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I’ve come across a few instances of what looks like obnoxiously passive aggressive criticism – and may be manipulative insincerity. What do you think?
For example, an individual had sent out an erroneous calendar invite to a high-profile external party, citing that person’s competitor in the location field of the invite. It damaged the relationship and the reputation of her boss/senior management.
In a team setting, her boss complained about making costly mistakes with enough specificity to know he was referring to this situation, but not enough to mention the person at fault by name. Everyone in the room knew to whom he was referring, and the impact to this individual was probably deep shame. But there was no direct challenge, and left a very weird tension in the room. It’s as if he wanted to make it clear he was upset at this person, but avoided confrontation. Interestingly, this person can also be obnoxiously aggressive.
In Kim’s Radical Candor article on First Round Review, she shared a story where someone “rolled over” from obnoxious aggression to manipulative insincerity. I suspect that someone who is highly emotional and prone to outbursts, but dislikes confrontation, is susceptible to toggling between these two quadrants.
Janet, I’m no expert in gender politics (not even close!), but I interpreted Kim’s article as arguing that men incorrectly attribute feedback given to women as landing poorly due to them being women. In the interaction between the professor and his student, there wasn’t an explicit mention of gender, but it seemed like the professor’s colleagues promoted the idea that the retribution of the student’s negative feedback was driven by her gender-based inability to constructively accept criticism. I agree that the story might benefit from additional detail to clarify this point (if it is, in fact, what Kim intended to convey!).
My takeaway is that men need to be more alert for signs of gender politics in themselves. Women should be on the lookout for gender bias in themselves. We should all strive to challenge either dynamic when we see it present in others. Holding back from being radically candid due to concerns about how the feedback will land with someone due to his or her gender is harmful in a work context. Kim mentions this applies to other group identities such as race.
You are SO SO right about the “cat fight” thing. I once had so many people (mostly men) tell me I was in a “cat fight” with a woman I worked with that I started to think perhaps she hated me. Finally, I decided to just talk to her, and we both realized that we were being spurred on to a major conflict when instead we were having the normal set of disagreements that two cross functional colleagues tend to have, and that fundamentally we really liked each other. It’s important to recognize that dynamic.
Also, I think that men tend to be “harder” on men and women tend to be “harder” on women. It’s easier to criticize somebody who looks like you. And the criticism is usually beneficial to the recipient–even if it stings a bit.
I am going to think more about this and write about it soon. Thank you for asking the question in a way that so clarifies things!
That’s a big question! There probably are gender differences. Males might tend to do one thing when being aggressive, females another. However, I don’t actually have a good way to characterize what those things are. And I’m not so sure that characterizing them would be helpful. After all if males tend to exhibit manipulative behaviors in one way, and females another, “tend to” would mean that it’s sort of a 60-40 thing. That means that 40% of women would exhibit the “male” behavior, and 40% of men would exhibit the “female” behavior. So characterizing something as “male” or “female” would be wrong 40% of the time. Does that make sense?
Are you in fact the Myra Gold I went to high school with?? If so I can state from first hand experience your intensity is delightful!!
Anyway, I know what you mean about being told to dumb it down!! I’ll never forget going into a bar and being told by a friend to lie about the fact I was going to college if I wanted to meet guys. I decided then to buy my own damn beer, and have never looked back :)
My advice? Free for what it’s worth?? Don’t back off your ability to challenge people directly. But do focus on figuring out how to move up on the “care personally” axis. I don’t mean you have to memorize the names of everybody’s family members. But take 30 seconds to see the person you’re talking to and to notice what’s going on with them at that moment. Share what’s going on with you. Don’t just say, “how’s it going?” fine. fine. Really “Check in.” Offer something of yourself up. “I took a run this morning on the beach and I’ve been thinking all day how lucky we are to live here,” or, “I was up half the night with the kids, so please forgive me if I’m slightly incoherent.”
Keep me posted.
I feel your “unjustly accused” pain. I wish WE could meet in person, as I probably can’t give ideal advice on this having never met you.
A few things may help, though. One, try giving more praise than criticism. And be just as incisive with your praise as you are with your criticism. Be really specific, and only say it if you really mean it. LOOK for things to praise. Research shows that giving 3 or 5 or even 7 times as much praise as criticism is ideal. And give the praise as publicly as possible.
Also, start by stating your intention to be helpful. “I want to tell you something, not because I want you to think I’m a jerk, but because I want to be helpful. I now ok?”
I wonder, if your body language is saying the opposite of what your words are saying–which is more reflective of what you really think? Are you familiar with the concept of the “ladder of inference” by Chris Argyris? This might help you. Also, the book by Fred Koffman, Conscious Business, is great. The more you can line up what you really think and what you’re actually saying, the better off you’ll be.
Finally, maybe try an improv class? A class like that is a great way to experiment with body language so that you learn to use it to communicate what you really think versus what you’re not thinking.
Let me know if any of this helps.
Thank you for your insight and honesty in discussing these issues! I was wondering what your thoughts are on common observed frictions between female leaders and their female employees or between female executives. I’ve seen many situations where a credible work debate between two female executives is very quickly branded by male counterparts as a ‘cat fight’ or some kind of an emotional dispute. I’ve also seen situations where the coddling effect described in the Atlantic article on how millennials have too thin skin can manifest in the relationship between a female leader and their female employees. For example, when a female leader is trying to give a candid critique of the female employee’s weaknesses and the areas they need to work on, the employee’s response is that their female boss just doesn’t like them or is authoritarian in how she leads a team. Interestingly, the employee gains more traction when they complain to a male superior characterizing these issues in such a way instead of taking the critique seriously and focusing on their work to gain credibility. I would appreciate your insight and guidance on such issues.
I read your article and I had a thought about it. Have you considered that men and women might behave differently in each quadrant? I don’t dispute gender bias; I just wonder whether men and women act obnoxious aggression, as well as the others, in different manners. Are there no gender differences in communication styles in your experience?
I’m definitely going to look into your framework. I’ve been told that my intensity is “frightening” and that I need to dumb it down in an office setting, and dress more womanly. Not kidding!! That may have more to do with the fact that I am here in botoxed South Florida, but I have found that the typical office environment for a company that does anything but technical delivery is not for me and I do much better as a consultant with a strong group of peers. I don’t think everyone is cut out to manage people, I’m certainly not!!
I’ve spent my life fighting the abrasive label. I do not argue one bit with the fact that my delivery is no good. When I get feedback (instead of people deciding that the two left quadrants are right for them), it’s all about my body language. It’s as if any negativity I might carry is amplified a thousandfold compared to what I feel, and people are used to seeing. I could have a career in theater, my old drama teacher said. When the non-verbal part of the conversation actively works against my message, it seems that any amount of message softening doesn’t work: Praise along with the criticism is seen as insincere, every suggestion sounds like arrogant judgement. I get that kind of thing from people that I have worked with on and off for 15 years! This leads me to have far better results when communicating through text or by phone.
An interesting example of this was how I was hired in my current job. I am told that the feedback from the in person interviewers was that I appeared to be extremely competent, but there were many questions on whether I was easy to work with, due to high abrasiveness. The CEO was busy that day, so I got to talk to him a couple of days later, over the phone. His feedback was that he didn’t notice any of that at all, that, from a personality perspective, that I seemed like an awesome candidate, despite the fact that our conversation did include me providing some constructive feedback about issues the company in general and the hiring process in particular.
So what to do when body language transmits that one is untrustworthy, manipulative and uncaring, no matter what words and day to day actions say?
So glad it helped. Keep me posted!
Wow, Kim, your thoughts and feedback are incredibly helpful. I appreciate you taking the time to share your wisdom and present me with actionable ideas. Thank you! Beth
So sorry to hear about the ostracizing VP. It might help if you tell him that you feel you’ve misstepped with him and ask him for feedback. A question that Fred Koffman taught me was “Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” If you’re right and the problem started when you asked questions/expressed disagreement and he couldn’t take this from a woman but could from a man, then the conversation is not likely to be very satisfying. BUT, that might not be the problem. Don’t assume you know what the problem is without giving him a chance to tell you what he thinks. It would be interesting to hear from his perspective what is going well, what is not going well, and if there’s anything you can do to address it. I’ve encountered a lot of people who feel their authority should never be questioned in public. I don’t agree with that approach. But generally it comes from a place of insecurity. Rather than getting mad, I try to find some compassion and help the person feel more secure. So, when I’m dealing with a person like that I make sure I always disagree/question in private. And before I start disagreeing/questioning I make sure to explain why I’m doing it: because I care and I want to be helpful. Sometimes getting radical candor from others is even more important than giving it to them…This is particularly true if the person happens to be your boss…
Your story about holding back resonates with me. I’m like you — if I have an idea it’s hard for me not to share it. However, I’ve learned over time that part of getting to the best solution is to learn to “give the quiet ones a voice.” There are people in the room with great ideas who are reluctant to share them either because they are too shy or unsure. Also, when you come across as super confident people are reluctant to challenge you. So I’ve learned to propose a solution or aide and then ask, even beg, others to criticize it. Also, when I taught classes, I learned how to body block the person in the room who was talking so much that others didn’t have a chance to participate. I always felt great empathy for the person whom I was body blocking because I had so often been that person. In other words, don’t hold back because others “feel bad” or resent you for your competence. But try to pull the best out of the others in the room because their thinking will improve yours–and vice versa.
One thing to remember is that when you challenge others in a radically candid way, you need to invite a reciprocal challenge. The reason I chose the word “candor” is that it implies more humility than “truth”–here’s what I think what do you think?
The thing is that women are often pushed to a position of false humility. Don’t pretend to be unsure when you are sure. But do show that you are strong enough to be open to another point of view, and that you care enough about every person in the room to want genuinely to hear their point of view.
Does that help??
SO glad you are committed to not over-correcting…It’s tempting because it’s painful. But make sure you’re moving up on the care personally axis in a way that feels strong and authentic, not by ending your statements with a high voice and a question mark, or peppering your emails with emojis.
You are right there is no single objective measure of Radical Candor–you’re always having to adjust between your own culture and that of the company/country where you happen to be and the person you are talking to. That can be tiring; throw in gender bias and it can be exhausting. But it’s not impossible and there are small things you can do. For example I had a friend who changed a reputation for being a jerk by learning to say “I think that’s wrong,” instead of “You’re wrong.” “I think” introduced some humility, and “that” instead of “you” depersonalized.
I learned a lot about Radical Candor when I was working for an Israeli start-up. Loved the culture there and it changed my own; but I definitely found that when I returned home to Memphis I had to spend more time there than in Jerusalem to show that the reason I was saying what I thought was not that I was trying to be a jerk or knew better than anyone else, but just that I cared and was trying to be helpful…The thing is I’m a very impatient person and taking that time was HARD for me…But I learned that if I just took a second or two to say some version of, “I’m telling you this because I know you care and I think it will help. But please tell me if I’m wrong, or annoying OK?” it helped.
Amazingly good article. The competence/likeability connection hit me hard.
Currently, I’m being ostracized at work by a male VP. It started nearly a year ago soon after he joined and I’ve been trying to figure out how I got on his sh*t list. Replaying the year in my mind, I’m now realizing his hostility started after a leadership team offsite where I asked questions about strategic initiatives he was presenting and expressed disagreement. Yep, that’s me, a woman with ideas, opinions and experience. In this specific instance, I know I wasn’t overly aggressive. There was a large group attending including my boss and many new people. I’m not dumb or politically naive.
I certainly can be overly aggressive yet could this be a learned behavior? A defense? At this point, I have pent up anger over being silenced or even quieted. The anger creates aggression. I can feel it.
One final story to share. Very early in my career, a female boss said to me, “Beth, you have a lot of great ideas and see solutions very quickly. You need to hold back in meetings though and let others have a chance to come up with ideas. You’re making them feel bad.” I was shocked and responded, “It’s interesting. People accept that not everyone can paint at the same level and no one would tell Picasso to hold back because he was making others feel bad. People can’t accept, however, that we all don’t process information at the same level. Is the solution to tell me to hold back on my thinking?” There probably was something valid to what she was saying. I was young and may not have been presenting my thoughts as diplomatically as I could. This was 20 years ago and has stuck with me. Would something like this ever be said to a man?
Thanks for the opportunity to express. And, thanks for the wonderful article.