Embrace Your Suck

How Welcoming Criticism Can Lead to Meaningful Improvement


Feedback sessions. 360 Reviews. Net Promoter Scores. One on Ones. When you read those words, what emotions or responses are bubbling up in your mind (or your gut)? Is it Fear? Anxiety? Anger? How about Elation?

I’m sure that, for most of you, that last one made you laugh out loud (and maybe spit out your drink). In fact, science has shown that we when hear criticism, our bodies have a physical and psychological response, where our “ego can get so defensive that it becomes its own ‘totalitarian regime’, where information is censored in our mind.“[1]

But, what if you could retrain your brain to be open to, and even crave, what otherwise may be considered negative feedback and criticism? There are some organizations and people who are promoting just that — a company culture focused around open, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable conversations. In a recent episode of his WorkLife podcast from Ted, organizational psychologist Adam Grant met with business owners, employees, and coaches to explore the concept of ‘radical transparency’ and candor. You can listen to the entire episode here.

A Radical Push for Excellence

Following an important meeting, Bridgewater Associates CEO Ray Dalio received the following email from one of his employees, Jim Haskel:

Did your jaw drop? Are you curious if Jim was immediately escorted out of the building? Have you secretly wanted to convey a similar message to a co-worker or leader within your company? What if I told you that, at Bridgewater Associates, this is not only tolerated, but embraced and encouraged? In fact, Ray responded to this feedback by asking ALL employees to grade him on his performance.

In Ray’s opinion, one of the “tragedies of mankind is people holding their opinions and feedback to themselves”. Sugar-coated feedback can be disingenuous (and even proven to be detrimental); and silence many times can be deafening. By putting criticism out in the open, Ray wants colleagues to be “partners in one another’s self-discovery”, giving each “humility to deal with [their] own audacity”. This ensures that he has the smartest people who can check one another and continually push for excellence.

Criticism with Compassion

Kim Scott, an executive coach and author of “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity”, says the two cornerstones of good leadership are: candor and care. She advises her clients to eliminate the phrase ‘don’t take it personally’ from their vocabulary. She notes that good leadership requires emotional presence, where you should approach and react to discussions with compassion (vs. denial), demonstrating that you care, personally, about the person as a human being, but at the same time be comfortable with challenging them directly.

Kim also recommends avoiding “feedback sandwiches”, where you lead and end a discussion with praise. In her view, most people ignore the ‘stuff in the middle’. If you truly care about your employers and colleagues, simply being nice to them is actually doing more harm than good — what Scott calls ‘ruinous empathy’. In your desire to be ‘nice’ and not hurt their feelings or tarnish your reputation, you are not giving the person the information they need to actually improve, grow, or succeed.

Reshape Your Cheer Section

Grant notes that, when coworkers (or friends, family members, total strangers) criticize us, we — in turn — avoid them and retreat to the comfort of ourcheerleaders’, focusing more about our image than in meaningful improvement and results. He advocates each of us gather a ‘challenge network’ — a group of people who you trust are there to help you get better at what you do and who you are.

Personally, I absolutely love and fully embrace this idea. In all areas of my life, I have tried to provide (and be open to receiving) blunt, honest feedback for just the very reasons noted above. If we aren’t willing to hear where and how we suck, then how are we ever going to evolve and grow, as friends, family, partners, parents, and professionals? However, I am definitely taking Kim’s advice to lead with compassion, since my husband has a tendency to tell me, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”. While my feedback has (mostly) emanated from a desire to help someone gain clarity in what may be holding them back, my delivery could probably use a little spit polish.

So, what do you think? Are radical candor and transparency concepts you feel you can implement in your own company? How about even within your own life? Give those in your ‘network’ (be it personal — friends, family — or professional) permission to be radically transparent with you. You may be surprised what you learn from them…and how it can make not only you, but those with whom you’re collaborating with, a better, more successful version of themselves.

Let’s continue this conversation…tell me if this post sucks (no, seriously, I want to know), and whether you think this concept is totally crazy, or crazy brilliant.

[1] “Dear Billionaire, I Give You a D-”, WorkLife with Adam Grant podcast (Feb. 28, 2018)

Founder of Painted Porch Strategies, where we help individuals and businesses Design a Blueprint for Eudaimonia (aka “the Good Life”) through Stoicism.

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