How to Give Humble Feedback

Here’s a question that I get pretty often: “How can I be more humble?” The first time a person in a class I was teaching asked about how to give humble feedback, I sat there with my mouth hanging open. It was all I could do not to break into the song from the 70s show HeeHaw. “Oh lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way!”

How can you answer a question like that? I didn’t take it seriously until about the 20th time somebody asked me about how to give humble feedback. Finally, I realized it was a legitimate question and I needed to give a serious answer.

The ability to be humble is important for achieving Radical Candor, and it’s one of the tenets of our HIP Approach. You can’t Care Personally or Challenge Directly if you’re not humble. It’s really hard to care at a personal level about somebody if you think you’re superior. And you can’t Challenge Directly and be open to the reciprocal challenge if you’re not humble enough to realize you may be wrong.

Humble Feedback and The importance of being wrong

Andy Grove once told me, over a cup of Jamocha Almond Fudge ice cream at Baskin Robbins in Los Altos, “Fucking Steve [Jobs] always gets it right.”

“Nobody’s always right,” I said.

“I didn’t say Steve IS always right. I said he always GETS it right. Like anyone, he is wrong all the time, but he insists, and not gently either, that people tell him when he’s wrong, so he always gets it right in the end.”

I thought a lot about this conversation over the next couple of years. I think Andy was exactly right: a big part of Steve Jobs’s genius came from his willingness to be proven wrong. Here’s how he described it in his own words:

Jobs: I don’t mind being wrong. And I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing. Watch the video >>

In other words, you don’t have to grovel or pretend to be worse than you are. You just need to accept the possibility that whatever you’re saying may be wrong. Don’t be arrogant. Be curious.

Who are you to say?

 

The thing that makes it tough is that giving criticism and praise does feel arrogant. How can you be humble and tell somebody their work isn’t good enough at the same time? It can feel equally arrogant to tell people when their work is great.

Don’t let the fear of arrogance stop you from giving the feedback people need. Here are some techniques and reminders for being Humble when offering praise and criticism.

Situation, Behavior, Impact

The Center for Creative Leadership developed a technique called Situation, Behavior, Impact that ensures guidance is humble rather than judgmental. The idea is simple. It forces you to describe what you saw a person do and what impact you saw as a result. This prevents you from passing judgments or making assertions that seem arrogant or fall prey to the “fundamental attribution error.”

Instead of yelling, “You asshole” when somebody grabs your parking space, you say, “I’ve been waiting for that spot here for five minutes, and you just zipped in front of me and took it. Now I’m going to be late.”

If you say this, you give the person a chance to say, “Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t realize, let me move.” (Of course, the person might also just flip you off or say, “Tough shit.” Then you can yell with more justification, “You asshole!”)

Humble Feedback

 

Here’s how to do this at work. Describe the situation, the person’s behavior, and the impact the behavior had. All those descriptions don’t have to add up to a novel. They just provide the specifics of what actually happened. In other words, don’t just say, “You’re aggressive.” Better to say, “In the meeting we just had when you and Zan got in an argument (situation), putting your face three inches from Zan’s and yelling ‘Fuck You’ (behavior) was too aggressive.” Here you are describing the situation and the behavior, but you didn’t describe the impact.

Best to say, “In the meeting we just had when you and Zan got in an argument (situation), putting your face three inches from Zan’s and yelling ‘Fuck You’ (behavior) could result in his bringing a lawsuit against the company for allowing a hostile work environment (impact).”

Situation, behavior, impact applies to praise as well as to criticism. Praise can feel just as arrogant as criticism. A great way to offer praise that is helpful is to share the situation, the behavior, and the impact so that it’s clear why the work was important. I often bristle at praise because it sounds insincere or patronizing or somehow belittling.

When somebody says to me, “I’m so proud of you!” I think, “Who are you to be proud of me?” I’d rather hear, “In the presentation you just gave (situation), I think what you said about A, B, C (behavior) was a persuasive because x, y, z (impact).” It’s the fear of sounding arrogant that sometimes makes me hesitate to give praise to people properly. Using situation, behavior, impact helps.

Left Hand Column

Chris Argyris and Donald Schon developed a method called the Left Hand Column exercise, which can be useful for keeping oneself humble. The idea is to create two columns on a piece of paper. In the right hand column, you write down how a particular conversation went, as closely as you can remember it. In the left hand column, you write down what you were thinking and feeling.

While this helps identify thoughts you aren’t expressing and should, it can also help you see if arrogant thoughts from the left hand column are leaking out into what you say. If you can be more conscious of what you’re thinking, and can adjust it, you can probably find a productive way to address it.

For example, if you are thinking, “So-and-so is lazy and sloppy and doesn’t care about the team’s results,” you’re not likely to be humble when you criticize the typos you saw in so-and-so’s last ten presentations.

Humble Feedback

The point is that even though you didn’t choose the wrong words to say, your tone of voice and body language is likely to betray what you really think. it’s not just about fixing the words you use or using a situation, behavior, impact formula, you need to address your thinking.

Ontological Humility

Fred Kofman wrote a great chapter called Ontological Humility in his book Conscious Business. Here’s an excerpt:

“Ontological humility is the acknowledgement that you do not have a special claim on reality or truth and, that others have equally valid perspectives deserving respect and consideration. This attitude is opposed to ontological arrogance, which is the claim that your truth is the only truth.

Even though it may make sense intellectually that people have different perspectives, most people do not naturally act from this understanding, especially in the midst of disagreement or conflict.”

 

When you remember your criticism may be wrong, you’ll offer it more humbly. You will challenge others in a way that invites a reciprocal challenge, and you’ll be more likely to see things from the other person’s point of view.

Power corrupts

Nothing is more corrupting to humility than formal power. Part of what gives bosses trouble with humility is that they have a little bit of power. Don’t let it go to your head…Remember, being a boss is a job, not a value judgement.

Manager, manage thyself!

Most people find it harder to be humble when they’re mad, hungry, or tired. If I focus on managing my emotions it’s easier for me to prevent my ego from getting the better of me. Ask yourself what you need to stay centered, and make sure to do those things to take care of yourself. Remember, you can’t give a damn about others if you don’t give a damn about yourself. I cover this topic in even more depth in the fully revised and updated edition of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.

Need more help with humble feedback? Then you need The Feedback Loop (think Groundhog Day meets The Office), a 5-episode workplace comedy series starring David Alan Grier that brings to life Radical Candor’s simple framework for navigating candid conversations.

You’ll get an hour of hilarious content about a team whose feedback fails are costing them business; improv-inspired exercises to teach everyone the skills they need to work better together; and after-episode action plans you can put into practice immediately to up your helpful feedback EQ.

We’re offering Radical Candor readers 10% off the self-paced e-course. Follow this link and enter the promo code FEEDBACK at checkout.

Just Work is Available for Pre-Order

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Pre order Kim’s new book, Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair, to learn how we can recognize, attack, and eliminate workplace injustice ― and transform our careers and organizations in the process.

We ― all of us ― consistently exclude, underestimate, and underutilize huge numbers of people in the workforce even as we include, overestimate, and promote others, often beyond their level of competence. Not only is this immoral and unjust, it’s bad for business. Just Work is the solution.

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*This post about humble feedback was updated Oct. 22, 2020.

Kim Scott

Kim Scott is the author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and co-founder of the company Radical Candor. Kim was a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and other tech companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led AdSense, YouTube, and DoubleClick teams at Google. She's also managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo and started a diamond-cutting factory in Moscow. She lives with her family in Silicon Valley. In addition to Radical Candor, she is the author of three novels and the forthcoming leadership book Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair, available March 16, 2021 from St. Martin’s Press.