When It Comes to Feedback, Are Your Employees Ready for “Radical Candor?”

Getting helpful feedback at work has always been a challenge.

You hear from the boss immediately if you screw up. Otherwise, the annual performance review might be the first time a worker hears what they do well and what needs improving.

Even then, it’s a challenge for a manager and a and subordinate, since most of us want to emphasize the positive. And negative feedback isn’t well received even by those most motivated to learn and improve.

To combat the perfunctory nature of the annual performance evaluation the trend is to eliminate it in favor of having managers give regular feedback. That’s a fine idea, assuming it actually happens, yet more than half the workers in a survey say they rarely get feedback of any kind.

Are we ready for “radical candor?”

Which brings us to another emerging school of thought. Feedback should be clear, direct, candid, and come not just from supervisors, but also from team members and colleagues. This particular trend, not much more than a ripple at this stage, is getting some outsized attention, and not of all of it is positive.

Known variously as “mokita,” or “radical candor,” or the less delicate “front-stabbing,” the idea is to bluntly confront a problem or a problem person by presenting an unvarnished critique. Often enough, the exercise can be confrontational, and more often still, leaves bruised egos, or worse, it its wake.

At one hedge fund, its founder issued a 123 page statement entitled “Principles.” Among them is this: “Don’t depersonalize mistakes.”

He offered this example of what that means:

A common error is to say, ‘We didn’t handle this well’ rather than ‘Harry didn’t handle this well.’ This occurs when people are uncomfortable connecting specific mistakes to specific people because of ego sensitivities.”

The CEO of a New York ad agency that practices front-stabbing told The Wall Street Journal, “You have to have a thick skin to work here.”

The darker side of being so candid

Is this kind of feedback really helpful?

Former Googler and now a corporate coach, Kim Scott swears it is. Her own ah-ha moment came when her boss, Sheryl Sandberg, now COO of Facebook, counseled her about her presentation skills. “When you say um every third word, it makes you sound stupid,” Sandberg told her.

Article Continues Below

So committed to the value of candid feedback she is writing a book on the subject, Scott does caution that it’s received best when the recipient knows the person giving the feedback personally cares about them.

The darker side of the practice was recently detailed by Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School and director of its Center for Human Resources. He wrote:

One of the things we know about human reactions is that we focus disproportionately on negative feedback.” “The idea that you should be able to tell people the unvarnished truth about the performance, the good and the bad, and they will take away an unvarnished assessment of that conversation and see the good as well as the bad, is a myth. They will take it very hard.”

That’s exactly what researchers found when they studied how workers respond to negative feedback in a performance review. The three psychologists approached the study assuming that workers motivated by a desire to learn and improve would respond well to negative feedback, while the rest would not.

They found that no matter what a worker’s motivation, negative feedback was not well received. In fact, it was universally damaging to morale.

“Attribution bias” is also an issue

In addition to the emotional impact, Cappelli says there’s another problem with radical candor’s commitment to”calling someone out.” It’s the “problem of attribution bias,” he says.

“It is easiest to blame the person closest to them rather than the circumstances and systems that are producing the problem,” writes Cappelli. “Calling Bob out about performance in his job when Bob is not the reason doesn’t do any good for anyone.”

The better alternative, is to improve the training of supervisors to provide the right kind of feedback in a way that will motivate and inspire. “It is the job of supervisors who know the situation and the circumstances, not peers and bystanders.”

John Zappe is the editor of TLNT.com and a contributing editor of ERE.net. John was a newspaper reporter and editor until his geek gene lead him to launch his first website in 1994. He developed and managed online newspaper employment sites and sold advertising services to recruiters and employers. Before joining ERE Media in 2006, John was a senior consultant and analyst with Advanced Interactive Media and previously was Vice President of Digital Media for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

Besides writing for ERE, John consults with staffing firms and employment agencies, providing content and managing their social media programs. He also works with organizations and businesses to assist with audience development and marketing. In his spare time  he can be found hiking in the California mountains or competing in canine agility and obedience competitions.

You can contact him here.


1 Comment on “When It Comes to Feedback, Are Your Employees Ready for “Radical Candor?”

  1. Sounds great, except most of the crappy, mediocre managers I’ve encountered would only be happy with one-way candor. Any upward, fact-based, objective ‘front stabbing’ from the victimized employee would be rewarded with penalties up to, and including, dismissal. What commentators seem unable to comprehend is that the workplace is a completely unequal power arena. Many managers operate by treating subordinates as objects without feelings, opinions or ideas and then they wonder why engagement is so low. Semco, Morning Star and Gore Tex have shown that treating people as adults and with respect can be highly profitable but the mentally challenged, power-hungry management class prefers not to understand this.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *