“Words are seeds that do more than blow around.
They land in our hearts and not the ground.
Be careful what you plant and careful what you say.
You might have to eat what you planted one day.”
As a Venture Capital (VC) investor, my job involves evaluating startups daily and 98% of the time having to say no to some brilliant founders. Early on in my career (before VC), I used to find it tough to say no. And post becoming a VC, having to say “no” daily became a drain. Especially if I had spent time getting to know the founder, it became even more challenging. Till I realized that it’s not just about the “no” but about giving constructive feedback to the founder on what she could do to improve her chances in the future. And, since then, I have been a lot more candid in giving feedback to be helpful to the founder. Today, let us take a closer look at this topic of giving and receiving feedback to become a better leader-manager-coach that we embarked on a couple of weeks ago.
In preparing for this, I consumed a lot of material but went back to one of my favorite books on this topic – Radical Candor by Kim Scott – which is a book I used to gift founders as a must-read. The first thing we need to realize is that most of us stay away from giving negative feedback in our natural states. It is the root cause for many of us not graduating to become great managers. Like in sports or music or any other field involving a coach/teacher, continuous feedback (and not year-end performance review), of things going well and things that can be improved, is essential for developing people we are coaching.
As outlined in the book, there are two crucial aspects of Radical Candor – “caring deeply” and “challenging directly.” We already discussed “caring deeply” for colleagues in our previous musing. It is essential to care about the people we work with, and particularly people we coach, at a personal level, for us to be really effective coaches. And it is equally essential to directly challenge to elevate the game of the person we are coaching in a non-threatening, constructive way that highlights issues we see in their performance and specific suggestions on how we can help them improve. If you have not already, watch the first two minutes of this powerful example where Kim Scott talks about how Sheryl Sandberg exemplified Radical Candor towards her.
The framework on this chart summarises how we all behave as managers. Assuming that we are all decent managers, I would venture that most of us probably fall in the Ruinous Empathy or Obnoxious Aggression quadrant. Let me explain. We all probably care about people we are coaching at various levels (the vertical axis). Still, the challenge most of us probably have is figuring out which aspects to challenge directly (e.g., does it matter if someone turns on video or not on a zoom call – easy to be silent and in the ruinous empathy quadrant). And balancing that against how strongly we give feedback (e.g., directing the person to turn on video while on the call in front of all colleagues – obnoxious aggression). The key is to figure out critical feedback that can have a long-term positive impact on the other person and deliver it in a caring way.
Before we get deeper into giving and receiving feedback, one aspect to consider before giving feedback, is whether the recipient is in a frame of mind to absorb your feedback. Otherwise, the best of feedback with the most caring intentions will fall on deaf ears. Best to set the context with the person and prepare them to be in a receptive state before sharing your feedback.
Another essential aspect to consider is that how we frame the feedback matters as much as what we say. For example, when a founder pitches an idea that they have passionately worked on for a long time, after hearing the pitch, I ask them if they have any specific questions other than funding. It prepares them to shift from speaking mode to listening mode. I would then go on to answer the question and then set the context that there are a couple more things that I would consider if in their shoes and share other specific concerns about the business. This makes the feedback more amiable, like that coming from a teammate rather than from someone on the other side of the table.
And finally, let us discuss the specifics of giving feedback. The first thing is to prepare well before the meeting – this is true for providing positive or negative feedback. When it comes to feedback, it is just as essential to give timely, sharp, and specific feedback on what is working well for someone to elevate their game. And the same is true for corrective feedback – best to make it extremely specific and isolate the issue from the person. A great way to practice this is to use “Non-Violent Communication,” as outlined here, where we are honest without criticizing, insulting, or putting down the other person. The Key is to share feedback as an observation (vs. evaluation) utilizing emotion (vs. thought) about an underlying need relayed as a request (vs. demand). Here is a great example:
“When you said, ‘I’m not happy with your work,’ to me in front of the team, I felt embarrassed because it didn’t meet my need for trust and recognition. Please, could we set up a weekly one-on-one session to share feedback in private?”
The best place to start practicing radical candor is by soliciting feedback for ourselves. I have been trying this over the past month, and it has been a great learning experience. A few things to help us prepare:
- Be in a state of mind to receive feedback. Give a heads-up to the other person to come prepared to give feedback
- Listen with a clear mindset of not getting defensive (not easy at first) and ask only clarifying questions and for examples and take notes
- Thank the person for giving you the feedback and post the meeting ask them to rate you on how well you did on receiving feedback
- And finally, digest this feedback (remember you do not have to implement everything you hear), prioritize what matters, and close the loop on what action you plan to take (and if none, the reason for parking).
If we are open to it, we can receive high-quality feedback from many sources. Listen to Sachin Tendulkar, widely regarded as the best batsmen in the history of cricket, talk about how he received feedback from a waiter, in this one minute video:
We might think all this sounds theoretical and not implementable in real business life. Please listen to this fantastic podcast on how Ray Dalio transformed Bridgewater (his startup) into one of the world’s largest hedge funds with a culture of total radical candor where they have figured out how to love criticism. Kiran Rao, featured on this podcast, is someone I have known for more than a decade and is originally from India and has been able to fully integrate and excel at Bridgewaters – for those skeptics amongst us who might think this will not work with Indians.
As much as I am all for feedback, there are certain kinds we should not heed to. Here’s a short clip from one of my favourite movies of all time “The Pursuit of Happiness” to illustrate this point:
Before signing off on the topic of feedback, I would really appreciate it if you could take a minute to fill out this short survey to make Musings better. And with that, I hope we get to reflect and then implement some of the aspects of giving and receiving feedback to help us evolve into the best possible coaches in our circle of life.