Let me tell you a personal story.
When I became a product design manager, my first direct report was someone who graduated from the same school, the same program as me. Portfolio looked solid as a new grad, the interview was smooth, made a great first impression with everyone. It looked like she checked all the boxes comparing to other candidates.
I brought her on as my first-ever direct report. Being a manager was exciting and scary to me at the same time. But I thought, how hard can it be? As long as I am being nice, polite, and supportive of my direct reports, I’ll earn respect from them, right?
It didn’t take me long to realize that she was having trouble delivering satisfactory work. She struggled with understanding the business value of design, became increasingly flustered when she couldn’t understand the conversations and had multiple instances of conflicts with people on the team. I knew her performance was problematic, but I kept telling myself, “she is just a new grad. I hired her, so it is 100% my responsibility to clean up the mess, and hope she’d learn eventually.” As a result, every time she couldn’t deliver on the requirements, I’d hold her hands to a point where I was doing 80% of her work. Every time she had conflicts with someone, I’d tell her that it was all the other person’s fault, and she had done nothing wrong.
During her employment with us, I didn’t say a single, critical word. It made me twitch just thinking about giving critical feedback to others, especially my direct reports. Even when I felt like saying something constructive, I’d obsessively sugarcoat it and the real message never got delivered to the receiver.
One year later, I left the company and was made aware that she was laid off right after. To this day, I still feel responsible for this. I still feel that I was a terrible manager. I still feel that this was a result of me sheltering her from the real world that every young, fresh-out-of-school designer needed to learn from and grow in. Because it was all too painful for her, I chose to protect, like a parent who didn’t want their children to get hurt.
At my new job, I became an individual contributor. I found myself much happier, even when the work itself got harder. I am pretty sure it has something to do with me not having direct reports. All I am managing now is my work, my ideas, and my growth. I still give feedback from time to time, but it is much easier when I don’t feel responsible for the other person’s success, or failure. I was happy that I could just avoid all that, and finally run away from this problem. Until recently —
I’ve been giving feedback to a fellow designer. His work is great — solid design skills, beautiful visuals. However, my feedback has been consistently along the same lines: “Great crafting, but I don’t see any user data or business value that backs up this approach.” I repeat this almost every time, in different ways, with some sugarcoating, of course. Then one day I realized I’ve been wasting my time giving this feedback. The message never gets across. Finally, I sent a message that read, “When we evaluate the effectiveness and usability of our UX, Let’s try backing up our statements with facts and data. Not ‘I guess’.”
After I pressed send, I immediately questioned myself, “Who am I? If it was two years ago, I would have never said something remotely close to this level of bluntness. This was simply imaginable.” To be honest, typing and sending this message was painful for me. I thought I was so rude, and being someone not like myself was just so uncomfortable that I even had a physical reaction. I mean, what was going through my head?
I think, deep down I want to fix my inability to say anything negative about anything. Reading the book Radical Candor made me realize that I can’t forever hide behind this idea that this world should be filled with just praises and cheers. There is also truth to be told, and the truth is often hard to say and hear. I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone, by being the unpleasant truth-teller.
The fellow designer didn’t take it well. He responded and basically told me he knew what he was doing. “Maybe I was unqualified to give the feedback, after all”, I said to myself. But at least I tried, for once, doing something I thought I’d never done before. I now know how it feels to speak the truth in front of everyone. I now know how it feels to stand by something I believe is right. Perhaps this is just one of many lessons I need to learn on my journey to become a better designer.