skip to Main Content

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 Helpful

Radically Candid criticism is helpful. When you are really clear about what’s wrong and why, you help the person fix the problem. But you may hesitate to give your criticism when you don’t have actual help to offer or when you’re worried that you might be wrong. Kim shares tips for overcoming these concerns and giving helpful criticism.

Watch the video:

 

Read more tips for giving helpful feedback or revisit our video with tips for offering helpful praise.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Tips to Avoid Ruinously Empathetic Praise

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

Praise Specifically

Just saying “good job” is not helpful, and saying, “you are great” can actually be counterproductive. If somebody has rated your praise as Ruinously Empathetic, you’re not challenging them enough. Try being specific enough to show how to build on the success.

Your job is not to be a cheerleader

It’s to offer praise that shows exactly what was great to help people know what to do more of. Focus on what specifically you admired about the work, not on trying to make people “feel good.” Don’t say, “You did great, you should feel happy!” Instead, say, “Your idea increased efficiency 45% by eliminating the grunt work we all hated to do. Your idea not only improved profits, it made our jobs more interesting. Here’s how to build on it.”

The more specific you can be about what you admire and why, the less likely your praise is to sound patronizing.

Vague praise like “good job” can sound arrogant. Stating “good job” implies you think you are the arbiter of what’s good and what’s not. Try saying “I admire the way you ___” Owning your opinions and explaining specifically why you think what you think demonstrates humility.

You won’t forget the details if you praise right away

The faster you praise something great after you see it, the easier it is to be specific enough for the praise to have real meaning.

Praise in person so you can notice if the person is brushing it off as meaningless

If so, get more specific. Usually, the praise will have more meaning. Sometimes, you’ll learn that you’re praising the wrong thing or the wrong person…

When praising publicly, the goal is both recognition AND learning

Be specific about what the person did, the impact, and the context so that the whole team learns. Don’t say, “Sal did a great job.” Instead say, “Sal came up with the idea for X and then got budget for it. As a result, you are all 85% more efficient. That means less grunt work and more time for cool projects for everyone. Thank you Sal!”

For the same reason you wouldn’t say, “You’re a dumbass!” don’t say, “You’re a genius!”

Instead be specific about what was good, why, and how to build on it. The reward for good work is more good work, not a pat on the shoulder.

Tips to Avoid Obnoxiously Aggressive Praise

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

Praise Sincerely

Focus on the good stuff — but if you don’t mean it, don’t say it! If somebody has rated your praise as Obnoxiously Aggressive, you’re not showing that you really do Care Personally. When you see something you genuinely like, just say it!

Praise helps people turn great work into insanely great work

You’re not “babying people’s egos” when you praise them, you’re helping them and everyone else know what’s good, why, and how to do more of it.

You don’t have to eat humble pie to show you’re not arrogant

Just focus on the good stuff. When you see work you admire, speak up with the same energy you’d have when you see work that’s not good enough. When you admire other people’s work, they see that you know you don’t have all the answers.

Just say it!

When you see something great, the key is to point it out right away. It’s more clear that you are genuinely impressed when you say something right away. Look for moments in the day when something impresses you, and give those moments a voice. The 30 seconds you invest will help people look forward to what you have to say.

Praise in person so you can notice if the other person is surprised

If so, you’re not giving enough praise.

Praise in every public forum available

Praise in big meetings, in front of your boss, in front of the whole team. Follow up in email and reply-all! Write notes. They don’t always have to come from you. Make sure your boss knows about your team’s accomplishments, and notes them. Don’t dismiss recognition as babying egos; you’re doing it to help everyone learn. And the more you praise, the more open people are to your criticism.

Trying to soften criticism by starting with praise about personality just sounds insincere

Starting any sentence with phrases like, “I know you are a genius, but…” is not likely to be effective.

Back To Top