Public Criticism: It’s Only Okay for the Boss

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Radical Candor" by Kim Scott. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is public criticism and why is it problematic? Are there situations that it is okay to use a public venue for critiques?

Public criticism is an open forum in which negative feedback is offered to someone where everyone else can hear. In Radical Candor, Kim Scott cautions that employee criticism should always be private but a culture of candor can be enhanced by the boss receiving public criticism.

Keep reading for how and why you should ask for public criticism as a manager.

Request Public Criticism 

Criticism of your employees should always happen in private, but as the boss, you need to be willing to be publicly criticized. This accomplishes several goals. First, you demonstrate to your team that there’s value in criticism, and that its intent is to make everyone better at their jobs—not to be hurtful. Second, responding well to criticism establishes you as a strong leader who isn’t afraid to make mistakes and is open to learning. And third, public criticism allows you to get everyone’s feedback as efficiently as possible—if you have a big team, you’d miss out on hearing many of your employees’ voices because it’s impossible to schedule everyone for a meeting. Furthermore, you’ll save time by hearing each criticism once, instead of over and over again across multiple meetings. 

Your employees will likely be hesitant to jump into this conversation, so you should find a team member who seems comfortable giving you feedback. Ask them to offer some criticism or disagreement at the next staff meeting. They might be uncomfortable with the request, but don’t back down on it—explain why it’s important to you to get feedback that everyone can see.

Kick Things Off With a Question

It’s often uncomfortable for employees to criticize their boss, so keep a close eye on the balance of praise and criticism you’re receiving in public feedback sessions. If you find you’re getting mostly praise, directly ask for criticism. Asking questions can provide a jumping-off point for coming up with issues that need addressing, and helps cut through the discomfort of offering criticism. Helpful questions include, “How can I better support you?” or, “What is something I’m doing that you find frustrating?”

Public Praise, Private Criticism

As a general rule of thumb, you should always default to giving praise in public and criticism in private—public praise tends to be more meaningful for the recipient and demonstrates what your team should do more of. On the other hand, public criticism tends to trigger defensiveness.  

When giving praise, pay attention to what kind of attention your employees appreciate. Some of them will love public acknowledgment of their accomplishments, and others will find it unbearably embarrassing. Figure out what kind of praise will make them feel best. Keep in mind that this practice will become easier over time, as you practice “caring personally” and get to know your employees better. 

When it comes to criticism, make sure your team understands the difference between criticism and debate and disagreements, which are important parts of decision-making and discussion. For example, saying “I disagree with this idea” is fair game for a public conversation. On the other hand, “You’ve been handing in a lot of reports full of typos lately, and I’m starting to question your commitment to this project. Can you explain what’s going on?” needs to be privately discussed.

Think before you Reply All: when it comes to praise, replying all to give a quick shoutout is a simple, unembarrassing way to give praise and show recognition for efforts. However, never reply all with criticism—even if there’s an error in something sent out, contact the sender directly and ask them to send out the correction.

Public Criticism: It’s Only Okay for the Boss

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Kim Scott's "Radical Candor" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Radical Candor summary:

  • How you have to be direct with people while also caring sincerely for them
  • Why relationships are an essential part of successful leadership
  • How to create a strong team culture that delivers better results

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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