My favorite recent management post is about “radical candor.” It’s the way you give feedback when you care about someone personally and you are willing to challenge them directly. I don’t want to steal the best content of the post (especially the two by two matrix that describes alternatives to radical candor that are problematic), you should go and read it.
Even though this post is targeted at managers, its contents are actually useful for everyone, at least in terms of understanding why our behavior may be surprising to other people. The axes on the matrix are “caring about someone personally” and “willingness to challenge people directly.” In a relationship where you do care about a person, and they know you care, a space exists where you can give even tough feedback without making the person feel threatened. Under ideal circumstances, we spend most of our time with people who we care about personally and who care about us personally, and we can be honest with one another even when it’s painful. If, at your job, people who work together closely don’t care about one another personally, it may be time to change jobs.
When one or both of these ingredients are removed, things get interesting.
Generally, engineers run into trouble when they challenge people directly who they don’t care about personally. I think this is often at the root of conflict within teams — people tend to become very defensive when they are challenged by someone they don’t really trust. The post refers to the willingness to challenge someone directly when you don’t care about them personally as obnoxious aggression.
Managers often get into trouble when they are in the ruinous empathy quadrant — this is when you care about a person personally but you’re not willing to challenge them directly. There are lots of reasons not to challenge people directly, many of them really well-intentioned. In fact, timing is everything. I believe it can be OK to wait on challenging someone directly if the timing for delivering negative feedback isn’t right. If a person is really struggling to meet a tough deadline, explaining to them how they could avoided their current problems by doing a better job of planning probably isn’t a great idea, even if it’s true. The empathy becomes ruinous when you rob people of a chance to improve by being nice when what they need is more accurate information about how their performance is perceived.
The post refers to the case where you don’t care about someone personally and you refuse to challenge them directly as “manipulative insincerity” and describes it as being pretty rare. I don’t think that’s the case at all, it happens all the time. This is the state where pretty much all relationships begin, and where relationships are when people have given up, and the relationship becomes purely transactional. Caring about someone on a personal level is an investment, and challenging people directly requires an emotional commitment (for people who aren’t jerks). When you start working with someone new, you don’t know whether they care about you personally, or if they ever will. You also don’t know how they will handle being challenged directly. “Manipulative insincerity” is the only rational strategy until you figure some stuff out. The hard work for managers is demonstrating to people that you care about them personally, and that it’s OK for them to challenge you directly. (If you are a manager who doesn’t care about people personally or don’t like being challenged directly, just quit and stop making people unhappy.)
I could probably write thousands of more words on this model of professional interactions, which convinces me of its usefulness. If you’re struggling with a relationship at work, I’d encourage you to take a look at the matrix in the article, and see whether that relationship is in the wrong quadrant. If so, that’s the first thing you have to fix.