How to Use Unicorn Labs' Feedback Principles at your Startup

“If there are people in your organization who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose. Do not discount ideas from unexpected,” Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar.

We’ve all been there: trapped in pointless meetings where participants are afraid to speak honestly.

We twiddle our thumbs through diplomatic PowerPoint presentations, waiting for the meeting to end so that the honest conversations — which usually happen in private — can begin.

The desire to avoid conflict is understandable, but it’s one of the most debilitating factors in organizational life.

Lack of candor contributes to longer cycle times, slow decision-making, and unnecessarily iterative discussions.

A too-polite veneer often signals an overly politicized workplace: Colleagues who are afraid to speak honestly to people’s faces do it behind their backs. This behaviour comes with a price.

Giving honest feedback is tricky because it can easily result in people feeling hurt or demoralized. One helpful distinction, made most clearly at Pixar, is to aim for candor and avoid brutal honesty. By seeking candor — feedback that is smaller, more targeted, less personal, less judgmental, and equally impactful — it’s easier to maintain a sense of safety and belonging in the group.

Luckily, cultures of silence in teams can be changed — but only if leaders become teachers and models of candor.

People won’t speak up unless they feel psychological safety in the workplace and competent to do so.

When leaders engage in dialogue, people acquire the skills to present their concerns and the confidence to share their views. They also speak up, knowing their thoughts, opinions, and ideas are welcomed and valued.

"Create an environment in which everyone has the right to understand what makes sense, and no one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up," Ray Dalio.

In this blog, you’ll understand what Radical Candor is, how to create a culture that embraces that ideology, and Unicorn Labs’ Feedback Principles.

You can also check previous blog that reflect on the topic of feedback culture in the workplace:

👉 How to Create a Feedback Culture in Your Startup

👉 A Manager’s Guide to Cultivate Accountability and Effective Feedback at any Startup

What is Radical Candor and Why it Matters When Giving Feedback?

Ask anyone, “Should people be honest?” and of course, their answer will be yes. It has to be! Saying no is to endorse dishonesty, which is like coming out against literacy or childhood nutrition — it sounds like a moral transgression.

But the fact is there are often good reasons not to be honest in the work environment. Thus creating a dilemma.

Undoubtedly, our decision-making is better if we draw on the group’s collective knowledge and frank opinions. But as valuable as that information is, our fears and instincts for self-preservation often cause us to hold back.

What would you think if you overheard an employee confiding in another, “If I tell the director…what customers are saying, my career will be shot”? We heard this, verbatim, in the course of our research on communication in a leading high-technology corporation.

To address this reality, we need to free ourselves of honest baggage, as Catmull puts it.

One way to do it is to replace the word honesty with one that has a similar meaning but fewer moral connotations: candor.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott is a really simple idea: you may give difficult feedback if the person you’re giving feedback to knows that you care personally for them.

This framing is useful when you’re a manager.

One of the most important tasks a manager may do is to give good, actionable feedback to their team; and radical candor shows you how to do so without being an asshole.      

Scott’s formulation points out that you may evaluate any piece of feedback along two dimensions — the care personally dimension and the challenge directly dimension.  

Scoring low on either dimension throws you into one of the lousier quadrants:  

The first level of nuance is that ‘care personally’ is measured at the ear of the receiver. This implies that radical candor is both culture and individual specific, and that you need to tailor your approach to the context you’re operating in.

As a manager, you need to tailor your feedback to the person you’re dealing with. You probably know some people who are more likely to read bad intentions into actions than others.

Scott argues that because ‘care personally’ is measured at the ear of the receiver, it’s your job as the manager to tailor your feedback accordingly.

The second nuance is that radical candor can apply to both criticism and praise alike!

High ‘Care Personally’, Low ‘Challenge Directly’ ➡️ Ruinous Empathy.

When you ‘just want to be nice.’ Leads to outcomes like ‘not telling nice-guy Joe from customer support that he treats clients like they’re beneath him, and that he either needs to work on that or get out of this line of work.’

Low ‘Care Personally’, Low ‘Challenge Directly’ ➡️ Manipulative Insincerity.

When you say things you don’t mean just to get someone out of your hair. For instance, Sarah did badly on her sales presentation, but you don’t like Sarah because you’ve judged her to be a terrible person, and so you tell her that she ‘did a good job’ so that you can go back to your own work.

Low on ‘Care Personally’, High on ‘Challenge Directly’ ➡️ Obnoxious Aggression.

Basically, means you’re an a**hole. Ironically, Scott notes that Obnoxious Aggression is the only alternative form of feedback after Radical Candor, which explains why sometimes assholes get ahead. They get ahead because they err on the side of actually giving feedback — and honest, actionable feedback is what is needed to deliver performance as a manager!

In summary, as managers, we must be prepare to have tough conversations with our members; however, feedback doesn't have to be scary, negative or paint us a**holes. By practicing Radical Candor when giving feedback, it will inevitably lead us to having high-performing teams with an authentic room for growth.

Now lets dive deeper into how you can create a Radical Candor culture at your startup.

How to Create A Radical Candor Culture at your Startup

Most people agree with developing a culture of Radical Candor, but they feel nervous about putting it into practice.

Kim Scotts’s advice is to explain the idea, then taking people to be Radically Candid with YOU.

In other words, start by getting feedback, not by dishing it out. Then start giving it, begin with praise, not criticism.

Here are a few steps to create a Radical Candor culture at your startup:

Step 1: Start by asking for criticism, not by giving it

Step 2: Give Radically Candid Praise

Step 3: Give Radically Candid Criticism

Step 1: Start by asking for criticism, not by giving it

Don’t dish it out before you show you can take it.

Managers get radically candid guidance from their teams not merely by being open to criticism but by actively soliciting it.

Note: If a person is bold enough to criticize you, do not critique their criticism.

This way, you demonstrate that you can take it before giving it.

In order to receive radically candid criticism from an unwilling team, Scott suggests that you spend a couple of weeks doing the following:

  • Don’t let people off the hook when they refuse to give feedback. Keep asking, and then use silence to get them to say something.
  • Reward them handsomely for their criticism. Thank them, praise them, most importantly: take action to fix their criticism if you can.
  • Scott argues that you should be soliciting guidance every day, in one-to-two minute conversations between engagements, not in scheduled meetings on your calendar.

You are the exception to the “criticize in private” rule of thumb 👍

Once I figured out who on my team was most comfortable criticizing me, I would ask that person to do it in front of others at a staff meeting or an all-hands meeting. They were always reluctant at first. But when you are the boss, that rule doesn't apply to you. When you encourage people to criticize you publicly, you get the chance to show your team that you really, genuinely want the criticism.

You also set an ideal for the group: everyone should embrace criticism that helps us do our jobs better.

Embrace the discomfort 😣

Most people will initially respond to your question with something along the lines of “Oh, everything is fine, thank you for asking,” and hope that's the end of the conversation. They probably didn't see your question coming, and so they feel immediately wary. Their discomfort will make you feel uncomfortable, and you may find yourself reassuring them by nodding and offering an “I’m glad to hear that.” Don't do this.

It's essential that you prepare yourself for these scenarios in advance and commit to sticking with the conversation until you have a genuine response.

Reward the Messenger 🤝🏿

Once you've asked your question and embraced the discomfort, and understood the criticism, you have to follow up by showing that you really did welcome it. You have to reward the candour if you want to get more of it.. In these moments, it’s important not simply to tolerate the difficult news but to embrace it.

If you agree with the criticism, make a change as soon as possible. If the necessary change will take time, do something visible to show you're trying.

Step 2: Give Radically Candid Praise

Scott’s recommended approach is to start with praise first and do it with your subordinates (not your boss!) Allowing them to get used to the idea of radically candid feedback in a way that is both easier for them and for you.

Radically candid praise is specific and sincere.  Easy to say, hard to do.

Being specific about what’s great rather than just saying “good jon” inspires growth rather than plateauing.

Sincerity usually flows from the combination of specificity and caring personally.

  • Be helpful when you explain precisely what is good and why. It helps them make good work great, and great work insanely great, and it helps them grow personally and professionally.
  • Be humble when you explain why you admire something and what you learned from it in detail.
  • Give praise immediately. You’ll remember the specifics much better when you see something great and point it out right away. Just say it!
  • Deliver praise in person. Communication is mostly non-verbal, and you can know how your praise is landing and adjust accordingly.
  • Give praise in public. Not only does it have more meaning for the person being praised, it helps the whole team learn something new. But there are exceptions — some people are embarrassed by public recognition. Make sure you know people well enough to flag this.
  • Don’t praise personality. Personalizing praise promotes plateauing and avoidance of risks. Saying specifically what was great and how to build on it promotes a growth mindset. Save the phrase “good boy” for your dog…
  • Multiple modes. I found that praising people at a public all-hands meeting was a great way to share significant accomplishments. However, I often found that following up in person at a 1:1 carried more emotional weight, and following up with an email to the whole team carried more lasting weight.
  • Balance praise and criticism. We learn more from our mistakes than our successes, more from criticism than praise. It’s just as important to let people know what to do more of and what to do less of. In other words, the best praise does a lot more than just make people feel good... It can actually challenge them directly.

"Worry more about praise, less about criticism - but above all, be sincere,” Kim Scott.

Step 3: Give Radically Candid Criticism

Situation. Behaviour. Impact.

This simple technique reminds you to describe three things when giving feedback: 1) the situation you saw, 2) the behaviour (i.e., what the person did, either good or bad), and 3) the impact you observed. This helps you avoid judging the person's intelligence, common sense, innate goodness, or other personal attributes.

Stating your intention to be helpful can lower defences ⤵️

Try a little preamble; for example, in your own words, say something like, “I’m going to describe a problem I see; I may be wrong, and if I am, I hope you'll tell me; if I'm not, I hope my bringing it up will help you fix it.”

Guidance is a gift, not a whip or a carrot 🎁

It took me a long time to learn that sometimes the only help I had to offer was the conversation itself. Adopting the mindset that guidance is a gift will ensure that your guidance is helpful even when you can't offer actual assistance, solutions, or an introduction to someone who can help.

Give feedback immediately ⌛

Giving guidance as quickly and as informally as possible is an essential part of Radical Candor, but it takes discipline-both because of our natural inclination to delay/avoid confrontation and because our days are busy enough as it is. But this is one of those cases where the difference in terms of time spent and impact is HUGE. Delay at your peril!

Don't "save up" guidance for a 1:1 or a performance review 🗓️

If you have a beef with somebody in your personal life, it would never occur to you to wait for a formally scheduled meeting to tell them. Don't let the formal processes — the 1:1 meetings, annual or biannual performance reviews, or employee happiness surveys — take over. Don't use performance reviews as an excuse not to give impromptu in-person feedback.

Unicorn Labs’ Feedback Principles

As we’ve covered in this blog, giving feedback is one of the most essential aspects in a manager’s role.

It is how we move forward from our mistakes and develop our members into becoming a high-performing team.

Feedback culture is defined by its priority to create fair, honest, and transparent communication between all employees. It’s a workplace culture that is focused on cycling quality and productive feedback among employees at all levels of an organization.

Every employee is encouraged to share ideas and give feedback on projects no matter their position on the ‘workplace pecking order.’

That means even junior level employees should be able to go to their boss and explain what they saw and how they might change it. Although their feedback may not necessarily be implemented, the point is that their feedback is wanted, respected, and taken seriously.

After plenty of research on creating a culture of feedback and establishing radical candor at startup teams, we’ve come up with a list of recommendations.

Unicorn Labs Recommendations:

  • Avoid giving unsolicited feedback.

  • Be specific, use examples and data.

  • Come with a deep level of empathy.

  • Keep it private, not public or in front of others.

  • Feedback conversations are a two-way street, allowing room for them to provide you feedback.

  • Focus on performance, not personality

  • Feedback is a coaching and educational opportunity.

  • Never give negative feedback over text, slack or email.

  • Follow up verbal feedback with a written note of action steps.

  • Give genuine praise publicly.

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