow thinking system a chance to catch up. It’s almost impossible to be self aware enough to interrupt our own biases. We need others for that. Gender or racial or political biases need interrupting. But there are also a whole host of less charged, still pernicious biases that need interrupting, too. Of course, we need people to challenge our slow thinking as well, but let’s focus in on fast thinking for this post.



One example Kahneman uses in his book is this: you meet Joan at a party and find her personable. Then, somebody asks you if she should be asked to donate to a charity. “Yes!” you say. “Joan is generous.” Of course you know exactly nothing about whether Joan is or isn’t generous, or whether Joan would support the cause in question. But the fast-thinking system groups positive attributes together in the absence of information. So now, having found Joan personable, you believe Joan is generous, and that she agrees with your cause. This is called the halo effect.

Breaking Out of Fast Thinking at Work

Let’s say that Jack and Jill just met a new employee, Andy. Andy made a good first impression on Jill with a funny analysis of a baseball game the night before. Jack asks whether they should put Andy on a creative project that requires writing and acting skills. “Sure! He’d be great!” says Jill. Like all of us, Jill is subject to the halo bias. She meets Andy, likes him, finds him funny, and thinks he must be creative and theatrical as well. Of course this is ridiculous, but we all make that kind of “halo effect” mistake. If Jack doesn’t challenge Jill by asking, “How do you know he’d be great?” she’s not likely to be aware of the halo bias. And Andy, who may very well be very analytical and suffer from terrible stage fright, could get put on the wrong project.

Of course, the bias can go the other way as well. If the first time you met Joan she had just taken a flight that messed with her ears so she couldn’t really hear what you said or connect personally with you, you might decide she is not personable. When somebody asks if you think she should be asked to donate to the charity, you might say, “No, don’t bother.” For all you know, she’s a multimillionaire with a passion for your cause. And you have no idea that an ear issue meant she couldn’t hear a word you said. All it would take to avoid this is a friend or a colleague who challenged you a little, who asked, “Why not?” And if you gave a lame answer, and that colleague said, “That’s not convincing, let’s learn more,” you’d be glad.

Feedback Can Make You Aware When You’re Answering a Different, Easier Question (AKA, the Wrong Question)

Another good example of how the biases of our fast-thinking system leads us astray is what Kahneman calls “Answering an easier question.” He says, “If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, our fast thinking system will find a related question that is easier and will answer it.”

For example, Kahneman found that when people were asked “This woman is running in the primaries. How far will she go in politics?” they tended instead to answer the easier question, “Does this person look like a political winner?” They substituted one easier to answer question for another.

It’s easy to see how this kind of bias plays out in interviewing. Answering the question, “Would Tom be a good engineer on this project?” is hard. So the fast-thinking system will try to answer an easier question instead: “Do I like Tom?” Now, if you hate Tom’s guts you probably shouldn’t hire him. But just because you like Tom doesn’t mean you should hire him…

This bias can also play out in questions like, “Should we enter the Lithuanian market or the Macedonian market first?” All too often the fast-thinking brain serves up, say, a memory of a great vacation in Macedonia and that sways your thinking, even though it should be irrelevant. If a colleague has been hearing about that great vacation for years and can joke, “You are just in favor of Macedonia because of that vacation you took there back in 1984!” it can not only create a light moment in the meeting, it can snap your slow-thinking system into high gear.

A simple question that Kahneman proposes we ask each other to challenge biased system one thinking is, “Do we still remember the question we are trying to answer? Or have we substituted an easier one?”



Challenge Directly to Interrupt Biases

I’ll share a real example of bias that my co-founder Russ Laraway interrupted for me by challenging my thinking. When I was sixteen I got invited to hear a general give a lecture. I’m not sure what he really said, but my self-righteous sixteen year-old memories consist of a bunch of numberless graphs explaining that we needed to build more nuclear weapons because the Soviets could destroy the world four times over, so we needed to be able to do it five times over. Ridiculous, right? Thus a peacenik was born. Over the course of the next couple of decades an anti-military bias solidified in my thinking without my awareness. And it expanded. And expanded.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and I’m in a little, over-heated room at Wharton interviewing Russ for a job at Google. I had a bad cold and had taken too much Benadryl the night before. I was in no mood to have my prejudices challenged. When I glanced at Russ’s resume just before he walked in the room and saw he was an ex-Marine, I wondered why I was even talking to him. All I wanted to do was to curl up in a ball in the corner of the room and go to sleep. Instead, I was talking to this guy who was clearly not a fit for Google. Google=entrepreneurial. Marines=command and control. Right?

I listened to Russ politely for about 30 seconds, and then, hoping to cut the interview short for a cat nap, I suggested that he was not a good cultural fit. I was pretty Obnoxiously Aggressive. (Blame it on Benadryl!) But Russ took no offense. He described my biased view of the military perfectly. “That’s probably what you imagine, right?” I had to admit it was so. Then he described in vivid detail what it was really like–the chaos of combat, and how he had to deal with ambiguity, take initiative, and rapidly and flexibly assess context and take action to change it. In about four minutes, he convinced me that I didn’t even know the half of what it meant to be entrepreneurial, and that I had a lot to learn from him.


When we are making a mistake we’d rather not make, almost nobody is self-aware enough in the moment to see it. If we are open to the people around us giving us a heads up, and if they are willing to hold up a mirror, life gets much better. This is why giving, getting, and encouraging feedback at work helps us do the best work of our lives, become our best selves, and form the best relationships of our careers.

Video: How Does Gender Impact Radical Candor?

We often encourage people towards Radical Candor with the phrase “Just say it!” It sounds so easy, so why don’t more people already do it?

Sometimes, the reason is gender. Boys are taught never to hit a girl, and this translates into male bosses tending to withhold criticism or to be overly gentle with women. Women are more likely to be seen as Obnoxiously Aggressive when they are Radically Candid, so they refrain from just saying it in order to not be called a bitch.

Watch this video of Kim discussing gender and Radical Candor (and some ways to overcome the challenges) at Betterworks Goal Summit 2016:

Read more about how gender plays out with Radical Candor.

Why emails with the salutation “Gentlemen” drive me ape shit (admittedly, a disproportionate response)

The other day I asked a guy I work with what his team thought of an idea I had. It turned out that everybody liked my idea, and so X forwarded me the thread to let me know I was free to proceed with it. However, when I got his email I forgot all about the idea because of the first, seemingly innocuous word:

On Wed, Apr 13, 2016 at 10:07 AM, X <> wrote:


Kim has proposed…

I knew if I didn’t tell him, X would keep using the word, and, without being aware of it, hitting a tripwire in my brain. But I didn’t look forward to the conversation because it’s hard to explain a tripwire in my brain without seeming to overreact. Besides, we are busy. Did it really matter so much? Given that our company is called Candor, I figured I better walk the walk.

On the one hand, I wasn’t criticizing X. X is precise in his communication and thoughtful to a fault. His note was sent to two guys.  There were no women on the thread; I wasn’t even cc’d, he just forwarded it to me later. Neither I nor any other woman was being excluded in any way, shape or form. I know that when X started his email with the word “Gentlemen”, he was just being slightly ironic, and certainly didn’t mean anybody any harm.

On the other hand, if we are going to work well together, I needed to explain to X why the word bugs me so much. Clear communication gets measured at the listener’s ear, not the speaker’s mouth. This was an example where there was nothing wrong with what was coming out of X’s mouth, but something odd was happening at my ear, and I needed to find a way to explain it to him.

coffee_picSince the issue was mine and not his, I didn’t want to interrupt his work to raise it. I waited till he got up from his desk to make a cup of coffee, and I followed him into the kitchen. Here’s what I told him while we were waiting for the hot water to boil. (It takes a lot longer to write it than it did to say it.)

First, I quoted a wise man, who once explained to me that there are a few words that you just shouldn’t use because these are the words that make communication almost impossible. Now, most of these words are so obviously offensive X didn’t even want to utter them out loud. “But gentlemen?” he asked, puzzled and skeptical, but also curious.

The first tripwire that the word Gentlemen hit is the horse that’s just too tough to beat to death: women in tech. Not just our whole engineering team, but everyone at our company, except me, is male. Of course we’re only 5 people. But just the other day, a friend whose new startup is currently 8 people, bragged to me that his company is 50/50. I sort of shrugged his comment off. I’m the CEO and I’m a woman; our Board Chair is a woman; several of our investors are women.

“Isn’t that enough?”, I asked my friend. “Does it really matter if the rest of the company is male?”

My friend’s advice to me: “Yes! Fix it now, not later! Once you have a critical mass of great women, it builds on itself. If you start with no women, you’re in a vicious cycle recruiting-wise. It’s way easier to get it right from the beginning than it ever will be again.”

There I was, a woman getting advice from a man about gender diversity — and a good, much-needed reminder, too! My friend is right. I need to fix it now, not later. On it!

The fact that I am the only woman at the company I founded is, while slightly horrifying, not really the reason the word bugs me, though. I am totally confident that Candor is going to be a great place for both women and men to work. Give us a couple months and we’ll get the gender balance right. The real tripwire gets set off because of personal associations with the word much deeper than the “women in tech” issue. Here are some stories that explain the associations I have with the word “gentlemen.”

When I was working in Russia, I was doing a deal with a group of businessmen who were neither Americans nor Russians — we were all strangers in a strange land. These men clearly weren’t used to working with women, so (I thought) I had to work extra hard to earn their respect. What did it, ultimately, was the fact that I could drink them under the table despite being half (literally) their weight. I am of Irish extraction, was raised in the South, and trained to drink in Russia so I came by the dubious skill honestly. But something odd happened along the way: I became a man to them. They gave me a titty calendar for Christmas, and genuinely seemed to think I’d like it. I just threw it away and tried to see the humor in the situation. Then they invited me to go with them to a ‘Gentleman’s Club.’ I didn’t quite understand that we were going to a strip club until we arrived. Now, I was in a ridiculous situation. Again, I tried to see the humor in the situation.

But, if I were honest with myself, it wasn’t funny at all, it was was upsetting at a gut, visceral level. To explain why, I recalled my first experience with a ‘Gentleman’s Club,’ when I was twelve. I went to an all-girls school in the South, where as far as I knew, there were two career options: housewife or teacher. Both of these are noble choices, but one didn’t pay at all and the other paid really poorly. When my mother made the switch from housewife to teacher, the whole family begged her to quit. It cost more than her whole salary to hire somebody to do all the work she’d done when she’d “not worked.” So we all had to pitch in. I wish I could say that I was a hard-working child who didn’t mind doing chores but, like most kids, I did mind. I hated doing my own laundry. I liked it when my mom had done it for me. I wanted her to start doing it again.

It came to a head when we went on a family vacation to New Orleans. We were strolling down Bourbon Street and my father noticed that I was peering into the open door of a ‘Gentleman’s Club.’

“See that woman?” My father said, pointing to  a naked woman hanging on a pole. How could I miss her? In a fit of Radical Candor about the wicked ways of the world, or perhaps just a couple of milk punches into the afternoon, my father explained to me, “She makes more money in one night than your mother does in a whole year!”

Staring through the door of the strip joint, I saw with a twelve year-old’s clear vision (and also vulnerability) the humiliating things that woman had to do to earn her money. I felt a deep sense of kinship for that woman on the pole — I totally understood why she was there, and I felt acutely what I would feel if I were in fact there. Even if I knew I wouldn’t wind up there, I suddenly felt what it would be like to be her. I identified with her. Knowing I was much more likely to wind up in my mother’s shoes, I also felt a deep sense of kinship for her. She was just as smart and ambitious as my father. Where was her outlet? A moment of panic at the choices yawning before me: Humiliation on the pole with one kind of “gentleman” or financial dependence on a husband, a different kind of gentleman altogether. I knew it wasn’t fair to equate the two, but now they seemed linked in my head. No matter how good or gentle the man, it wasn’t a choice I wanted to make. Suddenly, I understood why my mom didn’t want to do my laundry.  I knew I wouldn’t want to do my daughter’s laundry either. But did I have another option? Was that what was ahead of me? The laundry?

There was a method to my father’s madness. Nothing he could have said would have made me more determined to achieve financial independence. I fired back at him, “Well, I’m going to make a lot more money than you do, Dad!” He grinned and said he hoped I would. But that was all bravado on my part. It wasn’t at all clear to me what a path to financial independence would look like, as it wasn’t a path that had been open to many women in the South in 1978. One of my friends had a mom who’d had gone to law school — and the family had to leave the South for her to get a job.

That’s why, almost twenty years later, standing at the door of the ‘Gentleman’s Club’ in Moscow, old insecurities loomed large. Not just insecurities, but a sense of panic. My heart rate spiked so fast and so unexpectedly that my vision dimmed for a moment. I felt the old kinship with the woman on the pole, and therefore a deep and abiding anger at these men who’d brought me here, thinking they were doing me a favor to include me as one of the guys. I didn’t want to feel that way about these men I was working with. I just wanted to get the damn deal done. Even more than that, though, I didn’t want to be one of the guys! I was a twenty-four year old woman, and what I really wanted to be was out on a date with somebody who cared about me, not doing a deal at a strip club. But I was afraid where that date would lead me: to the laundry. In short, I was a confused, lonely, neurotic mess.

It all worked out. I’ve had a career that has been way more fun and successful than anything I imagined when I was staring into a scary future on Bourbon Street at age 12. I’m married to Andy Scott, my soul mate, the love of my life — and a man who has his own career and does his own laundry. Mine, too, sometimes. We have twins who are seven and fill me with more joy than I thought possible.

But all you have to do to make me feel like that 12 year-old, filled with trepidation about what my future held, or that sad, lonely 24 year-old outside a strip club in Moscow is to start your email with one word: “Gentlemen.”

Gender and Radical Candor

I had such an interesting with the folks at First Round Capital yesterday about gender and Radical Candor. Read the article here, or check out these highlights:

Why gender politics & fear of tears makes Radical Candor harder for men

I was recently talking to a physics professor whose student didn’t know the quadratic equation. (I don’t remember it from high school algebra either, but I’m not majoring in physics.) Stunned, and wondering how she’d gotten this far with such a gaping hole in her knowledge, he told her she needed to learn it, immediately. Furious at the criticism, she slammed him in his rating as a teacher.

This didn’t start out as a gender issue. The initial problem was that this young person, like so many others, was unused to criticism – a phenomenon explored really well in an article from The AtlanticThe Coddling of the American Mind. But other colleagues, many of them well-meaning men trying to be sensitive to gender issues, somehow turned the rift into a gender issue. Telling a student majoring in physics that she needed to learn the quadratic equation became a risky thing for the professor to do.

This situation was bad for the student who didn’t learn what she needed to know to succeed. And it was bad for all the female students this professor taught after her. Understandably, he became more hesitant to criticize the work of his female students than his male students. But to grow in their field, these young women, like their male counterparts, needed his criticism. The situation wasn’t much fun for the professor either. Real teaching – the reason why he’d chosen his profession – became risky.

This scenario illustrates two trends that when taken together are creating a perfect storm in higher education – and blowing through all companies where millennials are working today. One is a trend not to criticize, or even to expose, people to facts that might be perceived as “disturbing” from history or literature or any other field. Combine that with gender politics, and learning takes a real body blow. Will the tone of the current “campus conversation” (or lack thereof) backfire and reduce mentorship and learning for women? I’m focusing on gender in this article, but there are important parallels in race – and anytime relationships cross group boundaries.

The strange case of the quadratic equation is extreme, but milder examples happen every day – not just with college students, but with middle-aged people working at companies that pride themselves on being data-driven.

Recently I was talking to a close male friend who’s an engineering leader about the issue of women in tech. I suggested he ask a woman who works for him – a person whose career he has supported and nurtured for years – what she thought. He looked up at me with real surprise. “I can’t talk to her about that! It’s too fraught,” he said. This from a man who is not just unbiased but truly sensitive to bias and determined to stamp it out. He catches things even I miss. So if he can’t have a Radically Candid conversation about gender issues with a woman who works for him we’ve hit a real low. The problem is not him, nor the woman who works for him. I know them both, and I am pretty sure that the conversation would’ve gone well. But the swirl around this issue has everybody walking on eggshells.

Another male colleague recently got caught in a firestorm by making an important and logical point about gender in the workplace. Phrases he used got taken out of context and blown up in the press and throughout social media. This is another man who’s committed to treating everyone he works with fairly, and regularly throws extra energy into fostering the careers of his female colleagues. But after this kerfluffle, he decided he wasn’t going to talk about gender publicly any more. I couldn’t blame him. But it was another blow to Radical Candor and to civil discourse on an important topic where he was, for my money, on the right side.

We must stop these gender politics….

Why gender bias makes Radical Candor harder for women

Of course, political correctness and a fear of tears are not the only problems. Gender bias is a fact of life, and it’s worth looking at how it pushes women away from Radical Candor, which hurts them, as well as the men they work with. If gender politics makes it difficult for men to be Radically Candid with women, gender bias makes it difficult for women to be Radically Candid with both men and women.

Kieran Snyder, a linguist and co-founder of Textio, applied linguistic analysis to performance reviews, and she found that when women Challenge men or women Directly – which they must do to be successful – they get penalized for being “abrasive.”  To be sure, the abrasive label gets placed on women by other women as well as by men.

Snyder wrote an article about her findings for Fortune, which sparked some of the longest, most impassioned email threads I’ve seen at several companies that I advise. Another story on Snyder’s research was Fast Company’s #1 leadership article of 2014. Why did this article strike such a nerve? Every professional woman I know has many, many stories of being called some version of “abrasive,” or of being disliked for being too aggressive – and of paying the price professionally.

Let’s examine an abstract case, and show why the “abrasive” label holds women back and contributes to fewer female leaders, even in organizations that start out with a 50-50 gender balance. Take Snyder’s example of two colleagues who perform at the same high level:

  • “Jessica is really talented, but I wish she’d be less abrasive. She comes on too strong.”

  • “Steve is smart and great to work with. He needs to learn to be a little more patient, but who doesn’t?”

These comments will translate into performance ratings, and the ratings will affect promotions. Let’s assume that Jessica gets a slightly lower rating than Steve as a result of her so-called “abrasiveness.”  Not such a big deal in a given quarter, perhaps. But a series of lower ratings will eventually cost Jessica a promotion. And even if the ratings aren’t lower, selection for promotion and leadership roles depend on “likeability.”

When this kind of bias plays out over a whole organization, the impact on female leadership is profound. Researchers ran a simulation of what happens to promotions over the course of several years when bias impacts ratings just a little bit. When gender bias accounts for just 5% of the difference in performance ratings, an organization that starts out with 58% of the entry level positions filled by women winds up with only 29% of the leadership positions filled by women.

Of course, that’s only part of the story. Let’s look at what happens to Jessica personally over the course of her career, not just the leadership composition of her company. If she’s early in her career, she’ll probably get promoted eventually despite her alleged “abrasiveness,” but now she’s a year or so “behind” Steve. Fast forward another 5 to 7 years.  Now Steve is two levels ahead of Jessica. Since pay increases steeply with each promotion, he may be getting paid a lot more than Jessica is paid. If Steve and Jessica are married, and they have a child, guess whose career is more important for family income, and who’s more likely to stay home from work when the baby is sick?

But that’s not even the worst-case scenario for Jessica. Let’s imagine that Jessica takes the “abrasive” feedback to heart and quits Challenging Directly. She adjusts her behavior so that she is less effective at work. Instead of being “Radically Candid,” her feedback is always “Ruinously Empathetic” or “Manipulatively Insincere.”  This makes her less effective as a leader. So now, in addition to gender bias, there are real performance issues to contend with. In this case, Jessica is never going to get ahead. Frustrated beyond measure and feeling that she must choose between being liked and being successful, she decides that this is not a game worth playing – and quits.

Some version of this has happened to literally every professional woman I know. We must stop this madness, too.

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