On Boogers and Feedback

by J.D.

On Boogers and Feedback
Radical Candor in the Workplace


I had a friend in college named Betsy. She was a unique personality with a dry sense of humor. She shared her thoughts with anyone and everyone, and yet was one of the most kind people I’d ever met. She was loved by all. One day we got into a conversation around friends vs. acquaintances.

"What’s the difference?” we pondered. “Where do you draw the line?” But Betsy had the perfect answer - an analogy that I still use to this day.

“I know someone's my friend when they are ok with telling me I have a booger hanging from my nose,” she noted while eating her salad.

I never asked her if this was common. Who knows, maybe she had constant sinus problems. But obviously, that wasn’t the point. It made me think more about what makes relationships real and meaningful. If I spotted a potentially embarrassing flaw with a friend - a booger, food in their beard, an unzipped fly - would I tell them about it? How would I do it?

After all, in any of these situations, I would hope that someone would alert me about it before it really got bad.

We’ve been talking about this a lot at Lifeblue lately. How can we give better feedback to ultimately make our work more impactful?

It started off with evaluating our critique process around design, and ballooned into a much broader concept of how we can push each other forward. How do we provide feedback in ways that aren’t overly harsh or overly polite? After all, most of us were taught at a young age that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

That’s great advice for kids with no filters. It’s not so great for adults working to produce bleeding edge, high quality work that tips the scales in our clients’ favor. We all know that Steve Jobs didn’t push his team to make the initial iPhone by telling his colleagues that their ideas were perfectly acceptable.

While doing a fair bit of research on the topic, we came across a wonderful book titled Radical Candor by Kim Scott, a former Google employee. It's a book on relational dynamics disguised as a corporate management book. The diagram that Scott uses is becoming a guide stone for what we’re striving to do here at Lifeblue. Simple as it sounds, it’s all based around only these two attributes.

  • Caring Personally

  • Challenging Directly

Those qualities are the vertical and horizontal axes used to create four quadrants - four different types of feedback.

Diagram credit:  radicalcandor.com

As an example, let’s say we are designing a website and one of our team members made a design decision that isn’t offensive. Nothing is inherently wrong with the page, but there is nothing that pushes the page past just being fine. (A bad word around here.)

If we are ruinously empathetic (top left), we remain silent, because we are worried about the feelings of whoever made that decision. We don’t want their feelings to get hurt by making a comment about it. “So if what they did is fine, it’s not worth hurting their feelings over it, right?”

We are manipulatively insecure (bottom left) if we are silent because we would be uncomfortable giving the feedback. We are worried about our own feelings of fear, embarrassment or what others may think of our feedback. “Maybe our feedback is not valid after all, and the page is just fine as is.”

We are obnoxiously aggressive (bottom right) if we feel we are the authority on the issue, they should listen to us, and we care nothing about their feelings in order to make that point. We may say, “Wow, this page is so blah - it makes me want to go to sleep! Trash the whole thing and actually try next time.” Not only is that feedback harsh, it’s completely unhelpful to getting to a better product, and actually attacks the person who did the work, and not the work itself.

If we really want to hit the sweet spot and give meaningful feedback, we practice radical candor. One example of that may sound like:

“There’s nothing wrong with this. I think it meets our basic goals, and for that, we have a good baseline to start from. But for this to push past that baseline, which is what Lifeblue is all about, I'd invest time in adding emotion into the imagery and graphics to help the site visitor see the potential of what we know is a great product. I’m willing to help reshape the copy, if you’ll spend some time brainstorming more dynamic ways to present that info that’ll bring it to life, like more vibrant colors and people-focused photos. Does anyone else feel the same about this? I want to be sure my thoughts are valid here."

Much more helpful! Because we care personally about both the people and the work, we are obligated to say something - to challenge them directly. In this instance, it’s specific enough to have some direction, and we’ve even offered help. This will not only lead to a more impactful product, it will grow that individual to recognize shortfalls. They’ll know they are amidst an environment that cares enough to help push them forward, and the work will keep getting better and better.

Of course, this is only one technique we’ve been unfolding that leads to better quality work. We continue to improve our process in all directions. Radical Candor is one of the most important ways we can foster trust in each other and produce amazing work, so it’s something we will continue to advance.

If you have trouble with these concepts in your day-to-day life, just start practicing in small ways. If someone’s fly is down, don’t feel ashamed in discretely pointing it out to them. After all, you may have just saved them from walking into a sales pitch and telling one of those “most embarrassing moments of my life” stories. They’ll thank you later.