Radical Candor: How Bosses Can Get What They Want by Saying What They Mean

By Christina Folz May 17, 2017
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The best bosses care enough about their team members to be disliked by them at times. That's not their goal, of course, but it's an inevitable consequence of taking the management approach espoused by Kim Scott in Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity (St. Martin's Press, 2017), which encourages bosses to both care deeply about the people who report to them and let them know when they don't see eye to eye.

Many managers have that first part down pretty well, but only the exceptional ones will put in the effort—and be willing to withstand the discomfort—of confronting those on their team when things aren't going well. In the words of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whom Scott quotes in the book, "Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off."

At the same time, the book doesn't give people license to be unnecessarily harsh. While the term "radical candor" has been bandied about in the business press as shorthand for a kind of blunt-verging-on-rude management style, that's not what Scott is proposing. What's "radical" about her approach is that it embraces something most people have been conditioned to avoid at all costs—stating what's on their mind, clearly and directly.

However, in order for that to be effective, bosses must first …

Care personally. This is about more than remembering people's birthdays or making idle chitchat before meetings. "Caring personally is the antidote to both robotic professionalism and managerial arrogance," writes Scott, who was a manager at Google and Apple before starting her own company called Candor Inc.

There is no shortcut or prepackaged approach to doing this. Bosses must learn what makes each person on their team tick—their work style, dreams, and what's important to them inside and outside of work—and care about each whole person. This involves taking a step beyond following the golden rule, which states that you should treat others as you'd like to be treated, and instead heeding the platinum rule: treating people the way they'd like to be treated. Only after you've shown you care can you then …

Challenge directly. It isn't easy, but being straight with people will not only drive results, it will ultimately lead your team to respect you more. "The most surprising thing about Radical Candor may be that its results are often the opposite of what you fear," Scott writes. "You fear people will become angry or vindictive; instead they are usually grateful for the chance to talk it through." Some of Scott's tips for challenging people include:

  • Ask others to critique you first. The best way to build the trust needed to challenge people directly is to invite others to challenge you—and don't react defensively to what they say. "If a person is bold enough to criticize you, do not critique their criticism," Scott says.

  • Make it about the work, not the person. Scott recounts a time when Sheryl Sandberg, her former boss at Google, gave her very direct feedback about a presentation after gentler attempts failed. "You are one of the smartest people I know," Sandberg said, "but saying 'um' so much makes you sound stupid." Sandberg followed up by offering to connect Scott with a speech coach. While the feedback stung a little, it was effective. "She was careful not to 'personalize,' not to make it about some essential trait," Scott says. "And I wasn't in this alone: she offered tangible help."

  • Be specific. Scott writes, "It's easier to say 'You're sloppy,' than to say 'You've been working nights and weekends and it's starting to take a toll on your ability to catch mistakes in your logic.' But it's also far less helpful."

  • Balance praise and criticism. Don't try to follow an artificial formula for how much praise you need to give to counteract critical feedback—or to use the tired technique of the "feedback sandwich," in which a criticism is wedged between two statements of praise. Employees can see through gimmicks, so it's important to be just as mindful about giving clear and specific praise as you are about challenging people. "Patronizing or insincere praise … will erode trust and hurt your relationships just as much as overtly harsh criticism," Scott says.

The book is a great field guide to becoming a better boss, or just a better person. While being likeable comes easily to many people, effective bosses know that trying to please everyone all the time is not effective. It isn't always kind, either.

Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine.


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