I think most people in the corporate world would agree that feedback is a gift. Had I not received some very important feedback from my manager five years ago, I likely would have been fired from my job. Feedback is also hard to give, hard to receive and even harder to give to a peer who doesn’t report to you.

Imagine this scenario: you and a cross-functional colleague are on a video conference call with your most important client. Your colleague is participating in this call because they’re a subject matter expert.

During the call, the client objects to the business proposal your colleague puts forward and instead offers an infeasible solution. Your colleague responds in an angry tone and belittles the client. The conversation gets heated and turns into a corporate shouting match. Your colleague is now arguing every single detail the client brings forward. The call ends without a resolution and everyone disconnects.

You’re horrified. This is your most important customer and all of the relationship capital you’ve worked so hard to build is now in jeopardy. You also know that repairing the relationship will require some form of contrition from your colleague. Here are some steps you can take to generate the outcome you’re looking for.

Frame your feedback with Radical Candor

I often credit Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, for helping me think through how to deliver guidance to my peers. Her philosophy is simple: good feedback requires showing that you ‘Care Personally’, and are willing to ‘Challenge Directly’. An absence of either or both of those skills will lead you to fall into one of the not-so-good quadrants in her 2×2 grid.

radical candor

Let’s put this into practice using the above scenario as a guideline.

  • Ruinous Empathy: “I think you’re doing such a great job and I really like the passion you bring to these client meetings. I really enjoy working with you.”
    • While it’s clear you care about this person, you’re failing to address the problem and are not helping them improve.
  • Manipulative Insincerity: You don’t say anything to your colleague and badmouth them to others.
    • In this case, you’re not helping anyone.
  • Obnoxious Aggression: “Your tone was horrendous on that last call. I’m going to lose this client because of you. You better get off your @$$ right now and apologize.”
    • Imagine being on the receiving end of this statement. Is this someone you’d ever want to work with again?
  • Radical Candor: “I appreciate your subject matter expertise and willingness to help. However, I want you to be aware of the potential implications of your tone in that last call. I would like to work with you to help you improve.”
    • You’re directly addressing the problem, while showing that you care about their development.

Practice makes perfect

I think the best feedback is given in the moment. Letting situations fester will rarely lead to intended behavioural changes. The reality is improving your ability to give feedback takes time and giving bad feedback in the moment can be more counterproductive than not giving feedback at all.

Here are two steps that I continue to take:

1. In cases where you know the person well: Play out the conversation with yourself. Think through every possible response your colleague might have. Be sure to have appropriate rebuttal points that fall within the Radical Candor framework. What usually happens is what you originally thought you would say changes quite a bit.

2. In cases where you don’t know the person well: Find a trusted confidant who would be open to role play the conversation with you. You will learn so much about what to expect when you do this for real. 

When you’re ready, schedule time with this person as soon as possible.

The benefits of feedback

I’m not going to pretend this is easy, or fun. These conversations are often awkward, stressful and uncomfortable. If you can do this well, you’re setting yourself up to be a great leader.

Quoting Warren Buffett: “Honesty is a very expensive gift; just don’t expect it from cheap people.”

Finally, I encourage you to watch Kim Scott’s Radical Candor In 6 Minutes:

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