Kim Scott on Feedback, Candor, and Gender Bias Bingo

LOVED this article by Kim Scott on First Round Review about how gender bias relates to ongoing workplace struggles with candor. She’s doing this incredible project called Radical Candor to build tools to help people be candid at work. She defines radical candor as “the ability to give both praise and criticism in a way that challenges people directly and shows you care about them personally” and breaks communication styles down via this great visual:


She goes on to explain why candor is difficult: we’re trained NOT to do it!

Most people have been told since they learned to talk some version of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” When they become a boss, the very thing they have been taught not to do since they were 18 months old is suddenly their job.

Cue Maya Angelou:


Scott’s piece links to this terrific education project about gender bias that fills my heart with both sadness and joy (yes! we know enough about gender bias to be pithy! ugh, there’s enough gender bias to make a bingo card). There’s a clickable link on the site to enter your experiences and a printable format as well.


Related to the notion of communicating with candor is this post about giving feedback, which summarizes some key points from a few leadership and management books, specifically about making sure you know what you’re trying to accomplish by giving feedback, and lists out three kinds of feedback to be aware of:

  • APPRECIATION is expression of gratitude or approval of another’s effort. It is an expression of emotion, designed to meet an emotional need.
  • ADVICE (or COACHING) consists of suggestions about particular behavior that should be repeated or changed. It focuses on the performance, rather than judging the person.
  • EVALUATION is ranking the subject’s performance in relation to that of others or against an explicit or implicit set of standards.


The end of that post recommends Getting to Yes, the negotiation book by William Ury, whose Creative Mornings talk I just linked.

Related: Link: Feedback



Sarah Kay on working

Maria Popova (Brainpickings) is so great at interviewing, and shares my fascination with work and how people approach work. She just posted a great interview with poet Sarah Kay, about being a working artist, about kindness and empathy and vulnerability, and about approaches to work.

Kay tells a fable:

A girl walks up to a construction site and asks the first man she sees, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” And he says, “Oh, can’t you see I’m laying bricks?” She then walks up to the second man she sees, who is doing the exact same thing the first one was doing, and says, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” And he says, “Oh, can’t you see I’m building a wall?” And then she reaches the third man, who is doing the same thing as the previous two, and she says, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” And he says, “Oh, can’t you see I’m building a temple?”

She goes on to draw parallels to her own work — what parts of it are brick laying, what parts are wall building, and what parts are temple building. She adds: “But what’s so wonderful about all of this is that if you focus on one of the three for too long, you lose sight of the other two — so it requires a lot of shifting and balancing in order to get anything done at all.”

Lovely complement to Derek Sivers’ recent post about needing to consider all three elements (happy/smart/useful) in his work.



William Ury on negotiation

Just watched this fantastic Creative Mornings talk by William Ury about negotiation (h/t). He notes that that crucial elements of negotiation are a) listening, and b) learning how not to be reactive. In his view, the biggest obstacle we have to getting what we want is ourselves.

Interestingly, that’s the same sentiment found in mindfulness study. Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach has done a lot of instruction on the topic, and developed a tool called the RAIN method for helping people learn how to respond rather than react, though it is geared more toward internal rather than external conflict. Here’s a video of her speaking about it in 2011.

And back to the topic of work and how people make livings, Ury’s talk also reminded me of this anonymous interview with  a negotiations coach in the What Do You Do series of anonymous interviews. It’s a really enjoyable read and hugely informative.

Derek Sivers on three things to consider in decision-making


I love this Derek Sivers piece about finding your work in the sweet intersection of these three factors. Really enjoyable breakdown of what you get when you’ve only got two of them and have forgotten to account for the third. He concludes:

When a life or plan feels ultimately unsatisfying, I find it’s because I’ve forgotten to include:

  • what makes me happy
  • what’s smart (long-term good for me)
  • what’s useful to others



Asana blog on feedback

There’s some good advice in this Asana blog post about giving feedback on creative work. It’s largely rooted in the tenets of facilitation and expectation-setting:

“Ideally, you spent some time clarifying the objectives and nailing down the requirements—target audience, channel, timeline, etc.—of your project before your creative team started executing on designs and copy. So when it’s time to give feedback, you’ll have something to refer back to.”

There’s another facet in this piece that I really appreciated, which is about making sure to be clear about whether your feedback must be incorporated or whether it’s just a recommendation:

“It’s important to distinguish between blocking feedback and advisory feedback. The former are changes that must be addressed before something goes out the door. This might be a design interaction that doesn’t align with your goals or written content that doesn’t meet legal guidelines. The latter kind of feedback includes things that would be nice to have, but aren’t critical to the success of the project.”

Being clear about this is so important — not only for the person giving feedback, but for the person receiving it. If there’s any doubt, clarify!


I’ve mentioned that being a generalist gives me a good vantage point to see similarities and differences across fields and thus to gather a lot of tools and skills to use. But equally important is knowing when to use which tool for which job — that’s based on understanding transition and recognizing where you are in it:

  • A product transitions through the phases of the product development process or software development lifecycle.
  • A project transitions through the project management phases.
  • An organization transitions through growth models, workforce, and management approaches. 

If you’ve got a deep enough tool kit, you can pick and choose what’s going to be most useful for the work at hand, rather than trying to use a cookie cutter approach.  What you need for working with an early-stage startup, for instance, will be very different from what you need in a more established organization — not just because the work is different, but also because the people are different. Personalities often self-select to different stages of project and company.

recent 99U article about using sprints very early in the product development process highlights a key reason for adjusting your approach based on the stage of development:

While you can spend longer building a perfect prototype, that isn’t the point of the sprint—it’s a learning process, not a manufacturing one. Knapp has found that teams can get 90 percent of a product’s user interface finished in a single day. And that timeframe is important. “After a day you are definitely willing to listen to what customers say about your product,” says Knapp. “But when your prototyping goes on longer than that, you become more and more attached to the idea.”

But sprints may not be a useful framework in a later stage in manufacturing, for instance, where root cause understanding is more critical than feature building. That kind of work may be more investigative and documentation-based, requiring different tools altogether.

Sometimes you need to be rigid and focus on diligence above all else, and sometimes you need to focus on individual autonomy, loosen the grip, and accommodate different working styles above all else. The key is knowing when to use which approach, and that really depends on where you are in the interplay of transitions.

Here’s a short deck I made to illustrate the interplay of these stages, and what tools come to bear. Click on the arrows or on the slide itself to advance the deck.

No matter what tools you use, or what approach you take, you’ll only be effective if you keep empathy at the core. Managing transition is managing change. Transition is hard and  can be emotional, but you can make it less painful by setting expectations, clarifying process, and making sure everyone understands how to hold each other accountable to the process — all of which are driven by empathy.



I love talking and reading about work — my own work, and what other people do for work. I took a copy of Working by Studs Terkel with me on a backpacking trip once. There are infinite paths through life, and that’s true for the working world as well. There’s a fabulous series called What Do You Do that illustrates anonymous interviews with people working all kinds of jobs (art handler! bouncer! best-selling author! negotiation coach!) that I read with glee every time there’s a new post.  One of the reasons I love learning about other peoples’ work is that it’s about finding other perspectives, other voices, other approaches. It reveals that what we are all doing is pretty darn similar, just using different words and different frameworks. The delight of a generalist: it’s all related, you just have to find the common thread.

And one of the things that is so neat about finding the common thread is that it removes the need to think about the work at hand as a problem, a fire to put out, and instead lets us think about it more openly, with more curiosity, and see it as a project to be investigated and explored. The cost of thinking about work as a problem is that it changes how you approach the work — it strips away inquiry and replaces it with urgency. Worse, it creates a barrier to finding the root of the issue.

Say I’m approached by someone at work saying “we need to change ______” (fill in the blank document, process, specification, really anything). If I were approaching it as a problem, I would just do what they ask, and just fix their problem. But if I approach it as something worthy of investigation, I dig deeper into why they think they need this fix. What’s this symptomatic of? What is the underlying frustration? Who is impacted? This is the way medical professionals are trained to interview their patients — to assess first, and act second. That’s not the training in most fields, but it’s valuable everywhere.

There’s a sweet aside in Michael Moore’s autobiography, in which Kurt Vonnegut tells him the meaning of life:

“We’re here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

It’s beautiful because it’s totally open for interpretation. It might mean putting compassion and kindness and empathy above all else. It might mean that we do work because it’s hard or because it makes us happy. It might mean doing work for future generations. Or it might mean just surviving.

As Robert Frost famously said, “the best way out is through.” Do the work. Get through this thing.pat-fennessy-aiga-design-quote-frost(This gorgeous print is by Patrick Fennessy.)

Shawn Achor’s 2012 Ted talk (The Happy Secret to Better Work) makes a very clear link between work and happiness. The premise is that your brain is more open to learning, more motivated, and more able to do good work when you’re happy. And conversely, the usual “I’ll work hard and my success will make me happy” script does not work.

And this Harvard Business Review article about positive work cultures being more productive than negative ones takes that same idea one more step to clarify that it’s engagement that keeps people happy. It points to disengagement as a very costly cause of organizational and individual stress, and goes on to note that you just don’t find engaged, happy workers in negative work environments:

“Engagement in work — which is associated with feeling valued, secure, supported, and respected — is generally negatively associated with a high-stress, cut-throat culture.”

The piece goes on to distill six characteristics of a positive workplace culture, and all rooted in empathy. All of them.

Engagement is tied very closely to accountability in group dynamics (really, what reason is there to be engaged if the team, or others on the team are not held accountable?). There’s a somewhat grim discussion of (lack of) accountability in another Harvard Business Review article. It centers around the study of cooperation and what happens to teams with cheaters or “free-riders.”

“Within a group, free-riders and cheaters often get ahead of hard working contributors: they enjoy the benefits of group membership without making the personal sacrifice. However, groups of cooperative contributors outperform groups of cheating free-riders. Thus, it is no surprise that groups in which free-riders are punished for their loafing outperform groups in which they are not. But the interesting finding in all of this is that the person who does the punishing actually pays a personal price in terms of lost social support. In a nutshell, group performance requires that someone plays the role of sheriff, but it is a thankless job. It is another one of those sticky cases where what is good for the group can be bad for the individual.”

Accountability and engagement bring us right back to the idea of learning to love the means, the process, the doing, the working, rather than the ends (the completed work). Maria Popova (brainpickings) wrote a lovely piece about Annie Dillard’s book the Writing Life, about habits, about routines, about the way we approach our work and our lives. Dillard said the single most representative sentiment, illustrating how I think about work and life, which can be applied to productivity, but also to relationships and intentions and work style and communication style and our whole selves, our priorities:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” – Annie Dillard