Avoiding ruinous empathy

Avoiding ruinous empathy

For any manager looking to improve, probably the strongest book recommendation I would give is Radical Candor, by Kim Scott.

The core idea is that as a manager you should care personally about your direct reports, but that you should also challenge them directly. When you have both of these elements, your team hear the feedback they need to do great work, and they actually act on it, because they know that you care about them. This is what Scott calls 'Radical Candor'.

However, if you don't have both elements, you'll fall into one of the other four categories that Scott outlines:

  • Ruinous Empathy = You care about your team, but don't directly challenge them.
  • Obnoxious Aggression = You directly challenge your team, but they don't think you care about them as individuals.
  • Manipulative Insincerity = You don't care about your team and don't give them direct feedback.
Radical Candor, in a nutshell

In my experience, the most dangerous trap to fall into is Ruinous Empathy, because I think it's the easiest one to slide into for new managers. Certainly when I started out as a manager I instinctively cared about the people in my team, and no one had to remind me that I should demonstrate that I cared.

On the other hand, I have not always naturally leaned towards challenging people directly and straightforwardly. It felt at first like I was being told to pick a fight, or that I should expect to have a big argument about something. So on the odd occasion I did have to address an issue, I would usually end up adding so many caveats and pre-emptive excuses on their behalf that I'm sure they often left not realising that there had been any real issue at all.

For instance, in my enthusiasm to try to and protect my team's emotions and avoid being the cause of them feeling bad, I'd turn a bit of feedback like:

You weren't fully prepared for your presentation yesterday, which meant that the audience were left confused about what we needed from them.

...into something like:

It seemed like people were a bit confused after your presentation, but I know you didn't have much time to prepare and there's been a lot going on. I guess I probably should have helped you plan things a bit better, so....etc etc

Rather than be clear and direct about the problem, I waffled around it and we both left the conversation with nothing changed.

Putting it into practice

Even after reading this book and being convinced of the logic, it took a little longer for me to start trying to really put it into practice. On any given day, it's still easier to be nice and kind and caring. I didn't feel very thrilled about the idea of what felt like picking an argument with someone, or deliberately making them feel bad.

Three really important things kicked my ass into gear:

1) I got some great advice

As soon as you have feedback for someone, you're not allowed to keep getting annoyed at them for not changing or improving until you've told them about it.

Let's say that Bob didn't send the weekly report on time, which caused you to spend an extra hour doing it yourself in a rush. Next week he's late again, and this time you're really pissed off. The problem is that you didn't speak to Bob and help him understand the impact of his actions! It's totally unfair of you to keep getting more and more annoyed if you've not been direct and straightforward about the problem.

If you want permission to be annoyed at someone, you have to have given them a chance to understand what they're doing wrong and make a change for the better. If you're not willing to do that, then you've lost the right to get annoyed.

2) I felt the pain of waiting too long.

When you care about the people in your team, and you hold back from giving them timely, candid feedback about their job performance then you're setting them up for a bigger kick in the teeth when eventually they hear it for the first time, most likely during a formal end of year review (or similar).

If you don't bring feedback to the surface quickly, several things will happen:

a) You'll lose trust with your team. Worst case you'll come across as two faced - all smiles and supportive on the surface, but then revealed as having doubts and concerns that you never voiced. This is how you slip into 'Manipulative Insincerity'.

b) Your team won't improve, and will probably get worse. There's nothing that will undermine the rest of your team quicker than the realisation that the bar is lower for some people, and that's okay.

c) You'll feel 10X worse than if you'd sucked up the pain and addressed it early.

3)I experienced the joy that comes from becoming better at my job.

When I got really candid feedback from other people, and I knew it came from a caring place, I didn't experience the anguish and pain that I worried my own team would feel.

Hearing the criticisms sometimes came with an initial sting, but actually I found that I was grateful for the person who gave me the feedback, and appreciated that we had the type of relationship where they could be honest with me.

I enjoyed the feeling of working on becoming better at my job, and in the end felt like I had increased confidence in my abilities and competence because I trusted that if I was falling short then someone would speak up and tell me.

So, if you're a new manager, or would like to be a better team member, have a think about whether you're being directly challenging with your team. I'd strongly recommend the book.

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