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Bosses need to ditch self-improvement obsession and think of the team

Popular management theories, including ‘Radical Candor’ focus too heavily on the cult of the individual and foster a mentality of feedback at any cost. Instead, we need to think more about the team and organisational performance as a whole, while focussing our efforts on making subjective negative feedback meaningful.

Trumpeted as the step-by-step guide to making you a ‘kickass boss’ and management luminary, ‘Radical Candor’ is a new school of management thinking that encourages leaders to learn to challenge more directly while also communicating empathy.

The brainchild of executive coach and ex-Googler, Kim Scott, it’s difficult to argue with the sentiment. The problems, though, are its misplaced priorities. Radical Candor places individual self-improvement at the cornerstone of its strategy. Though important, it risks managers losing sight of their broader corporate objective. 

Another theory gaining ground on the US West Coast is the ‘fixed & growth mindset’ theory, which faces the same issue. Stanford academic, Carol Dweck argues people have one of two mindsets. With a ‘fixed mindset’, individuals perceive their basic abilities and talents to be fixed traits. Allocated with this rigid set of abilities from birth, they focus their efforts on looking smart all the time and never appearing dumb. With a ‘growth mindset’ the opposite is the case. Individuals believe that that their talents and abilities can be developed and enhanced through hard work and learning. Dweck argues we should all aspire to the ‘growth mindset’ and sets out a programme to adapt our thinking accordingly.

In developing their theories both Scott and Dweck are too focussed on the individual. Businesses exist to provide a product or service to their clients or customers. To deliver this effectively, performance must be optimised in the three key areas, dubbed the ‘holy trinity’: productivity growth, employee engagement, and client satisfaction. Though important, self-improvement isn’t the central factor driving each of these. Rather, effective cooperation is.

The ‘Cooperation Mindset’
In the natural environment, evolutionary success is determined by adaptive ability, underpinned by cohesive organisational function at either an individual or collective level. Much the same as in nature, improving cooperation so that individuals and teams within an organisation can adapt in an agile, real-time way to a fast-changing external environment is the critical determinant behind commercial success. The more effective you are at fulfilling customer needs the more likely you are to succeed.

To deliver effective cooperation requires realtime feedback and intelligence to inform understanding both of your colleagues’ needs internally and your customers’ needs externally. Though distinct, colleagues and customers must be treated as one. Irrespective of who the end recipient may be, the output should be considered as part of the broader organisational function instead of in isolation for an individual’s own self-improvement. With this ‘cooperation mindset’ in place, having the ability to gauge your performance, either individually or as part of a team, is critical. Without that feedback you’re stumbling alone in the dark, unable to determine what actions you’re doing well or badly.

Actionable Objective Feedback
While driving feedback is at the heart of ‘Radical Candor’, the nature of the feedback delivered is also important and illustrates a further shortcoming to the approach. Empathetic or not, direct feedback is redundant and can even be harmful if it’s subjective and unactionable. 

In their recent book ‘Nine Lies About Work’: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, leadership coaches, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, argue that subjective feedback is so riven with bias toward the particular individual that it becomes worthless. This subjectivity is incapable of being averaged out even when crowdsourced and so instead just becomes systemic.

It is the same issue that befalls another popular and noteworthy team performance and employee feedback concept: ‘Radical Transparency’. Conceived by hedge-fund mogul, Ray Dalio, at its heart is the belief in taking things people would typically hide, particularly mistakes, problems and weaknesses and putting them on the table to be openly and collectively scrutinised. The concept is intended to translate to the adoption of actions and approaches that ‘radically’ increase the openness of organisational processes, data and, ultimately, improved decision-making.

Though they diagnose the fundamental shortcoming in both ‘Radical Candor’ and ‘Radical Transparency’, Buckingham and Goodall’s prescribed remedy is for individuals to abandon delivery of any negative subjective criticism and instead focus delivery on positive feedback. Essentially, they’re telling people not to worry about what they’re doing wrong because they won’t be able to do anything about it, so instead they should focus on what they’re doing right and keep working on that. They deny managers the ability to express what they need from their staff for them to fulfil their obligations to the wider function.

While this may be positive for perceived self-improvement, it offers little hope for fostering cooperation. If the customer is never asked for feedback on what they’re looking for and is instead asked repeatedly to spell out only the virtues of an individual’s performance then this offers a very narrow form of feedback that fails to drive toward the overall organisational function of maximising productivity. 

The Holy Grail
The Holy Grail is the provision of a solution that fosters the ‘cooperation mindset’ and that allows managers and co-workers not to have to shy away from negative feedback, but that distils all feedback, including negative subjective feedback, into quantifiable actionable information for the target individual or teams. Doing so will deliver feedback necessary to drive cooperation and organisational performance by optimising productivity growth, employee engagement, and client satisfaction.

Helpfully, technology offers a possible solution. Similar to the two-way feedback function on commonly used apps, such as Airbnb and Uber that each allow users to rate one another, dynamic feedback platforms allow users to give and receive real-time online feedback on performance from multiple stakeholders, including bosses, co-workers, other teams, even those external to their own organisation. 

Crucially, any feedback submitted must be constructive, actionable, and easy to interpret. To achieve this, quantitative score-based solutions are complemented with the option to supplement ratings with additional text feedback. To maintain focus on team performance rather than just the individual, more sophisticated systems can frame feedback within the context of a team as a whole through the provision of a single, easy to interpret score that team members can monitor easily and in real-time. This score is based upon ratings and feedback from any of the team’s key stakeholders. Ultimately, this ‘team score’ helps to remove silos, encourage transparency and foster cooperation.

By focussing attention away from self-improvement, striving instead for collective cooperation and not shying away from subjective negative feedback, but focussing on making it meaningful and constructive we can improve both our individual and organisational performance as a whole.

Ab Banerjee, CEO of ViewsHub

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