The fireball: my first feedback story
It was one of my first jobs, the debut of my career. I was working for Procter & Gamble, in Bucharest. The Romanian branch had just opened a procurement center (intending to transfer all procurement activities from Brussels and Geneva) and I was employee number four of the new center. I was also a small tornado, wanting to do things fast and change everything (not really thinking of consequences of broken things).
I remember my first feedback session like it happened yesterday. My boss, a very experienced manager, with years of leadership in several corporations under his belt, looked at me and said:
“Andreea, you are like a ball of fire. You either push everything forward, like an engine of a great ship, or you just burn everything in your way. What can you do to stop burning and start building?“.
I was more than surprised. In my mind I got everything done ahead of everyone, I got the best numbers, and I was solving everyone’s problems (back then we used SAP, which I mastered quite fast). But that statement made me stop and reflect. I reflect to it to this day, observing patterns of “fireball” into my behaviour every now and then (I’m much quicker to correct them though).
That was great feedback! It did its job then and does its job fourteen years after. And thanks to that feedback I consider my former manager one of the best leaders I ever worked with.
Feedback and leadership
Feedback is an incredible leadership tool, if used wisely. But what is “wise feedback“? I intend to clarify this question in this post. My inspiration comes from two badass bosses: Kim Scott‘s Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and Julie Zhuo‘s The Making of a Manager – What to Do When Everyone Looks at You.
Wise feedback… “inspired you to change your behaviour, which resulted in your life getting better” (Julie Zhuo). Good feedback pushes for transformation and growth, finding its way to your core.
Feedback can be positive and negative, can be praise and criticism. There is one essential condition for you to make it work, make it transformational, meaningful: give feedback from a place of genuinely caring for the person and wanting them to grow.
The Radical Candour Feedback Framework
Genuinely caring about the other is at the heart of the Radical Candour feedback method. Radical Candor is built on two dimensions: care personally and challenge directly.
The big tech companies brought humanity back in management. Gone is the concept that business is business, and our personal lives are on a different dimension, that allows us to perfectly separate the two. Kim Scott, having worked with Google, Apple, Twitter, says that “only when you care about the whole person with your whole self can you build a relationship“. And leadership is building relationships.
Being genuine, caring about others, considering your relationship with your employees – as a manager – as deeply personal are all attributes of caring personally.
“Challenging others and encouraging them to challenge you helps build trusting relationships because it shows 1) you care enough to point out both the things that aren’t going well and those that are and 2) you are willing to admit when you’re wrong“.
Only when you care personally and challenge directly can you move towards giving transformative feedback, and really make the best of this incredible tool.
Considering the two dimensions, Kim Scott came up with four types of feedback; I’m going to detail each below. Remember that each quadrant refers to guidance, not personality traits and shouldn’t used to label people, as everyone spends some time in each quadrant (as part of their growth).
- Radical Candor (care personally and challenge directly)
- Obnoxious Aggression (challenge directly without caring)
- Manipulative Insincerity (don’t care, don’t challenge)
- Ruinous Empathy (care, but don’t challenge)
Context used for examples: Jimmy deployed a buggy feature to production. It’s not the first time that happens. Youare Jimmy’s manager.
Example: private conversation with Jimmy: “Jimmy, your last deployment caused a bunch of bugs that reached the customers. Because of that our Customer Support team has been working overtime. It’s not the first time this happened, would you like to pair program to fix the bug together? “
When giving radically candid feedback, you have only one intention: help the person in front of you become better. So before everything, check your motives. You can’t hide it if you want to vent or are angry.
Both praise and criticism have to be specific, with an emphasis on praise (criticism tends to be quite to the point). “You’re amazing!“, “what a great presentation“, “I loved your last design” are nice to hear, but too vague to help the person grow. Make it specific, give context, and do it in public or private (consider the culture of the individual and team when you make this decision, as in some cultures it’s embarrassing to be praised in public).
For criticism to do its job and push for improvement, it has to be done immediately after the situation that suggested it, it has to be private and ideally face-to-face (or video conference, not telephone and especially not in writing!).
Example: when you see the bugs on production you yell out loud in the office: “Who the hell delivered this? Jimmy? Just what I thought! Jimmy, how many times do I have to tell you to test your code?“.
Obnoxiously aggressive feedback is criticism without caring about the individual. It tends to be debilitating, towards downward aggressive: belittling or public embarrassment is not acceptable in any working environment. Unfortunately, a lot of us saw and knew this boss well.
I remember when I quit my first job in a corporation. My boss was a political individual who didn’t spend one moment to mentor or train us a thing (old style communist I-own-the-place-and-you type). When I resigned (after I got the job at P&G) she looked straight into my eyes and said: “You resigned, now I can tell you: you suck! You’re really not good for this job. I am happy you leave!“. I’ve been working there for two years and never once she had said a thing about my performance.
These managers criticise to humiliate, not to elevate their peers. For sure mine criticised me because I put her in a bad spot (I wasn’t the first person to leave and her foreign Director had started to ask questions).
Example: you whisper to your team: “Hah, Jimmy deployed buggy code again! This guy has no clue about quality and testing, hahaha.“, then you return to your work.
I personally consider this quadrant the worst. There is absolutely no caring and no challenge. These individuals focus only on their own person and what they can gain from the situations that arise. So they will give praise or criticism, but only if there’s something in it for them. There can also be praise, but it represents false admiration or false apology.
Example: you see the bugs and you’re aware that’s a problem for the whole team. But you don’t tell anything to Jimmy, as you don’t want to upset him. Because this situation repeats and you postpone giving feedback, you end up firing Jimmy, which comes as a total surprise (as he was never told he did something wrong).
The bad part about this ineffective (lack of) feedback is that it comes from a good place: you care about the person and don’t want to hurt them. But you don’t care enough to push for their growth and transformation. Being nice is prioritised at the expense of the person’s development.
The environment that is created under the Ruinous Empathy quadrant is unsupportive, people lack trust in their manager or their abilities, as they never know where they stand. Some of them get fired or are put on performance review with no apparent explanation. Caring is equivalent with neglect in this situation.
What’s interesting is that most people prefer an obnoxiously aggressive boss, if radical candor is impossible, to any other form of feedback. The good thing about this type of character is that at least you know what to expect.
Find below another example from Radical Candor on how you tell someone their fly is down:
How to give feedback for change
Even if you’re using Radical Candor and doing your best to care personally and challenge directly, the feedback might not create change.
Julie Zhuo suggests a few ways to push for your team’s transformation:
1. Set clear expectations at the beginning: expectations make giving feedback easier and help tremendously make it effective. You can consider this the first step of giving feedback.
“Here’s what success looks like for the next meeting you run: the different options are framed clearly, everyone feels like their point of view is well represented, and a decision is made”.Excerpt From: Julie Zhuo. “What to Do When Everyone Looks to You”
2. Give task-specific feedback as frequently as you can: task-specific feedback should be given continuously, close to the moment when the task came to your attention (right after would be ideal). This is the easiest form of feedback and the easiest to follow through.
“That research report you shared yesterday was excellent. The way you succinctly summarized the most important findings at the top made it easy to process. The particular insight about X was really useful.”Excerpt From: Julie Zhuo. “What to Do When Everyone Looks to You”
3. Share behavioural feedback thoughtfully and regularly: most of the feedback will focus on behaviours, being specific and related to a situation or context. But, as you are a caring manager, you may observe behavioural patterns (some people are afraid to take risks, some avoid presenting their work, etc.). These should be brought to the surface and carefully discussed with your colleague, as you will directly refer to how you perceive them and can be hurtful (nonviolent communication comes in handy here).
“When people ask you questions about your work, your tone is often defensive. For example, when Sally left a comment on your code, you replied with “just trust me.” This disregarded the substance of her feedback and made you appear less trustworthy.”Excerpt From: Julie Zhuo. “What to Do When Everyone Looks to You”
4. Collect 360-degree feedback for maximum objectivity: to increase feedback objectivity (and to confirm your assumptions as managers), it’s best to ask for regular 360 feedback (every quarter would be a good cadence). You can also guide people who want to give you feedback about one colleague towards that respective colleague, for a higher impact (to also eliminate she-said-he-said).
“Your peers give you a lot of props for how you managed the budget crisis. This was important and difficult work, and your calm demeanor, excellent listening skills, and rational arguments helped the team get to a good outcome.”Excerpt From: Julie Zhuo. “What to Do When Everyone Looks to You”
Feedback is powerful and can make the difference between great and mediocre leadership. Spend time perfecting this tool and practice, practice, practice. There is a lot of learning and growth on you in the process (remember that you will be asking for feedback yourself while you build on the habit of giving it).
There are some more suggestions on how to give the best and most effective feedback from the two amazing leaders that inspired this post:
- Be humble: neigher you, nor your employee possesses the whole truth; be open to be challenged.
- Be helpful: make it clear you want to be helpful; if you’re not certain, write down objectives before giving feedback, to make sure all you want is to help.
- Ask yourself – and your team – if you are giving enough feedback. Also make sure your feedback isn’t only task-related, as growth doesn’t refer only to technical skills.
- Make sure your feedback is heard. What you say and what is understood can be two different things. Ask for clarifying questions, summarise the discussion and way forward to make sure you end the conversation with the same understanding.
- Make sure your feedback leads to positive action (it is specific, clarifies what success looks and feels like, and has clear next steps).