Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity

In this article by Kim Scott, the author of Radical Candor describes first-had experiences that unlocked a desire to be an inspiring leader who empowered employees with honesty.

By Erin Poulson

By Erin Poulson November 06 2019

The idea of Radical Candor, caring personally while challenging directly, is simple to understand, but not easy to put into practice. But if put into practice, it will help build teams that enable everyone to do the best work of their lives and build the best relationships of their careers. 

To explain what I mean by Radical Candor, I’ll share an example from my own career. I had just joined Google and I had to give a presentation to the founders and CEO. Like any normal person, I was nervous. Luckily for me, the business I was leading was on fire, and everyone responded positively to me. When I was done, I was feeling pretty good. As I walked out of the meeting with my boss, she began telling me about the things that had gone well in the meeting.  

Eventually, she said, “You said ‘um’ a lot in there. Were you aware of that?” Inwardly I was relieved because that didn’t seem so bad. I waved my hand as if to brush off the statement and said, “Yeah, it’s a verbal tic, no big deal.” Then she said, “I know a great speech coach. I know Google would pay for it. Would you like an introduction?” I made the brushoff gesture again and said I was too busy to meet with a speech coach. At that point, she stopped walking, looked right at me, and said, “I can see from the way you’re waving me off that I’m going to have to be a lot more direct with you. When you say ‘um’ every third word in your presentations, it makes you sound stupid.” 

That got my attention. And I went to the speech coach.

A lot of people might think it was mean of her to say that I sounded stupid, but it was the kindest thing she could have done for me at that moment of my career. If she hadn’t used just those words with me—and by the way, someone else might not have needed those words—I wouldn’t have gone to the speech coach. And I wouldn’t have realized that she was not exaggerating. I literally said ‘um’ every third word. 

This was real news to me because I had been giving presentations throughout my entire career. I had raised millions of dollars for two different startups giving presentations. I thought I was pretty good at it. So I wondered, why had no one told me? And what was it about my boss that made it so seemingly easy for her to give me such a memorable dose of Radical Candor? It’s important to note that when she delivered the feedback, she didn’t personalize it. She didn’t say I was stupid. She said saying “um” made me sound stupid. There’s a difference.

Care Personally, Challenge Directly

In the case of my boss, her ability to get through to me came down to two simple things. I knew, from past experiences, that she cared about me—not just as an employee, but as a human being. I also knew that she was never going to let her concern for my short-term feelings get in the way of telling me something I really needed to hear. She cared for me personally and challenged me directly. In order to practice Radical Candor, both of these elements need to be part of the equation. 

What does it mean to care personally? This is what I think of as the “give a damn” dimension of Radical Candor. It can be difficult in the workplace because somewhere around age 18, when we get our first real job, people tell us to be professional. Many people take that to mean they should leave their emotions, their humanity, at home and show up to work like some kind of robot. This mindset makes it almost impossible to form real relationships with anyone. When you’re focused on just being professional, it’s too easy to start down the road to apathy. Apathy can lead to treating others like foes instead of friends—and to serious office politics. 

The simple way to combat apathy and unnecessary office politics is common human decency, which is something everyone deserves. And when you’re really lucky, you actually love your colleagues and have real human relationships at work. Those relationships are what help you do the best work of your life, and they also give your work meaning. 

Unfortunately, love is not all you need. The Beatles got that wrong. You also need to challenge people directly. This is what I think of as the “willing to piss people off” dimension of Radical Candor. Most of us are very reluctant to piss people off because of what we were told not at 18 years old, but at 18 months old. We were told, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” 

And if you’re a manager or a team leader, congratulations! It’s now your job to say it. I would even argue that if you really care about your colleagues, it’s not just your job to say it, it’s actually your moral obligation. You must tell people when they’re screwing up, in a way that helps them not screw up again. You also must tell people when they’re doing great work, so they can do more great work; Radical Candor applies to praise as well as criticism.

The Radical Candor Framework is a trademark of Radical Candor, LLC.. Source: Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott]

The Feedback Framework: Avoid the Pitfalls

What makes Radical Candor radical is that it’s a deviation from the norm, which tends to fall somewhere between acting like a jerk and avoiding confrontation altogether. The purpose of Radical Candor is to create a new normal where feedback — what I prefer to call guidance — is both kind and clear, specific and sincere.

Because Radical Candor can be hard to put into practice, I developed a simple framework that you can keep top of mind in the heat of the moment. These are names for mistakes that we all make, all the time. Use this framework like a compass to help guide individual conversations to a better place.

Sometimes we challenge someone directly but fail to show them that we care personally. That results in Obnoxious Aggression. When we realize we’ve been a jerk or fallen into obnoxious aggression, we often wind up in the worst place of all: Manipulative Insincerity. This means you’re neither caring personally nor challenging directly. It’s a false apology, or acting with apathy, or those moments when people behave in a political way, backstabbing or being passive-aggressive. 

Most mistakes that get made in the workplace happen in the final quadrant, where you do care personally about the other person, but because you’re so worried about hurting their feelings, you fail to tell them something they really would be better off knowing. You fail to challenge them directly. I call this quadrant Ruinous Empathy. 

One of the worst moments in my career was when I had to fire a team member whom everyone loved. He was a great guy, but his work was subpar. For the 10 months he worked with us, I failed him by not telling him directly when his work wasn’t good enough. When I let him go, I made myself a very solemn promise that I would never make that mistake again, and I would do everything in my power to help everyone around me avoid making that mistake as well. 

Begin Practicing Radical Candor

Behavior change is hard. And Radical Candor does require behavior change,  because most people have a habit of silence when it comes to calling out problems—as well as when it comes to providing praise. 

Very few people change their lives around a philosophy. You need to identify specific things you can do. Here are some concrete ways to think about giving and receiving guidance.

Solicit feedback. Radical Candor is not solely about bosses giving feedback to employees. In fact, it starts by soliciting feedback up, down, and sideways. You start by asking for feedback because you need to prove you can take it before you start dishing it out. One of the best moments to solicit Radical Candor, especially from the people who work for you,  is in a one-on-one meeting. 

Come up with a go-to question you can use. One I like is, “What could I do, or stop doing, that would make it easier to work with me?” The key thing is to show people that you really want to know the answer. It’s not just a pro forma, “Do you have any feedback for me?” If you ask that, you’re wasting your breath. Nobody at work wants to give you feedback.

When people do speak up, listen with the intent to understand, not to respond. Manage your own natural tendency to feel defensive. Try saying, “Just to make sure I understand…” and then say it back to them, respectfully. You want to make the person feel heard. 

Finally, reward the candor. If you agree with the feedback, this is easy. You fix the problem and let people know. “Thanks so much to Joe for telling me about this problem. Here’s what I’ve done to fix it. Have I gone far enough?” 

If you disagree with the feedback, however, it’s a little more complicated to figure out how to reward the candor. Find whatever five or ten percent there is in what the person said that you do agree with and point that out, and then say you’ll get back to them. You’ll want to explain why you disagree with what was said. Give a respectful, longer explanation of why you disagree. Disagreements can be great ways to strengthen relationships—what really destroys relationships is when you make people feel invisible. 

Give praise and criticism. After you’ve received feedback, move on to giving praise. We start first with the good stuff before we start giving criticism. It’s important to correct for our innate negativity bias!  

Specific praise helps the person and the team understand what success looks like. You might think that praise is equivalent to Care Personally, and criticism is equivalent to Challenge Directly, but that’s not the case; Radically Candid praise and criticism both include care and challenge.

The purpose of praise is to show people what to do more of. The purpose of criticism is to show people what to do less of. 

The best guidance I’ve gotten in my career has usually come in impromptu, two-minute conversations. And go humbly into those conversations. The reason I call it candor and not truth is that if I say, “Let me tell you the truth,” you’re immediately defensive because I’m kind of implying I have a pipeline to God and you don’t know shit from shinola. Not a great way to start a conversation. 

Be humble and state your intention to be helpful. Say, “Here’s what I see. I’m curious to know what you see. Let’s figure out if it’s a problem, and if it is, let’s work together to solve it.” 

Criticize in private, praise in public. It seems kind of obvious but people forget this all the time. One of the tricky things is that, it’s easier to look smart offering criticism than praise. But remember, your job is not to look smart, it’s to help your team improve. 

Make sure your feedback is not about personality. Radically candid feedback is not calling someone stupid or a genius because that doesn’t show the person how to stop or repeat what they did. In addition, this focuses on personality versus behavior. Behavior can change; personality can’t. Practicing Radical Candor means you are being specific and sincere.

Gauge Feedback

Both dimensions of Radical Candor (Caring Personally and Challenging Directly) are sensitive to context. They get measured at the listener’s ear, not at the speaker’s mouth. You may think you’re being radically candid, but one person may not have heard any criticism at all, another may have heard it as ruinously empathetic, and yet another as obnoxious aggression. You have to adjust for each individual. You have to be not just self aware, but relationally and culturally aware. 

Radical Candor works only if the other person understands that your efforts at caring personally and challenging directly are delivered in good faith.

Adjust your feedback for the person you’re talking to, and also for the culture for where you’re working. I managed a team in Tel Aviv and a team in Tokyo, and Radical Candor sounds very different in Tel Aviv than it does in Tokyo. 

If you’re not sure how what you’re saying is landing, pay attention to the person’s response. Sometimes, people will get sad or angry. That’s your cue to move up on the Care Personally dimension to understand why the person is having this response. It is not your cue to get mad or shut down or back off. Meet emotion with compassion. “It seems like you’re upset. How can I help?” 

Perhaps the person will brush you off the way I did to my boss. They won’t hear it. This is when you want to move out on the Challenge Directly dimension of Radical Candor. It is your job to get through to people. It is your job to be clear enough for them to understand, while also kind enough for them to hear what you’re saying. 

Respond to defensiveness by asking them to repeat back what you said, to gauge whether they understand. You can name how you feel: “I don’t feel like I’m being heard here.” You can say what my boss said: “I can see I’m going to have to be a lot more direct with you.” 

Encourage Feedback

As a manager of a team, it’s important to encourage feedback and Radical Candor between people. Don’t let team members talk badly to you behind each other’s backs. Encourage them to go talk to each other directly. If they can’t resolve it, get them to come talk to you together at the same time. Be as fast and fair as possible. Conflict resolution may not be your favorite part of the job, but it is part of your job. 

Last but not least, share these ideas and framework with your team. Think about those moments in your life when someone has told you something that stung a little bit at the time, but helped improve your career in the long run. Share these stories with your team. It’s hard to share failures with your team, but when you show grit, it makes it much easier for people to understand Radical Candor and how it can improve their relationships at work and in life.

Learn more about Kim Scott's book, Radical Candor.

Erin Poulson edited this article, which first appeared in Next Magazine, Issue 6.

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