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Radical Candor from a School Principal

One of our podcast listeners, Nadia, wrote in to share this story with us and gave us permission to share with you as well. It’s such a great story about advice that Nadia received years ago, that has stayed with her all this time. We’ve re-written her story here:

When I was in middle school, so about 15 years old, I was chairperson of the Middle School Council. Each week I met with the principal of my school, Adam Heath, to discuss the agenda for the upcoming council meeting. For me, they always felt like meetings that I had to do just to check a box — they didn’t seem that valuable.

One meeting, the principal noticed that I was upset about something and asked me what was bothering me. I was taken aback that he had noticed — in that moment I realized that he really cared about me personally. So I opened up and told him how one boy at school had been calling me Mrs. Bell, as if I were a teacher. This upset me because I already felt alienated from my peers just by being in a leadership position. I didn’t want to be thought of as patronizing or old.

Mr. Heath responded candidly that leaders are often lonely, even the good ones. He also said that I shouldn’t fret about being perceived as a leader — the very fact that I was worried about being patronizing suggested I wouldn’t become so. He said that invariably our worst traits are instead the ones of which we are totally ignorant.

It was a funny kind of praise and advice bound up into one, but I’ve never forgotten it.

Nadia, we love this story. Thank you so much for sharing. Shout out to Nadia’s principal Adam Heath (now teaching in Australia, but was in NZ when Nadia was at school) for giving such impactful and lasting advice!

This praise both showed that he Cared Personally and also Challenged Nadia Directly to continue being a great leader.

Russ says all the time, it’s lonely at the top. Kim says that as a manager you’re often an emotional punching bag for your team. And as we talked about with Dick Costolo in episode 3 of our podcast, it’s a bad idea to lead by trying to be liked. So we agree, it can be a lonely existence as a leader.

We also like the note that when you’re worried about becoming something you are less likely to become that thing. A lot of times we even over-correct!

Do you have stories about Radical Candor in education? Share them with us!

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.

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.

In Person Feedback is Best

Giving feedback in person is one of the tenets of our HIP approach to Radically Candid feedback. Having real, human, in person feedback conversations is important for two reasons:

  1. The clarity of your feedback gets measured not at your mouth, but at the other person’s ear. So if you can’t see the reaction, you won’t really know if the other person understood what you were saying. If you don’t know whether what you said was clear to the other person, you may as well not have said it.
  2. Most of communication is nonverbal. When you see a person’s body language and facial expression, you can adjust how you are delivering the message so they can best hear it. The best way to tell if the other person understands you clearly is to look into their eyes, notice if they are fidgeting, folding their arms, etc.


Why do people avoid in person feedback?

Often, the reason people don’t deliver guidance in person is that it’s awkward. They are trying to avoid seeing the other person’s emotional reaction. They don’t want to deal with tears, yelling, scoffing, or any other negative reaction. This kind of avoidance moves bosses down on the Care Personally axis and lands their behavior in the Obnoxious Aggression or Manipulative Insincerity quadrants. Managers may think they are being “nice,” or moving up on the care personally axis, when they avoid another person’s emotions. But usually they are more concerned with avoiding their own discomfort than the other person’s. If what you are going to say is likely to get an emotional reaction, stand and face the music, don’t lob it in like a grenade.

Don’t hide behind chat, email or other software to avoid
negative emotional reactions to feedback.

You can’t control another person’s emotional reaction, but that doesn’t mean you should try to avoid it. You’ve got to be present for these emotions. You can use them to better understand how your message landed, and to adjust. But don’t let the emotions knock you off your good intention to Challenge Directly.

Deliver praise in person

It’s just as important to give praise in person. It may seem like jotting your recognition down into an email or feedback system will save a lot of time, but it’s hard to make these messages convey your true sincerity. It also takes time to add the specifics needed to make it meaningful. It’s more effective and faster to give your praise in person.

Plus, you need to pay attention to nonverbal communication for praise, too. You might find that the person is surprised, confused, or skeptical about your praise. If you spot these emotions and ask questions, you could learn that you’re not praising the person enough, that you’re praising the wrong thing or the wrong person, or that you aren’t being specific enough with your praise. Learning these details will help you make your feedback more Radically Candid.

It’s not always possible

As important as giving feedback in person is, it’s not always possible. Maybe your team members are remote workers or located in another office. Maybe you or they are traveling to a conference or customer meeting.

Here are some things to consider when giving in person feedback isn’t possible:

Immediate vs. in person

Sometimes being able to give feedback in person is a matter of waiting until you’re in the same place. If the person you have feedback for is in another city and you would have to wait more than a few days to see them in person, opt for immediate feedback rather than in person feedback. But if what you plan to talk about is a big deal, wait to do it in person.

If the person is down the hall and giving feedback in person just means taking a little walk, then get off your butt!

Best alternatives to in person feedback

When you can’t give feedback in person, you have several alternatives to choose from, but try for an option that gives you the closest approximation to face-to-face conversation. A video call is second best, if you have high speed Internet access. If your connection is spotty you can use phone for voice and video as a bonus, muting your computer. With either of these options, you can still see the person and get some nonverbal cues.

If neither of these options is possible, phone is third best. Email and text should be avoided if at all possible. It always feels faster to fire off an email or chat, but I learned the hard way to just pause before I hit send. There are so many times I had to spend hours clearing up a misunderstanding that arose from an email that went awry.

In Person Feedback - Hierarchy of Modes

Build a communication foundation

If you are in a remote office, or if you are managing people in remote offices, it’s really important to have quick daily interactions. Frequent communication, even if not in person and not even with video, will help you become familiar with a person’s tendencies so that you can sense changes. This will allow you to pick up on people’s most subtle emotional cues and will help significantly when it comes time to give feedback and interpret how it is received.

What do you think? Did I miss anything?

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.

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