Brutal Honesty Doesn’t Work


Everyone hates corporate politics. They waste time, energy, and resources. They’re just plain infuriating.

What if we could avoid politics entirely? Today’s tech entrepreneurs, accelerators, and investors are doing just that. They’re replacing messy politics with “brutal honesty.” In the words of Entrepreneur.com’s AJ Agrawal,

When you join an accelerator, feelings get left at the door and functionality rules the day. If you can’t take the critical heat, you may think twice about stepping foot [sic] into the Accelerator kitchen.

These techies are sidestepping the emotional “squishiness” that dictates we be nice to each other, that requires us to tiptoe around each other’s feelings. This is a more rational, efficient, and effective approach to business.

There’s just one problem: this view is delusional.

Back in July, Brandon Ballinger explained how brutal honesty helped his team at YCombinator:

Paul Graham came running into our tiny conference room, obviously irritated, and said: “Moments like these make me glad we invested in sixty-four startups!” … “If you want to drive off a cliff, go right ahead.” Later, he told us we were “like moths for bad ideas.” … in retrospect, it was actually one of the nicest things anybody did for us.

Well, it’s brutal, and perhaps honest. And yet, I don’t see any actual feedback in there. I see a series of insults, but nothing that can be translated into action. That’s a pattern in tales of brutal honesty, like Steve Jobs telling his team, “This is shit,” on a regular basis:

[Bill] Atkinson taught his team to put Jobs’s words through a translator. “We learned to interpret ‘This is shit’ to actually be a question that means, ‘Tell me why this is the best way to do it.’” (Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs, Kindle Locations 2306-2307.)

It may be satisfying to blurt out your first, raw reaction…but is it really helpful? Why not pause, consider what prompted the reaction, and come up with something constructive? Why was Brandon’s team like moths for bad ideas? What made those ideas bad? Was there a pattern? Was there a question they could be asking themselves that might prevent further bad decisions? In other words, don’t force others to do the translation for you, as Jobs did; do it yourself.

Of course, I wasn’t there; I lack the full story. Perhaps constructive commentary followed those initial insults. What, then, of the original brutality? Proponents would suggest it kept the feedback sharp and direct, rather than circumspect. They might also say there’s no need to be nice: it just wastes time.

But an insult is not the sole alternative to wishy-washy feedback; it’s the opposite end of a spectrum. In between lie all manner of direct, respectful, clear, and empathetic statements.

And a more considered, empathetic approach might actually save time. Even if you enjoy insulting your peers, being considerate will often get your message across faster. No matter how enlightened, how rational your listener is, a direct insult will cause a defensive reaction — a fight-or-flight response. You’ve generated some level of anger and/or fear, and those emotions are clouding the listener’s judgment, obscuring your insightful feedback. Later, he may calm down enough to consider what you’ve said, to come back and ask questions, to conclude — as Mr. Ballinger did — that your advice was valuable. But why waste the time and energy? If your goal is to deliver a message, why not deliver it over an effective medium?

I’ve had the opportunity to work with talented, hyper-rational, brutally honest individuals; and with equally talented colleagues who have a gift for empathy and an understanding of its power. I’ve watched the former fail despite tremendous talent, banging their heads against what they saw as needless bureaucracy and organizational unfairness in the face of their overwhelming rightness. And I’ve watched the latter sail past, reading the people around them like books and using that information to push their ideas through. (I’ve also had the fortune of finding a mentor to help me move from the former camp toward the latter, and the joy of passing that along to some of the folks who’ve worked for me.)

People didn’t work for Steve Jobs because he was brutally honest. They did so because he inspired them…and because he manipulated them. His brutal behavior wasn’t unvarnished honesty; rather, it was a darker variant of the empathy I’ve described here:

Was Jobs’s unfiltered behavior caused by a lack of emotional sensitivity? No. Almost the opposite. He was very emotionally attuned, able to read people and know their psychological strengths and vulnerabilities…This made him masterful at cajoling, stroking, persuading, flattering, and intimidating people. (Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs, Kindle Locations 2273-2276.)

Rude doesn’t equal honest, and empathetic doesn’t mean watered-down. The impulse to avoid unnecessary politeness and provide bold criticism is a terrific one; but it’s possible, and more effective, to deliver that criticism respectfully and factually — to be an advisor without being an asshole.

One final note. It is not my intention to impugn the people I’ve mentioned in this post. I haven’t met them, and don’t want to judge anyone based on secondhand information. My post is about a prevalent philosophy, and for that purpose the myth is more relevant than the men.

Further reading, including some actual research to support what I’m saying here: Working with Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman; The No Asshole Rule, by Robert Sutton; “Trust and Candor Build Collaboration,” by Warby Parker’s Neil Blumenthal.

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