Frameworked to Death: Care Personally, Challenge Directly, But Please, Deliver Authentically

A few weeks ago, I traveled across the country to attend my parents’ retirement party in Philadelphia. I am fortunate to have two parents who modeled how to invest in your career and show up fully for the people you love. They traveled, worked long days, and yet managed to make sitting at our dinner table a priority. They taught me what I refer to today as work-life integration: creating a personalized rhythm between your professional longings and personal values. Unlike work-life balance, integration focuses not on hours worked, but rather on uncovering work that fulfills you personally and creating workplaces that embrace you as a whole person with a family, hobbies, and aspirations.

Today, as a leadership coach who counsels many working parents on their career journeys, I often reflect on these teachings from my parents. I think about how they shaped my career dreams and how I conduct myself as a working mom, wife, and friend. The stories shared by their colleagues at their retirement party once again brought so many of these themes forward. One story, however, really stood out as it applies to so much of what I work on with leaders today, and it demonstrated how even at the end of their careers, I still have much to learn from my parents’ leadership.

Judith, my dad’s secretary of 28 years, told the story of a performance review she received from my father, twenty some years ago. I had only heard my dad speak lovingly of Judith, so I was shocked when she shared that the review had her close to tears and convinced she would lose her job.

Judith was not surprised by the review, but it was hard for her to hear. My dad was direct and told her exactly where she was not living up to his expectations. They went through the review in detail, he asked a lot of questions about what she saw, and they discussed the changes she planned to make. At the end of the meeting, he handed her another copy of her performance review, only this one gave her the highest scores. She was confused.

“This is the review I plan to submit to HR,” he told her.

This story from 20+ years ago was just one example of the relationship of respect and trust that Judith and my father built. It is a story of feedback that is kind and caring, well before the fetish with radical candor and acronymned frameworks for having difficult conversations. It is a story that is so authentic about my father - it is so easy for me to picture him handing Judith that second review - and one that speaks to the type of development we need to see more of in our workplaces.

Kim Scott’s book, Radical Candor, has made a huge splash in workplaces around the world. Despite some criticism, I’ve found the philosophy really helpful for new managers in understanding the importance of feedback and how to give it in a humane and helpful manner. Perhaps its most important contribution is that it’s gotten a lot of people talking about feedback and how to create cultures that are more open and caring.

I use Radical Candor, Crucial Conversations, and several other frameworks when I’m training leaders on the topic of giving and receiving feedback. As I teach the frameworks, I get lots of head nods and the energy always picks up in the room when we split into groups to practice using the frameworks. By the end of the training, participants are confident and ready to head back into their teams to implement the learning.

But often, a week or so later, I meet up with someone from the training who says something like, “Yeah, your framework didn’t really work out for me.”

“Interesting,” I usually reply, “And how did you demonstrate that you care personally?”

The manager shares that he gave some positive feedback or asked about his direct report’s family right before diving into the more difficult part of the conversation. And then when he gave the difficult feedback, the other person got defensive and angry. Imagine that!

For all the wonderful teachings of radical candor and the countless other frameworks, we forget that showing that we care personally isn’t a one-and-done activity, and it’s not something that happens just by saying nice things.

The challenge with radical candor - and any framework really - is that when we learn it, we become so conscious of how we are - or are not - implementing it, that we lose ourselves and forget that we have another human being on the receiving end of the feedback. We are so focused on making sure that we are doing it right, doing it by the book (literally in this case), that we lose sight of the conversation and the relationship we have the potential to build.

To care personally, and even more important, to demonstrate it and build genuine trust with our colleagues takes time. It requires us to show up as ourselves, not as a framework. It’s not about counting positive comments to negative comments; it’s about investing in people, ensuring that trust and care go in both directions (my dad wouldn’t have done that for just anyone; it was clear Judith cared deeply too), and leading in ways that are authentic to you.

Frameworks, tools, and strategies are fabulous mechanisms for getting us comfortable having tough conversations. They teach us how to build the muscle needed to connect with the people around us, and without them, we often won’t have the conversation at all.

Don’t stop using frameworks; I won’t stop teaching them. But make sure you implement them and share them with the caveat that you have to make them yours. Leadership development workshops are great practice grounds where you can build your muscle around these difficult topics. Just like any great athlete, however, you must develop your own style on the court, your unique pitch. Here are three suggestions for ensuring that these scaffoldings don't overtake your leadership and instead support all the goodness you already bring to the table:

  1. Turn inward. Just because you learn a framework does not mean it's the gospel. Take the time to reflect on what you’re learning and ask what parts match your most authentic way of relating, and let go of the pieces that don’t fit you. This often requires some deeper reflection on how you show up as a leader. What's most important to you? What's the impact you want to have on the people around you? What's unique about what you bring to the table? From there, think about how the framework can (and cannot) support your interactions.

  2. Share your journey. As you’re learning, be open about that. No one expects you to be perfect. If you’re still stumbling through, acknowledge that in your conversations. It builds trust when you say, “This is a hard conversation and I’m going to muddle through it a bit; I might even mess it up and not say this perfectly. Is that ok with you?”

  3. Understand your impact. When a difficult conversation is over (like really over) or you've completed a career pathing exercise, ask for feedback on what went well and how you made the other person feel. You may want to try a question like, "What did we both learn from having this conversation?" or "What's different between us now?" These are great questions because they don't just focus on you, but rather, how the relationship has been changed, and there's learning for both sides.

No book or framework instructed my dad on how to run the performance conversation with Judith. Sure, he demonstrated that he cared personally, he challenged her directly, but most important, he was fully himself.