Article main image
Feb 15, 2016

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.

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.”