Radical Candor by Kim Scott is a must-read for any manager who wants to create an environment where people feel safe to speak their minds, get their jobs done, and feel respected.
Let’s think a little and imagine a perfect boss. Is it a godlike, cold-blooded tyrant with a strict face, or an open-hearted and sympathetic person trying to make everyone happy? Of course, these are the two extremes, and the truth is the golden middle. So how can you reach the balance? What is the secret of giving people freedom at work, yet not allowing anarchy?
Having analyzed her advising experience in several technology companies including Google, Apple, and Twitter, as well as managing experience in other companies, Kim Scott came to a simple conclusion: as a boss, you need to stay human but straightforward. Throughout her career, she learned numerous rules of a thumb which she presented in her book “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.”
Radical Candor is a term she uses for a specific type of guidance. Scott calls it “radical” implying that bosses should literally mean what they say, and “candor”, not “honesty”, emphasizing that they must sincerely believe in what they say and do.
Below you can read a “Radical Candor” book summary and find out what these rules are about.
Where there is a team, there is a boss. A group of people working together will always need someone who will guide them. One way to do that is through power and authority – totalitarian regimes prove that it can be pretty effective. However, there is a more human approach – developing strong relationships.
The core of a deep relationship is trust. The author views trust as a two-dimensional phenomenon.
The first dimension is “Care Personally”: you see your employees not as robots but as human beings. We normally fail to care personally. One reason is that work culture encourages us to stay professional and hide our feelings. Another one, less virtuous, is a tendency to become arrogant once you find yourself in a boss chair.
The second dimension is “Challenge Directly”, and it is about being open enough to tell people when they are doing something wrong. This also works the opposite direction: you need to be able to hear things that may upset you. It is not pleasant, but it will let you see how your people perceive you.
Scott further explains that when put together, these two dimensions form “Radical Candor”:
When Radical Candor is encouraged and supported by the boss, communication flows, resentments that have festered come to the surface and get resolved, and people begin to love not just their work but whom they work with and where they work. When people love their job, the whole team is more successful. The resulting happiness is the success beyond success.
If you succeed in two of the dimensions, your guidance is Radical Candor. But what if you fail, in one of those or in both? To demonstrate that, Scott draws a coordinate system, where Care Personally is Y, and Challenge Directly is X. This way, she comes up with three other types of guidance, analyzing those through the prism of criticism and praise.
Obnoxious Aggression happens when a boss treats employees without respect, belittling and publicly embarrassing them. Obnoxiously aggressive criticism can be effective but at a very high cost: it “sometimes gets great results short-term but leaves a trail of dead bodies in its wake in the long run.” Similarly, praising people aggressively (for example, under wrong circumstances) can make them feel underestimated or even ashamed instead of valued.
Manipulative Insincere guidance is the result of a boss’s desire to be liked and take advantage of it. In this case, both criticism and praise are used to play on other people’s emotions. Even Aggressive Obnoxious guidance is better – at least, you know what to expect.
Ruinous Empathy occurs when bosses are trying to reduce tension but instead create even more pain, prioritizing friendly communication over improving performance. Ruinously empathetic bosses do not criticize at all – they do not insist on solving issues but rather let them go. Their praise is superficial and feels like flattery, not proved by any serious background.
Radical Candor is different. You can criticize – but only with the noble aim to help see mistakes and correct them. You can praise – but make it contextualized and specific, so people know you did notice their achievements. As Scott says,
You were also born with a capacity to connect, to care personally. Somehow the training you got to “be professional” made you repress that. Well, stop repressing your innate ability to care personally. Give a damn!
To build an effective team, a leader must recognize the diversity of its members. This is not only about skills, but also about motivation. It may be surprising but not every person craves a promotion.
Scott divides workers in two categories – rock stars and superstars. Rock stars are on a gradual growth trajectory: they are happy in their current role and focus on stability. Meanwhile, super stars are on a steep growth path, which means they always look for a change and are very ambitious.
Super stars get inspired when you constantly challenge them and give them new opportunities; while to motivate rock stars, you can give them bonuses or simply say thank you for their work.
Unfortunately, rock stars often get an unfair attitude for being less noticeable. It is important to show respect to all employees – for example, Apple encourages those who have stayed in the company for years, instead of shaming them, like they do in Google.
Cohesiveness of a team depends on the contributions of both rock stars and superstars, in a proportion that is relevant to a particular type of work. So get to know your people better. Assign the right roles. To prove that, Scott gives a great example:
A story about Christopher Wren, the architect responsible for rebuilding St. Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of London, explains what I mean. Wren was walking the length of the partially rebuilt cathedral when he asked three bricklayers what they were doing. The first bricklayer responded, “I’m working.” The second said, “I’m building a wall.” The third paused, looked up, and then said, “I’m building a cathedral to the Almighty.
How do large companies make their teams work as a whole organism? How do they set strategies and make thousands of workers understand and support the same mission? Having analyzed how it worked in Apple and Google, the author presents a so-called “Get Stuff Done” wheel, which is a visual scheme demonstrating the elements of a productive work organization.
The wheel consists of seven elements:
1. Listen. There are two models of listening: quiet, when you silently make people assume what you think, and loud, when you actually give a response and, even more, insist that they challenge you back.
2. Clarify. Good thinking often needs clarification. It can be provided by brainstorming, when you quickly differentiate between good and bad ideas (or even find solutions to bad ones – a so-called “plussing” technique used by Pixar), or a 1:1 conversation, when you discuss the details without any judgment in a friendly environment.
3. Debate. It must be a discussion where “individual egos and self-interest don’t get in the way of an objective quest for the best answer.” Debates take time and emotional energy, but are very productive.
4. Decide. As a manager, you will have to plunge into a lot of details to get to the true facts, which can get distorted by many people who pass them to you.
5. Persuade. It is a big mistake to expect others to do things without explaining why they have to do them. Moreover, it is not enough to explain the mere logic: you will have to appeal to people’s emotions, as well as focus on your past accomplishments.
6. Execute. Do not get far away from the people executing the task. Be a part of the team.
7. Learn. It takes a huge amount of discipline to take a pause and step back to actually learn from your experience. You may have to admit your past mistakes. That can be painful.
The “Get Stuff Done Wheel” seems very detailed and hard to reproduce in real life. However, Scott is convinced that it will make your life easier in the long run:
That’s a lot of steps. Remember, they are designed to be cycled through quickly. Not skipping a step and not getting stuck on one are equally important. If you skip a step, you’ll waste time in the end.
The most important relationship you can have is a relationship with yourself. This is why Scott recommends staying centered - care about your own physical and mental health, not letting yourself get overwhelmed at work. Here she makes an important remark:
Don’t think of it as work-life balance, some kind of zero-sum game where anything you put into your work robs your life and anything you put into your life robs your work. Instead, think of it as work-life integration. The time you spend at work can be an expression of who you are as a human being, an enormous enrichment to your life, and a boon to your friends and family.
The next step is to allow other people to be comfortable at work. A boss will have to develop a culture of trust, breaking a traditional model of control and signaling to people that they can have some autonomy.
Socializing is another instrument to strengthen relationships. Informal parties can be very helpful but don’t let them turn into mandatory fun: if a person doesn’t want to attend, you shouldn’t insist. Actually, it is better to socialize with colleagues at the workplace and use your personal time for yourself.
There are other ways to help trust thrive. Respect each other's boundaries and give space – including physical space, if, for example, a person doesn’t like hugs. Recognize your own emotions and learn how to react to the emotions of others. After all, admit that people have different values:
It’s crucial to remind people that an important part of Radically Candid relationships is opening yourself to the possibility of connecting with people who have different worldviews or whose lives involve behavior that you don’t understand or that may even conflict with a core belief of yours.
How can you effectively give and accept criticism and praise?
Bosses have to realize they need to be criticized in public. Going through discomfort will help establish your credibility as a strong leader. Welcome people to express their thoughts about your performance – and kindly insist, if they refuse to do so. Take the criticism seriously, make conclusions, and get back to it. Otherwise, what is the point of it?
It is also very important to stay humble, underlines Scott. Humility makes criticism less harsh, and praise – more honest. Pay attention to the context. Carefully observing the situation, you may see that a bad result can be the consequence of some external factors, not personal or professional traits.
Bosses need to give (and get) praise and criticism immediately. There could be a temptation to delay it, caused by the fear of confrontation or simply by a lack of time. However, immediate reaction relieves you from emotional burden and enables you to address and solve the issue before it gets too complicated. Of course, you cannot fit impromptu guidance in your calendar, but you can make time for it in between meetings, and make it a routine.
I realized that people actually don’t believe it can be quick… They think giving good guidance is going to add hours of meetings to each week. They think of it like a root canal. Try thinking of it as brushing your teeth instead. Don’t write it in your calendar; just do it consistently, and maybe you won’t ever have to get a root canal.
Having a team where 100% of people are devoted to their job sounds great, but the reality is different. On your team, you will have people who show excellent results; people who show mediocre results; and people who desperately fail. Obviously, a good boss will have to find ways to manage those who need help.
A great technique is “career conversations” developed by Russ Laraway, the cofounder of Scott’s Candor, Inc. Its purpose is to find out what are the dreams of your employees - not “long-term goals” or “five-year plans,” but something more human.
In his career conversations, Laraway asked indirect questions about his employees' lives, this way seeing their true motivators. For example, he figured that one of his employees, Sarah, would best fit as a manager, not an analyst making presentations, because her motivator was leadership, and her dream was to start a spirulina farm. He gave her an opportunity to be a manager, and she was incredibly successful.
Bosses also need to hire and fire the right people, says Scott. While hiring, pay special attention to job description. Specify skills needed for a particular position and interview candidates for these things. Organize an interview committee, preferably one consisting of diverse representatives, to be able to get an objective perspective.
Firing, which the author calls “a necessary evil”, is an inevitable part of team management. To make it less painful, remember that you are firing people not because they suck but rather because the job they are doing sucks for them.
As for promotions, the author says that they should be about developing skills, not about documenting a status. Favoritism can be very demotivating. Sometimes a promotion should not be an option at all – for example, for a father who wants to spend more time with his child in need of medical treatment.
Scott summarizes this chapter, emphasizing that team building is a long but rewarding process:
There are few pleasures greater than being part of a team where everyone loves their job and loves working together. You can build a team like that if you have career conversations with each of the people on your team, create growth-management plans for each person who works for you once a year, hire the right people, fire the appropriate people, promote the right people, and reward the people who are doing great work but who shouldn’t be promoted, and offer yourself as a partner to your direct reports.
The essence of Radical Candor is to create conditions for a team to achieve results which people would not achieve individually. A neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn described team members as “mental prostheses” for each other: what one person hates to do can be a passion for another one.
This way, a manager needs to decide who has to talk to whom and how frequently. Naturally, this means people will have to attend meetings. Scott describes the following ones:
1:1 conversations. They are a great chance to really listen to your worker and show them that you care. Such conversations are very personal: a question like “What wakes you up at night?” would be appropriate. But be careful if you get to hear only good news: it means people don’t take those meetings seriously.
Staff meetings. To make meetings more productive, you can use so-called “snippets” – write down things that you did last week and things you plan to do this week. Allocate time for writing and reading them.
Bid Debate meetings. The goal of these is to come up with the best answer, not to demonstrate egos. No one can win, and no one can lose during debates. To make it possible, suggest switching roles.
Big decision meetings. It is when final decisions are made. After that, decisions are distributed to relevant parties. If you as a boss have veto power, you can use it - but sparingly, otherwise those meetings will make no sense.
All-hands meetings. In a large company, you may have to persuade your people that the decisions made are right. Provide a presentation and question and answer session. Properly answered questions can be even more persuasive than the presentation.
A tricky part of all these meetings is that they are centered around the personality of the boss, a real one or the image created, even if he is not directly involved. Constantly communicating with people, a boss has to be ready that he will be under the microscope:
People do listen to you in an intense way you never experienced before you became a manager. They attribute meaning—sometimes accurately, sometimes not—to what you say, to the clothes you wear, to the car you drive. In some ways, becoming a boss is like getting arrested. Everything you say or do can and will be used against you.
However, a boss’s impact on the final result is huge, and being vulnerable is not an option.
As we can see from this “Radical Candor” summary, Kim Scott believes that the main principle of being a “kick-ass” but human boss is healthy communication at different levels – with subordinate managers, employees, your own bosses etc. You will have to create a stress-free environment, yet be clear and direct. This is not an easy task but it is definitely rewarding.
This was a detailed “Radical Candor” summary chapter by chapter. The book is 100% worth your time, you can buy it here.
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