The Why, What, How about Giving Feedback

Sihui Huang
Feb 28, 2017 · 8 min read

Notes from Radical Candor Workshop at Gusto

Radical Candor Workshop with Russ Laraway at Gusto

We just had our first Radical Candor workshop from Russ Laraway at Gusto. It was so inspiring and valuable that I decided to organize my notes and turn them into a post.

The Why: why is giving good feedback important

The objective of giving good feedback is simple: to help the other person grow.

There are two kinds of feedback: praise and criticism.

The purpose of praise is to help people know what to do more of, NOT to make them feel good about themselves.

The purpose of criticism is to help people know what to do better, NOT to make them feel bad or make you look smart.

The ability to give feedback is a critical part of leadership: after all, as a leader, your job is to help your people do their jobs. What often gets neglected is that as a teammate, you should also practice giving feedback to your peers and manager. Team players help each other, and giving feedback is about pushing each other grow and to do better.

The What: what is radical candor

Radical Candor is a way to give feedback that encompassed by two characteristics: 1. Care Personally and 2.Challenge Directly.

  1. To Care Personally is to “Give a damn”.

Being “professional” to me used to mean getting my task done and going home; or better yet, getting my tasks done on time, flawlessly, and going home.

This is by no means a low standard. Yet, it’s not enough. It’s not enough because we are humans, not computers. We don’t just go to work, hide in our cubicles, and complete individual tasks. We are part of our teams, and we interact and collaborate with our teammates. A relationship is formed when interactions happen — and when that happens, we naturally care about the other person.

All of this might seem obvious. What doesn’t make sense is that we don’t show that we care. During the workshop, Russ asked how many of us enjoyed work with our teammates. Lots of hands were raised, including mine. Then he asked how many of us ever let our teammates know that we appreciate their works and enjoy their company. Most of the hands were down, including mine.

When you care someone personally, you naturally want them to unleash their potential and grow professionally, which is the objective of giving feedback.

The “Give a damn” Axis from

In brief, we need to care about each other and show that we care. When the other person knows that feedback is coming from someone who cares about them personally, the feedback will be valued more seriously and is easier to take in.

Caring Personally (and showing it constantly) is the backbone for challenging directly.

2. To Challenge Directly is “To be willing to piss people off”.

When encountered with criticism, people become defensive, if not angry. And no one enjoys confronting people. The purpose of criticism is to help people know what to do better — it’s not personal. If you’re Caring Personally, the other person should know that the criticism is coming from a place of support. And if you have had feedback workshops at your company, the they should know they shouldn’t take it personally. With all that in mind, they might still become defensive.

It’s natural. It’s expected. It’s fine. You need to be willing to piss people off.

Challenging directly is not malicious, it is clear. Your feedback should be clear and specific. The Situation-Behavior-Impact model is very helpful.

3. Besides Radical Candor, there are three other categories:
  • Radical Candor™ is what happens when you care personally and challenge directly.
  • Obnoxious Aggression™ is what happens when you challenge but don’t care. It’s praise that doesn’t feel sincere or criticism that isn’t delivered kindly.
  • Ruinous Empathy™ is what happens when you care but don’t challenge. It’s praise that isn’t specific enough to help the person understand what was good or criticism that is sugarcoated and unclear.
  • Manipulative Insincerity™ is what happens when you neither care nor challenge. It’s praise that is non-specific and insincere or criticism that is neither clear nor kind.

To make it easier to digest, here’s a concrete example: you’ve noticed that your colleague has a piece of spinach in between his teeth.

  • Radical Candor: you pulled him aside and told him about it privately.
  • Ruinous Empathy: you did nothing, thinking he will figure it out himself eventually. He did figure it out after a couple important meetings where he presented what he had been working on for the quarter.
  • Obnoxious Aggression: you pointed it out in front of everyone and he felt embarrassed.
  • Manipulative Insincerity: you talked about it and made fun of it behind his back.

It is important to note that these are not labels of people. We can act like any of these at any time. They are more like labels of the actions we perform.

The How: how to get/give feedback

First of all, training to ask and give feedback is like training your muscles: it’s not a one off session, and you need to work on it regularly.

Secondly, the “right” way to give and receive feedback is more like a vision we aspire to achieve. We will fall short from it and that’s okay. Make trade offs based on different situations, and keep asking for and giving feedback.

Now, let’s dive in to how we might do this!

1. How to get feedback:

  • Have a go-to question: Is there something I can do differently to make your work easier?
  • Ask your question and shut up. Don’t answer your own question. Let the other person answer it. When you throw a question at someone and stay silent, the awkwardness and discomfort will nudge nudge the other person to say something.
  • Embrace the discomfort: it won’t be comfortable. Buckle up.
  • Listen with the intent to understand, not to respond: it’s natural for you to defend yourself. Hold your horses. Do not ask for examples, because you might start cross-examining and trying to find excuses for yourself. If you are interrupting or thinking of a response, you are not listening. Instead, check for understanding. Ask clarifying questions, like “I think you are saying if I change A, B, and C, it will make your life easier in X, Y, and Z ways, is that correct?, and ask the other person to say more.
  • Reward the candor with action and change.

2. How to give feedback:

Russ introduced a super help framework for giving feedback: the HIP approach.

  • Give it Humbly: our default setting is that we are always so sure about our opinion, we always assume we are right. The truth is: you only have half of the story every time at best. You never have the full picture until you start hearing from the other person’s perspective. So try to build the full story by starting with: “Here is what I think and here is why I think that.”
  • Make it Helpful: your intention is to be helpful, so before delivering the feedback, write down your feedback and your objective on giving the feedback. Thinking about it is one thing. Writing it down is another. Practice delivering the feedback if necessary. Make your feedback specific and sincere. The purpose of praise is to let people know what to do more of. Simply saying “you are doing a good job!” without any details or context is not helpful. Try to also include why you think they deserve the praise and how their work has help the team or the project. Use the Situation-Behavior-Impact model.
  • Give it Immediately: “immediately” is relative, but in general, do not wait more than 24 hours. This is similar to sports training: a coach tells you what you did right and what you need to change immediately after your performance. We give feedback quickly so we can iterate and improve quickly. As daunting as it might seem, most of the time, giving feedback won’t take more than 10 minutes. Never save feedback up for later.
  • Give it In person: a huge percentage of communication is non-verbal. Here is the order of where it is most effective to give feedback: Face to Face > Video Call > Phone Call > Text.
  • Praise in Public to inspire others in the team to follow the example. Criticize in Private.
  • Don’t make your feedback about Personalities, make it about the work they’ve done.

Besides the HIP approach, I also learned a few other things:

We had three practice rounds, and I generalized a “template” from them.

  • The Introduction: start off by finding common ground and asking for permission to give feedback. For instance: “I remember you talked about wanting to get better at XYZ, and I noticed something that might be helpful. Do you have a second to chat about it?”
  • The Body: [1. Show empathy.] “The project’s deadline was tight and everyone on the team was working very hard. I can imagine you must be under a lot of pressure and it must be a very challenging time.” [2. Present the half-picture you have with the SBI model.] “When {the situation}, you {the behavior} and that {the impact}.” [3. Continue until the other person understands what you try to say.]
  • The End: make sure the other person gets your point: “Does that make sense? Can you tell me what you just hear?”

Wow! That was a long post. I took a break while writing. Looking back at all these tips, it seems pretty intimidating! For example, I’m so used to being “professional” that even the idea of showing that I care about my colleagues seems a bit intimidating to me.

Every time I need to make a difficult change I make it a challenge to myself. I challenge myself to ask for at least round of feedback and give at least one round of feedback every week for the next 8 weeks. I challenge you to join my journey to achieve radical candor!

“We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” -John F. Kennedy

Originally published at

Sihui Huang

Written by

Engineering @Gusto; Writing at

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