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Do you suffer from Ruinous Empathy?


“Continuous delivery without continuous feedback is very, very dangerous.” ~ Sir Colin Humphreys

In her international best-selling book Radical Candor, Kim Scott introduces us to a powerful framework for delivering real-time feedback that results in positive change and improved performance.
Scott begins by mapping the 4 most common areas we typically fall into when delivering feedback onto a 2×2 grid with the axes ‘Care Personally’ and ‘Challenge Directly’ resulting in: “Manipulative Insincerity,” “Obnoxious Aggression,” “Ruinous Empathy,” and “Radical Candor.”
We won’t go into each area here, but one quadrant in particular is worth exploring because it’s where most of the managers we work with land: Ruinous Empathy.
Ruinous Empathy occurs when we genuinely care about our colleagues or employees – as most of us do – but are unwilling or unable to give them real-time feedback in the form of either praise or, most often, criticism. The ‘ruinous’ nature of the quadrant comes from the fact that by setting out to protect their feelings, or perhaps to avoid conflict, be liked, or any number of other self-justifying excuses, we miss an opportunity to help them learn and grow, and as a result…they don’t. The consequences can often affect not just that individual, but the team as a whole.
Imagine a team member who is blissfully unaware that they are underperforming, and no one is willing to point it out, so they continue doing so ad infinitum. Other members of the team might perhaps ‘pick up the slack’ taking on extra work to cover the shortfall, which can then affect their own work, and certainly their motivation. Left unchecked, Ruinous Empathy can risk engagement and retention issues for the team. When it finally becomes impossible not to act, with the poor performer being put on a performance plan or, worse, being fired, they’re going to be very confused and angry. And rightly so.
It’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re acting in everyone’s best interests in the Ruinous Empathy quadrant because it comes from a good place: we care. The shift from Ruinous Empathy to Radical Candor is therefore a shift in mindset from the understanding that caring also means helping someone to perform at their best, grow into their potential, and not get fired!
Here’s a few things you can do today to begin that shift:
  • Model the behavior yourself. Invite feedback from others to show that you’re willing to take it before you start dishing it out.
  • Ensure everyone knows that it’s everyone’s responsibility. Just because you’re the manager, doesn’t mean you’re the only one that gets to give or receive feedback; make it part of the team culture.
  • Don’t wait until the next performance review or 1:1. Make feedback a real-time, routine, everyday occurrence.  
  • Make it specific. What exactly was good or bad about that? 
  • Don’t forget praise! Not all feedback needs to be negative in order to help people grow. So, tell them (specifically!) what they did that was great. 
  • Make it about the work, not the person. Remember, when someone underperforms, they’re not a bad person. 
We fall into the Ruinous Empathy trap because we care and we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, Leader. Seeing this as your opportunity to demonstrate just how much you care will be transformational.
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