Coaching Before Radical Candor

Murali Bhogavalli

Group Product Manager at Wave Sports + Entertainment



"Before learning about radical candor and applying it at work, I was a walking example of ruinous empathy."

Before learning about radical candor and applying it at work, I was a walking example of ruinous empathy. Back then, I was managing a team of several PMs joined by a person new to the field who also happened to reside in another country. As a result, I also assumed the role of mentor in addition to being their manager.

I failed at both fronts by omitting to provide them with timely feedback. I kept telling myself, "They are new; they will pick it up." What I didn't see immediately was the impact their lack of contribution was causing. They were not up to the mark, and it dragged down the velocity of the whole team. As a consequence, the team was not able to meet the deadline it was supposed to.

Actions taken

This experience propelled me to schedule more regular cadence meetings with my reports. But, if I saw that something was not going in the right direction, I wouldn't wait for a meeting to take place to address the problem. I would rather provide feedback on the spot, or if not possible, urge for a meeting sooner.

I started to publicly explain what would be the impact if any of us wouldn't perform at our best and if we would fail to meet the deadline. If that implied pointing the finger at a specific person and asking for responsibility, I would do that. In the past, I was somewhat hesitant to address the problem that way and would rather sugarcoat it than make someone feel bad. But, the consequences of my sugarcoating would make people feel much worse than any well-meant -- though harsh -- feedback would. I would be patient in explaining all the ramifications their underperformance would have on all of us. Introducing external factors and connecting their expectations to our goals was critical in helping me motivate my team members.

I also made a mindset shift that impacted my approach to work. In the past, if a person were not up to it, I would do the work myself. Rather than making them accountable for their work, I would get into the weeds and roll up my sleeves. As I started to change my behavior, I was able to anticipate things ahead of time and become more proactive. Instead of allowing poor performance to take its toll, I would respond more promptly, talk to people individually, evaluate their performance and help them course-correct. Besides talking to one person, I would also seek the overall perspective from the rest of the team and listen to their opinion about what should be improved. That also allowed me to give more specific directions and not to be late with my instructions.

Lessons learned

  • While you may care personally for someone, challenge the status quo. I had to move from ruinous empathy to genuine care to be able to help people. We tend to develop personal relationships through one-on-one coaching, which may prevent us from delivering feedback we believe may hurt another human being. The key is to remain professional, and while you may care personally, your feedback should challenge a person professionally.
  • As much as you are responsible for each individual on your team, you are responsible for the team as a whole. Poor performance by any individual will reflect on the overall performance of the team. If left unaddressed, the whole team would suffer.
  • Leaders should invest in improving their emotional intelligence. As a product manager, you are working with teams cross-functionally, and you are most likely the least knowledgeable person in the room. Since you won't have much authority in subject matters, you will need to exercise your influence otherwise, most effectively, by developing your emotional intelligence.

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Murali Bhogavalli

Group Product Manager at Wave Sports + Entertainment

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionIndividual Contributor RolesStaff EngineerLeadership RolesEngineering ManagerTeam & Project Management

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