Isabel Varey - Sharing feedback effectively for performance & relationships

Books In Action Conversation

Sketch note by Sam Warburton

Sketch note of a Books In Action podcast episode with guest, Isabel Varey from Stonewater

The conversation

Isabel Varey is the Customer Experience Director at Stonewater Housing, founding member & Co-Chair of Women in Social Housing East, and Chair of the Chartered Institute of Housing (East region).

Build relationships by delivering effective feedback to your colleagues and direct reports by implementing ideas from the book, Radical Candor by Kim Scott. Isabel shares her experiences of applying these key concepts in this conversation.

You can watch the author explain the key concept of radical candor at a HubSpot Inbound talk.

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Table of Contents

Guest speaker introduction – Isabel Varey

Rhiannon Gibbs:

Today, I’m joined by Isabel Varey, Customer Experience Director at Stonewater Housing and founding member and co-chair of Women in Social Housing East and chair of the Chartered Institute of Housing East. Isabel, thanks for joining us.

Isabel Varey:

Hi Rhiannon, how are you?

Rhiannon Gibbs:

Good, thank you.

Book introduction – Why Radical Candor?

Rhiannon Gibbs:

So, you’ve chosen to talk to us about Radical Candor by Kim Scott, which is effectively about building relationships by delivering effective feedback to your colleagues and direct reports. So we’ve had a little chat, but tell everybody that’s listening, why Radical Candor?

Isabel Varey:

Yes. Why Radical Candor? It’s a book that sets out how feedback is at the heart of people being good at their jobs and looks at the role of what Kim refers to is as ‘the boss’. To avoid muddling up with whether it’s a leader, or a manager, she just calls it, the boss; your role in giving feedback to others in order for people to, what she says, do the best work of their lives and just really reflecting on the role that feedback has. I think you’ve mentioned its role in relationships, but actually then it’s a virtuous circle between the relationship and the feedback. It’s not cause and effect the sense of one or the other, it’s both directions.

Implementing Radical Candor

Rhiannon Gibbs:

Tell us about your experience of implementing the concept in Radical Candor.

Isabel Varey:

Yes. So, her mantra is to be direct with people, to challenge directly, and that is through both praise and criticism. Ultimately, what she’s telling you is that if you can see somebody or something that is holding someone back or holding a team back and where their opportunity to do good work or to progress in their career is being held back, it is your job to let them know. And there are things you can do that help that go well, but ultimately you need to let them know and you need to get over that; that conversation is hard, and don’t trick yourself into thinking you’re being nice by not telling them. And that’s where she talks about this phrase, ruinous empathy, that you are ruining someone’s chances if you don’t tell them. You just have to work out how to tell them.

Then there’s a balance between telling them those things and nitpicking. She also says you should leave three unimportant things, not said every day or some number of things. So it’s not about suddenly picking people up on every single little thing that they do. It is about spotting these things and delivering the feedback to them in a good way. And I previously had a boss who was very conscious, and he did this, he did this very consciously and I really appreciated it because he did do what Kim Scott says, which is he also showed me he cared. He cared about my career. He cared about how I was doing at work. He cared about the quality of the results of my work as well and how I perceived by others.

And we had a sequence of meetings that had gone well, but not as well as I’d wanted them to. And people’s reactions to my work has maybe been not as positive as they could have been. He told me that when I’m trying to get something across, I have an impulse, which means I can point. And he said, you don’t realise you’re doing it, but people see it as a very aggressive move. And you also interrupt too often, which I still do more than I wish I did.

But those two really specific bits of information, they did sting at the time because you’re like, oh, okay. However, he also told me all the other things that were going well and how the meetings had got positive outcomes. But those two bits of information really stuck out.

The ’Um’ story

Isabel Varey:

And then I read this Radical Candor book and she has the ‘um’ story. Now, Kim Scott has, at one point in her career, she’s at Google and she worked for Cheryl Sandberg who after a presentation had not gone well, actually the presentation goes very well. In fact, I think Kim says she walked out the room expecting a high five. And actually, what she gets is a conversation where she is praised about the elements of it that went well. However, there is also, this feedback that she says ‘um’ a lot and it’s going to undermine her credibility. Cheryl forces her to pay attention to the fact that she said it and offers this help in terms of voice coaching and things.

And I remember my boss saying, sit on your hands. This is a very specific bit of advice that I can give you. He also went as far to reflect that he has similar tendencies and I think he said that he occasionally did a sort of “yes!” and created a sort of fist in what he feels like is a positive yes, with a sort of almost fist pump to himself. But again, this perception that other people actually see this as a very aggressive move.

So that was really interesting for me, and I have tried to do this with other people where I’ve noticed that is a tick that is getting in your way; if you say it very regularly and it’s not a useful thing for you to be saying, you need to know you’re doing that. And again, it’s that thinking, am I nitpicking or is this valid? And they need to hear it. So, that’s been very interesting for me thinking about how I give feedback and also the idea that it is on you to do it. You’ve got to suck it up and give that feedback and help the other person handle it as well.

Rhiannon Gibbs:

Brilliant example. I know we’ve had lean practitioners we’ve worked with in the past. And one of the exercises we get them to do very early in their lean practitioner days is part of their facilitation training. And it’s to deliver a presentation on anything they like. It’s not testing their knowledge of lean or agile tools or techniques. It might be their experience of, I’ve had one where they’ve talked about, you know, managing the dementia with their parents. They’ve had one where we’ve had Lego fanatics. I’m pointing at the background and the office now, and they do a presentation and it’s to identify those verbal ticks. And I do remember once a group of practitioners sitting down and somebody stood up and did their presentation. And they said, erm, 50 times in five minutes, 50 something times. And they sat down, and I said to the group, “okay, feedback for this person.”

Everybody had spotted the erms and had written it down. And they said, you clearly know what you’re talking about, and you’re in a friendly environment, but you’re saying this, erm, and it’s a very hard habit to stop, but by being aware of it, it makes it easier.

We were joking before we started the podcast about ums and erms as well. One bit of feedback I’ve been given by my mentor Bev in the past is that if I get nervous, I touch my hair a lot when I’m presenting. So, if I’m doing, and nobody else can see it because this is an audio podcast, but if I’m touching my hair, I’m probably slightly uncomfortable. Again, a bit like your sit on your hands if you’re pointing, it makes you very aware. Without that feedback, you can’t do anything about it.

Give specific details of praise and criticism for quality feedback

Isabel Varey:

The key that Kim talks about for this working over a long time; I’ve sort of got three different things in my head. One of them is that the praise is just as important as the criticism. Your praise has to be high quality and it also has to be specific. So it’s not enough to be telling people they’re good and then go in with the criticism because they won’t understand what that good means. And seeing that giving people specific praise is it’s not just about making them feel okay about the fact that you’re about to criticise them. It’s about that shaping their work as well. And that praise can be a direct challenge, telling people this was the bit that was good. If they’re not really conscious that that was the bit that was good, they just know, when I present like this, it seems to go well. They may not have broken it down by that, so praise can be direct and challenging as well as criticism and thinking about it in that more interesting way.

That’s definitely something that I’ve thought about. I’ve reflected on my own experiences when I’ve been told you’re doing well. You’re good. And you could feel very frustrated because, how can I improve? Help me improve. I remember at university, I got stuck submitting essays that were getting the same mark every time and thinking, I’m spending so much time writing these essays, I want to be feeling like I’m improving. Unfortunately, my lecturers and tutors were finding it very hard to pin down what they actually wanted me to do to add on those extra points or whatever, and sort of actually going “oh, it’s the holistic perception of BSA. It’s how it feels” and I was just absolutely full of rage in my head – I can’t use that! [Laughs]

Rhiannon Gibbs:

You feel like a Psychology lecturer should have been able to be more specific. [Laughs]

Isabel Varey:

I look back now, and I can be more specific with my past self – your essays were boring and I can see it! You’ve over worked them to a point where they’re just so dry. This is how you could reduce that paragraph by a third of the words and made it a bit more entertaining. Me now can talk to past me now and see the specific advice I needed if I couldn’t see it then. And also praising the bit that was working and you’ve used a hundred references and you didn’t need to. But these were the five references that were really good. I’ve definitely reflected on my own experience of wanting that more specific praise and feedback. And then thinking when I’m talking to other people about how you made the praise high quality.

I remember listening to somebody saying, you need to praise people 20 times for every one bit of negative feedback. And Kim Scott in Radical Candor says that there should always be more praise than criticism, and that praise can’t be bland, and that praise can’t be not useful. She talks about the idea that you can make the criticism okay by having the sandwich; two bits of good news makes the bad news okay, but it doesn’t if the two bits of good news are insincere.

We’ve just been having our appraisals at where I work now at Stonewater. I’ve really tried hard, harder than I think I’ve ever tried before this year, to reflect on giving that specific praise; these are the things that are good. So, yes, that’s an interesting one – thinking about praise as much as criticism because we don’t often enough.

Actively seek and respond to criticism

Isabel Varey:

The other area Kim talks a lot about is receiving more than you give. So, you should be seeking criticism yourself, listening to it and responding to it. I’ve really thought about this and how you can make it work. One of the things that I’ve done for me and when I talked to others is trying to get people and trying to get myself to be okay about the idea of sunk cost, because actually to make it okay to receive feedback and to be okay about the idea that as a response to that feedback, what you’re going to do is change what you are doing. Actually, if you’ve got less sunk costs, it’s easier. Your pride can’t get in the way as quickly.

For example, if someone tells you these couple of things about how you’re running our team meetings at the moment aren’t really working for me because of this, this and this, and you go into, ‘but this is how I’ve run team meetings for five years’ mode, you can probably unconsciously give them the impression that you think it’s more a problem with them than you, thinking ‘well everyone else has been okay with these meetings that I run’. You’re also backing yourself into a bit of a corner and you’ve attached your personality almost – ‘this is how I run meetings and you’re questioning how I run meetings’. Whereas if you’re very clear that you’re changing things, you’re trying different things. I mean, changing things, trying things have lots of benefits in terms of responding to the different people you’re bound to have in your team and not letting people just go into automatic pilot when they’re with you.

Also, when you need to change things, it’s not this big boom moment. Actually you can just quite softly keep adjusting what you’re doing and responding to that person. Because if you’re going to ask for feedback, where you’re going to give people the time to tell you these things, the absolute risk is that you don’t then respond to that. And Kim Scott talks about that; they will not talk to you or share these insights with you again if you don’t do anything about it. You have to show that you are ready to change and that that will help you when you are giving them feedback and you’re giving people the permission to respond to feedback and improve themselves. That is about our behaviours and how we’re organising ourselves and how we’re doing things. It’s not about our personalities but being okay about sunk costs. “Well, I have run these meetings for five years like this; great that I know I can improve it now”, rather than “I’m very annoyed that no one told me before.”

Rhiannon Gibbs:

Definitely acting on feedback is always, always, always the hardest. As I said before, I really liked the way you brought this route to continuous improvement. If you’re always improving what you do, then feedback just becomes part of that cycle. As opposed to, you know, feeling defensive because you never change anything and therefore any change becomes really obvious. You’re constantly using improvement, then this forms a nice part of that. Any final thoughts?

Build relationships and show that you care personally with sincere feedback & conversations

Isabel Varey:

The only other element that is a thread throughout the book is that all of this is better when you care personally about the people you work with. And that caring personally is something that, Kim Scott reflects, is not about being there for the drinks after work or going karting on an away day. It’s about having sincere conversations that you have put effort into in terms of delivering that high quality praise and criticism, just feedback, and this is your job. This is you doing your job. Bosses, when you’re working with people, you’re not babysitting people’s emotions. You’re not like this isn’t something to be seen. Caring personally about people, being there for them when they need you to be in terms of their home life, or other things that are going on in terms of how they’re responding to their work – that is your job and it’s so important.

If people can see that you care personally, which you show through the quality of conversations that you’re having with them, then you can create these cultures. And she talks about this kind of microcosms of cultures you can have where teams are thriving in this way. And I really do believe this is a culture you can grow, but it is demonstrating that through caring about people personally. And I’ve reflected through the pandemic that we’re working on video calls and you think, “oh, I’m going to have less of a relationship with people because we’re not there in person and the chemistry” and actually, I have been again and again, I have been blown away by the quality of relationships you can have over video call. If you’re talking regularly and if the quality of what you’re saying to each other is high, and you’re doing that frequently and you’re improving each other’s work in a very reciprocal way, and you’re open to feedback, you can show people you care and you can have very high quality relationships over video call. When I think, I’ve taken reassurance that caring personally isn’t threatened by the pandemic and then a hybrid working model.

Rhiannon Gibbs:

I completely agree with you. A quick example, at Ad Esse we normally meet face-to-face every two months and that’s not been possible for the last 18 months, but in the last 15 months, we’ve got three new team members who do absolutely pivotal business development roles within the company. And yet the team has come together in a way I’ve never seen before. I say, we’ve got our best ever now, and yet we’ve never met as a group, face-to-face. And for me, that absolutely backs up your observation about you bond and it’s not about drinks and go-karting. We do do all that stuff normally. 

Isabel Varey:

Yeah, that’s important. It’s important for different reasons. You know, you can be blowing off steam or doing something else; you’re getting something out of it. It’s not that you’re not getting something out of those things; that’s just not how you build relationships that show you care.

Rhiannon Gibbs:

Totally agree. And that’s a really important point and very relevant given the situation we all find ourselves in.

Sharing effective feedback helps to build relationships and personal performance. Thank you so much Isabel for joining me on the Books In Action podcast. For our listeners, you can find Kim Scott’s book, Radical Candor, from any good book retailer. There’s also a TED talk that acts as a good precis for the book. We’ll put the link in the show notes.