There is no formula for giving negative feedback.
CEO Coach, Management Manager, Author
Measure clarity not at your mouth but at the other person’s mind.
Starting with brutally honest feedback builds trust.
Be kind, not nice.
Lesson: Cruel Empathy with Kim Malone Scott
Step #1 Criticism: There is no formula for giving negative feedback
I wish I could tell you that I have a formula for you for giving feedback. Unfortunately, there's not. You have to do it in a way that works for you. That you feel is sincere. You have to believe in the truth of what you're saying which is why I sort of think the feedback sandwich is a mistake because inevitably somebody's trying to think of something nice to say and they're so angry they can't, and so they say something insincere, and people sniff that out immediately.
The other thing I would say about giving feedback that is an absolute but not a formula is that you've got to measure understanding and clarity not at your mouth but at the other person's mind. You've got to make sure that they really understand what they're saying to you.
The thing that has been the most effective for me in giving feedback and in overcoming my Southern upbringing of never saying anything mean is just a simple two-by-two. On the vertical axis there's a smiley face to a frowny face. On the horizontal axis there's unclear to clear. The only thing I try to pay attention to is clarity. If I'm moving towards clarity even if the other person is getting unhappy, I know I'm doing the right thing. If I feel myself sort of waffling or not being as clear as I should be in order to make the person smile, I know I'm not doing my job. That simple framework has helped me overcome years of polite Southern upbringing and try to be an effective manager.
We all want to go straight to that upper right-hand quadrant, which is trust built over time. But the most important thing to do is to realize that actually that trust gets built in the bottom right-hand quadrant, in that brutal honesty quadrant, both with praise and with criticism.
When I was running Juice Software, which was a company I started in New York in 2000, I was working with a person who was doing a terrible job. It got to the point where this person was creating such negativity in the office that you could feel it when you walked in the door. It was really becoming a toxic situation. Nobody was willing to confront the person and I was also not doing a good job confronting the person.
Then it came time for me to fire this person and first of all, the person had no idea. In fact, even after I thought I had said, “You're fired.” The person didn't understand they had been fired, which was harsh. So I had to do it a couple of times.
Then when the person finally got it, this person looked at me and said, “Why didn't anybody ever tell me?” So in the spirit of being nice to this person we wound up firing this person. That was not so nice after all. It would have been much kinder all along to be giving the feedback and giving the person an opportunity to fix the problems that this person was creating.
One of the things that is most important about giving great feedback, whether we're talking about praise or criticism, is to be very specific about what you're talking about. I learned this actually as a writer, not as a manager. I, in my copious spare time, have written three novels and one of them, “Virtual Love,” please buy it, and the thing that makes for great writing is something called “show don't tell.” If you're writing a book about somebody and you're trying to help people understand who this character is, and what they do that trips them up in life, and what they do that makes them great, you would never say, “Jack was smart,” or “Jane was smart.” You would say, “Jane can do the New York Times crossword puzzle in 12 minutes.” That's one kind of smart. Or you would say, “Jane was doing calculus by the age of six.” Something like that. You would show some specific example of what made them smart.
I have found that in writing, both in giving impromptu feedback, which I think is the most important thing you do as a manager is the impromptu, but also in writing more formal performance reviews, taking that sort of short story attitude and giving very specific examples about what happened, and what was the impact of that happening, what the person did, and what was the impact is the best way to get through to them.
One of the things about human beings is that we're very good at abstracting up, especially the smarter you are the more abstract your thinking often. It also, as you abstract up, opens up an enormous range of miscommunication. If I say, “You were rude,” then the person could think, “I better not say what I really think,” which would be the opposite of what I was trying to tell the person. So giving specific examples of the rudeness, showing the impact of it, and then talking to the person about different ways of handling that situation is more helpful I find.
Often it can be really hard to just come out and say it, especially for me if the issues are sort of small but really tripping somebody up. So for example there was somebody who I worked with who just stood too close. People didn't want to meet with him because he would just get two inches too close to you and sometimes maybe four inches too close to you. It's hard. It's awkward to talk about personal things. If somebody smells bad or is not brushing their teeth or whatever, it's awkward.
I was dreading telling this guy and I remember one of the things that helps me to just say it is to write it down before I go in, “Stand too close,” just on a bullet so that I am embarrassed for myself if I don't say it. So I wrote down, it was the only bullet in the 101 and I just came out and said. I was like, “Your career will go better if you would just take a step back every time you're standing next to somebody talking to them.”
He was sort of shocked. Nobody had ever told him this before. I think it helped him. He appreciated it in the end. He was surprised and he was a little embarrassed, and I was a little embarrassed, but he was not offended. He was grateful. Every time I've had to give somebody feedback and I've felt afraid that I would offend them, they've wound up being grateful, literally every single time. It's remarkable.
Cruel empathy is the notion that so many of us have and it's the biggest mistake that I think managers make. It's the notion that when you're trying to spare somebody's feelings and not telling them what they need to know in order to get better in their job then you're sort of trying to be nice. But in the long run, in the worst cases, you have to fire them, which is not so nice after all. So in the spirit of empathy, because you understand how the person will feel and you're trying to spare those feelings, you're not giving them information that they need to have, which is cruel in the end.
I was actually listening to an NPR story on psychopaths and on the importance of empathy. I was thinking, obviously empathy can be a very good thing, it can be wonderful, but it can also be a very negative thing if misused. If you become a slave to your empathy for somebody else's feelings, if you can't rise above that and think about the long term, and what's best for the person. That's what I mean in the distinction between being nice and being kind. You want to be kind not nice.
Another example was one of the CEOs I work with was talking to an engineer before a launch and the engineer was describing a particular feature. The next day at the all-hands after the launch the CEO said, “Oh, Bob did such a great job on this feature.” He was just trying to throw Bob a bone to be nice, to say, “Good job, Bob.” But in fact, Bob hadn't worked on the feature. So now all of a sudden all of the engineers who had worked on it hate Bob. So without meaning to the CEO was like throwing Bob under the bus.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got on giving praise came from a woman, Karen Sipprell, who I work with at Apple, and she asked a question. She said, “How long do you think about and do you investigate a situation when you have to criticize somebody? How long do you think about a situation and do you investigate the facts when you have to praise somebody?” Generally people say they spend five times longer on criticism than praise but it's just as important to get your fact right when you're praising somebody, to be very clear.