Ruinous Empathy: When Caring is Ineffective

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 ruinous empathy? How does it compare to radical candor?

Ruinous empathy is a type of feedback that results from caring personally, but not challenging directly. Praise and criticism can both fall short in this way.

Keep reading to understand more about ruinous empathy and what Radical Candor says about it.

Overview of Ruinous Empathy and the Other Types of Guidance

As a boss, your feedback can fall into one of four quadrants along the axes of caring personally and challenging directly: “obnoxious aggression,” “manipulative insincerity,” “ruinous empathy,” and radical candor. 

Not Challenging DirectlyChallenging Directly
Caring PersonallyRuinous EmpathyRadical Candor
Not Caring PersonallyManipulative InsincerityObnoxious Aggression

Ruinous Empathy

Ruinous empathy happens when you care very much about your employees, to the point that you’re too afraid to challenge them at all. This fear drives you to focus on being polite and letting everyone avoid uncomfortable situations, rather than giving and soliciting sincere feedback. 

Praise from a place of ruinous empathy is not specific, and only scratches the surface of the situation. If your employee gives a presentation that went well, you might encourage them with a simple, “Great presentation today! It went absolutely perfectly.” You don’t name particular points that went especially well for them. 

Criticism from a place of ruinous empathy, if there is any, is insincere or far too nice—it often doesn’t sound like criticism at all. Imagine your employee’s presentation didn’t go well. It was confusing and left everyone with a number of questions at the end. Instead of addressing the problem, you might gloss over it by saying, “Great presentation! There were so many questions at the end, but you fielded them well.” 

Radical Candor

Radical candor’s components of caring personally and challenging directly are essential to giving good, sincere feedback—which naturally contributes to trusting relationships with your reports. Radically candid guidance usually includes both praise and criticism together in order to demonstrate that you care enough to want to boost your employee’s confidence, and that you care enough to show them the ways they can be better. 

Praise from a place of radical candor is very specific to the recipient—when you’re acting with radical candor, you should be attuned to how your praise is landing with your recipient and be prepared to change it if it’s not quite right. For example, imagine that you have an obvious dislike for dogs and say to your employee, “I think it’s really cool that you foster dogs.” Your praise will feel insincere and forced. Instead, try praise such as, “I admire how much work you put into training your foster dogs and matching them to the right homes. You’re so driven at work as well, so it’s not surprising.”

Criticism from a place of radical candor is always sincere, and is given both when things go poorly and when things go well. For example, Sheryl Sandberg once gave Scott radically candid feedback about her speaking style at Facebook. After a stellar presentation, she pulled Scott aside to talk. She started with praise for Scott’s persuasion skills, and then noted that Scott used the word “um” too much. She frankly explained that overuse of “um” was undermining Scott’s credibility, and set her up with a speech therapist to address the issue.

It’s important to note that no one acts with radical candor 100% of the time—you’ll likely fluctuate between guidance styles several times just in the span of one day. But, you should keep tabs on your guidance style and know if you’re acting out of line with radical candor more often than not. Here’s a thought exercise that can help you consider which guidance style you fall under most of the time: think honestly about what your reaction would be if you saw a colleague with their fly down. 

  • Would you announce it to them in front of everyone, in hopes of getting a laugh? This behavior aligns with obnoxious aggression. 
  • Would you point it out to someone else, in hopes that they would take charge in notifying your colleague of the issue? This behavior aligns with manipulative insincerity. 
  • Would you say nothing at all, hoping they’d notice on their own eventually? This behavior aligns with ruinous empathy. 
  • Would you pull them aside and discreetly tell them? This behavior aligns with radical candor. 

Helpfulness

Don’t get bogged down with the idea that in order to be helpful, you need to hold your employee’s hand through their work. Radically candid feedback does the heavy lifting by clarifying what the problem is, so your employee can find the solution more quickly—this is accomplished through three helpful actions:

  • Making your intentions clear. Criticism usually prompts defensive reactions. When you state that your intent is to help, not to be hurtful, your employees become more receptive to your feedback. 
  • Being as precise as possible. It’s tempting to give vague criticism so you don’t have to dive into the discomfort of fully discussing a tough situation—but being vague, a symptom of ruinous empathy, doesn’t give actionable ideas for improvement. Precision about what’s good or bad about someone’s behavior clearly demonstrates what they should do more or less of. 
  • Outsourcing help when possible. Helping each of your team members personally with their issues would be impossibly time-consuming. Instead, look for external help to offer to your employees when appropriate and available, such as speech coaches or therapists. 
Ruinous Empathy: When Caring is Ineffective

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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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