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"Mean" bosses and other four-letter words

Making a mistake at work doesn’t feel good. Making a mistake and getting yelled at in front of peers or customers feels even worse. It’s unfortunately an experience that Sarah, the customer success manager we met in last week’s article, can remember vividly. At the time, she was working her first job out of college and, a year into it, was onsite with a client and made a big mistake.

She knew she’d screwed up, but what followed was a very public conversation with her boss—a man she described as a “straight shooter”—in front of a junior colleague. “He spoke to me in a way that made me feel terrible and that undermined my authority with my colleague,” she recalled. “I remember going back to my hotel room and just crying.”

It wasn’t quite an isolated incident. Although Sarah was gaining a wealth of experience in this role, it sometimes came at a high emotional cost. As she put it, her manager tended to be “a little blunt in his delivery and at times hurt my feelings. He’d give me the truth, but without that feeling of caring behind it.”

When enough is enough

For Sarah, that moment—flung across the hotel bed, in tears—was a turning point. She felt awful, but also like she needed to do something about it. Once they were back in their own office, she scheduled a meeting with her boss to talk about what had happened, and how it made her feel.

Not surprisingly, she was terrified. Even today, seven years later, she can clearly remember his office: a small corner office in an old building, with just one small window directly behind his desk. Next to the door was a copy machine, where she nervously waited for her turn.

“I started by taking responsibility for my mistakes, and my plan for ensuring that I didn’t repeat the situation,” Sarah recalled. “But then I talked about how our conversation had bothered me and told him how his feedback, and his delivery of it, made me feel. I finished by explaining how I wish he’d handle things in the future.”

That was a shift in their relationship—one that’s lasted well into the present. “He’s a close friend and mentor now,” she shared. “It was transformative for me to realize that being honest like that could have a positive impact on a working relationship. And for him, it was also a turning point. He realized the importance of infusing some care into his honesty. We both remember that conversation.”

“It was transformative for me to realize that being honest like that could have a positive impact on a working relationship.” - Sarah

Of course, Sarah’s boss’ straightforward style was, in fact, his style. He was a “super direct and unemotional communicator and just didn’t have any awareness of needing to check himself or think about how other people felt,” Sarah said. After that conversation, they realized a need to have more regular check-ins—and to use these check-ins in part to address how his feedback was landing. Pretty quickly, they got to a place where Sarah was comfortable challenging his ideas and he was comfortable pushing her toward more creative solutions in her work.

Kindness is effective

In so many ways, Sarah’s boss was lucky that Sarah had the pluck and nerve to challenge him. She recognized that his intention was never to be mean or malicious. Many of us, by contrast, might have written him off as a “mean” boss—or have used some other four-letter word after an altercation like the one Sarah experienced at the client site.

Bosses who are good at challenging employees directly, but who are low on showing personal care, fall into a category that the feedback experts at Candor, Inc. call “Obnoxious Aggression”. These managers have the gift of delivering feedback that cuts to the quick, which can be an effective way to motivate employees to get work done. But these leaders are not as effective as managers whose feedback is both clear and kind.

Because nice is nice

Criticism: How to be more kind

Candor, Inc. refers to "Obnoxious Aggressive" criticism You’re not intentionally trying to trick or hurt anyone, but you’d do well to consider that “the truth” often hurts all on its own—without the blunt, unfeeling delivery. Try to see criticism as an act of kindness. There are ways to be helpful without being too “soft” or sugar-coating the feedback, including offering a story about a time you made a similar mistake and how the criticism you received helped you to improve.

Praise: How to be more sincere

When praise is offered without care, or when its goal is just to get more out of an employee, it can come off as insincere or belittling. As one leader aptly put it, there’s a big difference between saying “Thanks for working on this project” and “Hey, Ryan, I know how hard this was, given everything we talked about. This is a big deal. Thank you so much.” In short, the best way to praise is to just say so when you see something specific that you like or appreciate.

Chances are, most of us have delivered feedback at some point that might fall into the "Obnoxious Aggression" category. It’s all too easy to focus on results, and to deliver praise or criticism without much care when we’re busy, rushed, or under a mountain of pressure.

It’s all too easy to focus on results, and to deliver praise or criticism without much care when we’re busy, rushed, or under a mountain of pressure.

This doesn’t necessarily make us an asshole, but it can make us seem that way when we don’t stop to say “thank you” or acknowledge the hard work and dedication employees exhibit. As Candor, Inc. co-founder Russ Laraway emphasized earlier in this series, it’s always the way feedback lands with the recipient that matters most.

A little ‘thank you’ can go a long way

Think about the last time you stayed up late into the night to fine tune a project, only to hand it off the next morning to the tune of, “Great, but what about….?” Or: “This looks good, but I need you to add…”

It’s not like you wanted your boss to throw a parade in your honor. Most of us just want to know that our bosses are aware of our effort. That we’re not just production machines. We’re humans with adorable mini humans at home depriving us of sleep. Or we’ve just met someone we really like and are spending some days on the precipice of love or devastation. Or we’re working through some unexpected life change—a death, a divorce, or an unforeseen illness—or buying our first house, or going to school, or… the list goes on. All the human stuff that we take to work, whether or not we mean to.

As one executive shared with me, she had once been so results-oriented that she nearly risked losing half her team. Fortunately, an employee gave her a heads-up that a few people were planning to give notice–which gave her a chance to fix the situation. “You’re all about getting things done,” he said, “and we’re busting our ass for you. You’ve never said ‘thank you’.”

It was a jaw-dropping moment. The employee took the time to walk her through all the team’s accomplishments, efforts she wasn’t aware of. “You just stop and realize that people are human, and they’re working for you,” she said. “They can work somewhere else.” Suddenly, she could see how hard her team was working and how loyal they’d been. She could see, too, that they needed her to make a more personal connection, something more than, “Hey, can you get this analysis done? I need it in two days.” Instead, they needed recognition, gratitude, and some days, a simple,

Instead, they [employees] needed recognition, gratitude, and some days, a simple, “How are you doing today?”

When leaders become too task-oriented, they miss the opportunity to encourage better, more collaborative outcome on projects. When you say, “I need this” instead of, “Let’s talk about this…”, she explained, it’s harder to understand the work going into a project, which makes it harder, in turn, to deliver feedback that’s meaningful, kind, and clear.

Next week, in the final installment of this four-part series, read transformative stories of how giving or receiving Radical Candor™ has the power to change a career trajectory or lead to some powerful personal insights.

Need to catch up? Learn about the pitfalls of "Manipulative Insincerity", and why being too nice will always backfire.

Suzanne Barnecut is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. Fascinated by technology, but a diehard reader of paper-made books and sender of snail mail. Find her on Twitter: @elisesuz.

Illustration by Andrea Mongia.