“Radical Candor” (Book Review)

In my experience, as you further your career, you’re likely to lead other people in some capacity or another. Whether you’re managing people or simply interacting with them, giving and receiving feedback can often be tricky.  I believe that being able to both share and receive feedback is a true skill that only few people have truly mastered. I for one, feel that I still have a lot to learn about how to best give constructive feedback, especially since I’d rather not use the age old “sh*t sandwich” since I don’t believe in dressing up negative feedback, and most people tend to see through the sh*t sandwich anyway.

Fig. 1 – The “Sh*t Sandwich”:

Image Credit: Lighthouse Blog

This prompted me to read “Radical Candor”, a book published earlier this year by Kim Scott. The main premise of “Radical Candor” is that you don’t need to cuss or shout or act rude to be a great boss. In contrast, the book encourages leaders to create relationships based on trust with the people that you work with.

These are the main things that I learned from reading “Radical Candor”:

  1. What do bosses do? – I really like Kim Scott’s definition of a boss’ responsibility: “bosses guide a team to achieve results.” Bosses are ultimately responsible for achieving results. Rather than doing all the work themselves, bosses rely on other people to achieve results, and will guide them accordingly. Scott goes on to unpick the aforementioned definition further, which I found very valuable (see Fig. 2 below).
  2. Trusting relationships are the key – For me, Scott’s point about the importance of building and maintaining “trusting relationships” is probably the crux of the book. Once a relationship of trust has been established, it becomes so much easier to practise “radical candor” on a daily basis. Unfortunately, there’s no set formula for developing trust. Scott, however, has identified two dimensions that help people move in the right direction: “Care Personally” and “Challenge Directly”.
  3. Care Personally – I was really pleased to read about Scott slashing the idea of people having two radically different personas – with people’s work persona being radically different to their private persona. Scott makes the point that you need to be your whole self to have a good personal relationship. She also talks about genuinely caring for the people who work for you as a critical prerequisite for a strong relationship. Unfortunately, I too often come across managers who regard the people that work for them as “resources” and treat them accordingly. Getting people to think more deeply about the “Care Personally” part of the trust relationship equation should help in stopping employees being referred to and treated as “resources.”
  4. Challenge Directly – “Challenge Directly” involves telling people that their work isn’t good enough. I personally have often found this the hardest part to do, as I’ve found there to be a fine line between challenging directly and (passive) aggression. Scott argues that challenging people “is often the best way to show them that you care when you’re the boss.” As counterintuitive as it may sound; challenging people directly can be a great way to establish a relationship. Challenging people, in a clear but constructive way, is often appreciated – despite it feeling hard initially (for both the poser and the receiver of the challenge). It shows (1) you care enough to point out both the things that are going well and the things that aren’t and (2) that you’re willing to admit when you’re wrong and that you’re committed to fixing mistakes that you or others have made. At the end of the day, it’s all about fixing a problem in my opinion.
  5. “Operationalising” good guidance – The book introduces a helpful matrix, which has four quadrants to consider in light of how to best care personally and challenge directly: “Ruinous Empathy”; “Manipulative Insincerity”; “Obnoxious Aggression” and – the desired one – “Radical Candor” (see Fig. 4 below). Scott stresses that each quadrant refers to guidance, not to personality traits. These quadrants are not used to label people, but to learn about the types of guidance we are or should be providing to the people we interact with. Having reflected on each of these quadrants, I found them to be very useful and ‘true’ (see Fig. 5 below).
  6. How to criticise without discouraging? – Scott mentions a number of useful tips on how to criticise people without discouraging the person. Also, it’s important to ask for criticism before giving it. As hard as it can sometimes feel, it’s important to actively and continuously ask for feedback, as a way of building a two-way relationship (see point 4. above). Scott provides some pointers to make it easier to ask for guidance, particularly from people that report into you (see Fig. 6 below). Secondly, be humble and helpful, offer guidance in person and immediately, criticise in private, and don’t personalise. Thirdly, make it clear that the problem isn’t due to some inflexible personality flaw, and share stories when you’ve been criticised for something similar.

Main learning point: Being radically candid doesn’t mean that you can just be rude and upset people. Instead, “Radical Candor” does a great job of offering readers with lots of valuable tips about how to care personally and challenge directly.

Fig. 2 – Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous comment:

Image Credit: Pinterest

Fig. 3 – Unpicking the responsibilities that come with being a boss – Adapted fromRadical Candor, pp. 6 -7:

  1. Guidance: Guidance is often called “feedback”. People dread feedback – both the praise, which can feel patronising, and especially the criticism. However, in order to solve problems or make the most of opportunities, people do need to solicit guidance from others, and encourage it between them.
  2. Team-building: Building a cohesive team means figuring out the right people for the right roles: hiring, firing, promoting. Once you’ve got your team in place, the focus should be on engaging with your team (without micro-managing) and keep people motivated.
  3. Results: Ultimately, it’s all about achieving results. As a boss it’s your responsibility to guide your team towards achieving key results.

Fig. 4 – Radical Candor’s “Care Personally Change Directly” matrix:

Image Credit: Radical Candor

Fig. 5 – Examples of the four quadrants of Radical Candor’s “Care Personally Change Directly” matrix – Adapted from Radical Candor, pp. 22-42

Radical Candor:

“I admire that about you” is a great example of radical candid praise. It’s relatively easy to say “thank you” or “you’re awesome”, but it can be much harder to really think about the praise you want to give, personalise and contextualise it. For example, “I think the mentoring that you do is really impressive, I admire the way in which you take your own learnings and share them with people who are the stage that you were at a few year ago.”

Coming up with criticism when you’re being successful is probably a great time to apply radical candid criticism. I recently spoke to a senior executive whose company had just gone through a difficult patch, probably for the first time in its existence. “We’ve had it easy for so long” he explained to me. This comment made me wonder whether he and his colleagues would have benefited from a healthy dose of radically candid criticism whilst they were still winning. For example, “we just achieved over $10 million in revenue, and it has been a record year, but I think it’s important that we look at how to reduce our operational margins in the coming year so that this growth can become more sustainable.”

Obnoxious Aggression:

A word of warning: “Radical Candor” isn’t about offering bosses a blank cheque to be rude or aggressive and act like a jerk. This is a lesson that I’ve been trying to take to heart, as I’ve experienced that there’s often a very thin line between being assertive and aggressive. Whilst I believe in directness over sugarcoating things , I’ve learned that 100% directness doesn’t work for everyone and can easily be perceived as aggressiveness. Scott’s point about the debilitating nature of Obnoxious Aggression therefore really resonated with me.

Manipulative Insincerity:

Manipulatively insincere guidance happens when you don’t care enough about a person to challenge directly. People give praise and criticism that’s manipulatively insincere when they are too focused on being liked or think they can gain some sort of political advantage by being fake – or when they’re just to tired to care or argue anymore. When you challenge directly, as Scott explains, you truly care about the people that you challenge; “let go of vanity and care personally.” The flip side happens when you don’t care and end up simply wasting your and everybody else’s time by trying to fake it.

Ruinous Empathy:

Scott argues that most people want to avoid creating tension or discomfort at work. Purely based on personal experience, I think Scott’s right; over the years, I’ve seen quite a few managers who actively try to make everyone happy. Whilst this is a laudable intention, I believe it hardly ever works like that. My personal mantra is that healthy tension doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it can actually help people grow and make teams more effective. You can’t be friends with all your colleagues nor can you make people happy all the time. Scott’s points about Ruinous Empathy made me think about how to best solicit feedback from team members, and ask for criticism. Scott urges all bosses to “start by asking for criticism, not by giving it!”

Fig. 6 – Soliciting impromptu guidance – Adapted from Radical Candor, pp. 130-136:

  • Have a go-to question: In order to make it easier and less awkward to ask your direct reports for performance feedback or guidance, Scott suggest using a go-to question. She learned this technique from Fred Kofman, who used to be her coach at Google and is the author of “Conscious Business”. “Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would it make it easier to work with me?” This is just a sample to go-to question, the key goal here is to get the conversation going and to remove any feelings of awkwardness.
  • Embrace the discomfort: In case your go-to question fails to have the desired effect, and the other person answers that everything is fine or struggles to come up with something, remain quiet. It can be tempting to say “We’ll that’s great then” (or something along those lines) but that’s not going to help anyone in my opinion. Leaving some silence or suggesting to rearrange can help in getting your direct reports over their – understandable – hurdle.
  • Listen with the intent to understand, not to respond: If you’re anything like me, i.e. not super comfortable with asking people for feedback, your initial response might well be to act defensively and respond to the criticism. Scott urges us not to do that; don’t start criticising the criticism! Instead, she suggests saying something like “So what I hear you saying is …”
  • Reward criticism to get more of it: If you did get feedback, the next important thing is to follow up and show that you really welcomed the feedback. If you agree with what was said, you should make a change as soon as possible. If the necessary change will take time, do something visible to show you’re trying.
  • Gauge the guidance you get: I love Scott’s suggestion to try and keep a tally of the number of times people reporting to you have criticised you. Equally, measure how often they praise you. Scott mentions, that you should be weary it it’s all praise and no criticism! It means that you’ll have to work harder to get people to criticise you.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.radicalcandor.com/about-radical-candor/
  2. http://codingwithempathy.com/2016/08/23/examples-of-radical-candor/
  3. https://www.radicalcandor.com/blog/radical-candor-not-brutal-honesty/

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