Radical Candor

Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor is a truly fascinating management book. You can tell it is a good book because it is hard to summarize. Each chapter is filled with insightful ideas and stories from her experience working as a top manager in Silicon Valley companies. Moreover, Scott’s theories are informed by her first-hand experience about what works in practice, unlike much academic prose (such as Barling’s The Science of Leadership, which despite the impressive title is just a literature review of hundreds of disparate and ultimately useless leadership theories invented by scholars.) This article only draws upon the first two chapters of Scott’s book, which address the following question: as a manager, how do you establish a trusting relationship with the people who report to you?

Radical candor

Scott believes that good management requires radical candor. The term implies two things: being radical and being candid. Let’s start with the candid part. In order to establish trust, one has to be more than “just professional.” You have to care deeply, on a personal level, about the people who report to you — not just as subordinate employees, but as human beings with human feelings. It’s about being your whole self, with your strengths and flaws, rather than just playing the role of “the boss.”

Second, you have to challenge people directly: “you have to tell people when their work isn’t good enough, and when it is; when they are not going to get that new role they wanted, or when you’re going to hire a new boss ‘over’ them; when the results don’t justify further investment in what they’re working on.”

Many people struggle with achieving the right attitude. Challenging people does not necessarily sound like the best way to build relationships on good terms or to show that you “care personally.” As Scott explains, “many of us are conditioned to avoid saying what we think. This is partially adaptive social behavior; it helps us avoid conflict or embarrassment. But in a boss, that kind of avoidance is disastrous.”

In order to get everyone used to challenging each other directly, you have be clear enough so there’s no room for interpretation, but you must also be humble. “Implicit in candor is that you’re offering your view of what’s going on and that you expect other people to offer theirs. If it turns out that you’re the one who got it wrong, you want to know.” Even when people initially react with anger, “those emotions tend to be fleeting when the person knows you care.”

In many ways, good bosses know how to avoid worker alienation. Karl Marx believed that it is in the nature of capitalism to treat workers as simple muscle power, as factory inputs, as cogs in a machine. The direct consequence of this is that their work becomes separated from their humanity, from their sense of self and from their independent will. An alienated worker is someone who is being exploited, and who knows full well that his work will benefit someone else. He could not care less about his daily tasks. He just blindly executes orders, living from paycheck to paycheck, until one day he dies.

For Scott, part of your job as a boss is to create more joy and less misery. “It happens all too often that employees feel they’re being treated as pawns on a chessboard, or as inferiors — not just in a corporate hierarchy, but on a fundamental human level.” For most bosses, “being professional means show up at work on time, do your job, don’t show feelings (unless engaged in ‘motivation’ or some such end-driven effort.) The result is that nobody feels comfortable being who they really are at work.”

It is important to show some openness and vulnerability to the people who work for you. Some people consciously or unconsciously feel they are better or smarter than the people who work for them. Scott believes that “there are few things more damaging to human relationships than a sense of superiority.” This is sometimes hard to avoid insofar as organizations are built around hierarchy, and some companies enforce that hierarchy more than others.

But working in a hierarchy “does not mean you have to exemplify robotic professionalism and managerial arrogance. Caring personally is the antidote to these ills. It’s about acknowledging that we are all people with lives and aspirations that extend beyond those related to our shared work. It’s about finding time for real conversations; about getting to know each other at a human level.”

At the same time, consensus cannot always be achieved. “You have to accept that sometimes people on your team will be mad at you. In fact, if nobody is ever mad at you, you probably aren’t challenging your team enough. The key, as in any relationship, is how you handle the anger. When what you say hurts, acknowledge the other person’s pain.” Scott advises us to eliminate the phrase “don’t take it personally” from our vocabulary, because it is insulting, and instead offer to help fix the problem.

Challenging people directly can be difficult, especially early in a relationship when a manager is just starting to work with his team. First impressions matter. You may have to criticize someone’s work while trying to establish trust. New members in a team often have a tendency to hold back their opinions. Even older employees may be reticent if they fear the consequences of being too liberal. You have to be careful when criticizing, and whether to do it in public or private.

“Building enough trust between people to enable reciprocal challenge irrespective of reporting relationship takes time and attention.” And while you build up trust over time, it is important to avoid those mistakes that will ruin your relationship with employees.

What you should avoid

Scott draws up a simple matrix along the two axes mentioned above: how much you care personally, and how much you challenge directly. This gives us four categories of behavior: (1) radical candor, (2) obnoxious aggression, (3) manipulative insincerity, and (4) ruinous empathy. I here cover those types of behaviors that should be avoided. I believe that it is actually far more important to avoid bad behavior than pursuing some ideal behavior.

First, there is obnoxious aggression. This happens when bosses do not care enough about their employees. Curiously, “most people prefer the challenging jerk to the boss whose ‘niceness’ gets in the way of candor. People would rather work for a ‘competent asshole’ than a ‘nice incompetent.’ It’s the fear of being labeled a jerk that pushes people toward manipulative insincerity or ruinous empathy,” both of which are often worse.

Nonetheless, “obnoxious aggression is debilitating, particularly at the extreme.” This is when bosses “belittle employees, embarrass them publicly, or freeze them out.” It can give bosses great results in the short-term, but often leaves a trail of dead bodies in the long run.

The author contends that “the worst kind of obnoxious aggression happens when one person really understands another’s vulnerabilities and then targets them, either for sport or to assert dominance. It happens all too often that bosses view employees as lesser beings who can be degraded without conscience; that employees view their bosses as tyrants to be toppled; and that peers view one another as enemy combatants.”

I believe there is a special place in hell for those who kick down and kiss up.

Second, there is manipulative insincerity. This is the defining characteristic of office politics. “People give praise and criticism that is manipulatively insincere when they are too focused on being liked, or think they can gain some sort of political advantage by being fake. When you are overly worried about how people will perceive you, you’re less willing to say what needs to be said.”

You have to let go of your vanity, and start caring personally about people you work with. “If you don’t care, don’t waste your time and everyone else’s by trying to fake it. Unfortunately, conventional wisdom and a lot of bad management advice pushes bosses to challenge less, rather than encouraging them to care more. The resulting praise and criticism feels to employees like flattery or backstabbing.” When you behave badly and get called out for it, an instinctive and natural response is to become less genuine and more political.

Third, there is ruinous empathy. Scott believes that the majority of management mistakes fall within this category. “Most people want to avoid creating tension or discomfort at work. They are like the well-meaning parent who cannot bear to discipline their kids.”

Managers “rarely intend to ruin an employee’s chance of success or to handicap the entire team by letting poor performance slide. Praise that is ruinously empathetic is not effective because its primary goal is to make the person feel better”, rather than provide a focus on results.

Scott correctly points out that “when a boss asks an employee for criticism, the employee feels awkward at best, afraid at worst.” It can be very valuable for the boss to receive such criticism, but if there is no trust, it is unlikely that anything constructive will be shared by the employee. Good managers would push through the discomfort, show some openness, listen, and take the matter seriously. But bosses who are ruinously empathetic “may be so eager to ease the awkwardness that they simply let the matter drop.”

“This creates the kind of work environment where ‘being nice’ is prioritized at the expense of critiquing, and therefore, improving actual performance. They can be pleasant to work in, but as time goes, employees start to realize that the only guidance they’ve received is ‘good job’ and other vaguely positive comments.” The consequences can be significant: “when ruinous empathy prevents bosses from soliciting criticism, they have no idea anything is wrong until a person quits.” This leads us to our next issue: how to receive and provide feedback.

On praise and criticism

Something should be said about the ethics of giving praise. You shouldn’t just base your comments on vague impressions. Find out what was done, how it was done, and why it was so great. The same goes for criticism. “Your work is shit, even stated less aggressively, is not enough. The boss needs to explains why, that is, be invested in helping the person improve.” You should “be as specific and thorough with praise as with criticism. Go deep into the details.”

You should also balance praise and criticism. Scott believes, as I do, that “we learn more from our mistakes than our successes, more from criticism than praise.” But she goes on to ask, “why, then, is it important to give more praise than criticism?” There are several reasons. First, it guides people in the right direction. “It’s just as important to let people know what to do more of as what to do less of.” Second, “it encourages people to keep improving. In other words, the best praise does a lot more than just make people feel good.”

Some professionals say you need a praise-to-criticism ratio of 3:1, 5:1 or even 7:1, while others advocate the “feedback sandwich,” which consists of opening and closing with praise, sticking some criticism in between. In The Hard Thing about Hard Things, venture capitalist Ben Horowitz calls this the “shit sandwich.”

The problem, according to Scott, is that “even a child can see through a shit sandwich. And the notion of a ‘right’ ratio between praise and criticism is dangerous, because it can lead to saying things that are unnatural, insincere, or just plain ridiculous. Patronizing or insincere praise can erode trust and hurt relationships just as much as overly harsh criticism.”

That is why, when criticizing, one should “avoid being nervous, and focus on just saying it. Thinking too much about how to say things will make you more likely to wimp out and say nothing. Everyone must find their own way to criticize people without discouraging them.”

In Scott’s experience, people who are more concerned with getting to the right answer make the best bosses. “That’s because they keep learning and improving, and they push the people who work for them to do the same. When you’re faced with telling a person something that will be extremely hard to hear, pretend you’re just saying ‘your fly is down’ or ‘you have spinach in your teeth.’ What matters is bringing everyone back to reality.”

“It might be the case, particularly when you’re dealing with highly accomplished people, that you have to go to some extremes to break through their tendency to filter out critical messages. How do you criticize without discouraging the person? Be humble, helpful, offer guidance in person and immediately, praise in public, criticize in private, and don’t personalize. Make it clear that the problem is not due to some unfixable personality flaw.”


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