Kim Scott boasts a fairly impressive resume. She has had executive roles at Google, YouTube and Apple, and has worked as a CEO coach at Twitter, Qualtrics and Dropbox. It is in this second role that she is best known today. While at Apple, Scott developed a trademarked leadership philosophy called “radical candor,” which she subsequently distilled into clear, implementable guidelines in her same-titled 2017 bestselling book. So, get ready to learn the fundamentals of effective management and prepare to discover how to show your employees you care about them while still being perfectly honest with them!
What do bosses do
“Managerial capitalism is a relatively new phenomenon, so this human bond was not described by ancient philosophers,” remarks Scott half-seriously. “Even though almost everybody today has a boss at some point, the nature of this connection has gotten short shrift in philosophy, literature, movies, and all the other ways we explore the relationships that govern our lives.” As a result, even the words that most commonly denote the hierarchical aspects of managerial capitalism evoke negative associations in the minds of the majority of people. For example, “boss” tends to suggest injustice, “manager” is likely to sound too bureaucratic, and “leader” – a bit braggy.
Not without a reason: most of us have experienced the pains and troubles of having a horrible boss. There are many people out there who are in important positions and believe that humiliation is the best way to motivate employees; there are also many others who’d rather fire their best worker than having to deal with their dissent. Of course, neither is their job. What is, is rather simple: bosses guide teams to achieve results. Let’s break this definition down into its individual components:
- Guidance. Both bosses and employees are responsible for results. The difference between the two is this: whereas workers achieve results by doing all the work by themselves, bosses accomplish them by way of effective guidance. Guidance is often called “feedback” nowadays, but that word has gotten too many negative connotations for people to understand its importance or even what it actually entails anymore. Good bosses are not only good guides, but good followers as well. They get, give and encourage guidance.
- Team building. “Building a cohesive team means figuring out the right people for the right roles,” writes Scott. Therefore, team building is all about three things: hiring, firing, and promoting. However, as all good bosses know, real-world management doesn’t end there. It’s not enough to get the right jobs for the right people, you also need to keep them properly motivated for the long haul. That’s why a boss who doesn’t care personally about their employees is not a good boss.
- Results. Getting things done is why bosses try to create good teams and guide their members toward improvement. In other words, results are the only benchmark against which the success of a boss is measured. No matter how invigorating the energy within a team, no matter how much a boss may be loved and adored, if they have to highlight some numbers in the quarterly report with red, then they would be judged to have failed. And that’s where frustration starts, which, in turn, undermines effective guidance and destabilizes functional teams.
Four types of guidance
Guidance, teams and results are the three responsibilities of any boss. Ultimately, they all boil down to a very simple question: How should a boss build a trusting relationship with each person who reports directly to them? There are at least four different approaches to answering this question, and to understand their similarities and differences better, it’s best to start by imagining a basic 2x2 matrix. Now, let the vertical axis represent a boss’s readiness to “care personally” for others, and let the horizontal axis plot a boss’s eagerness to “challenge others directly.” Each of the four most common styles of management corresponds to one of the four quadrants in the graph:
- Radical candor, the upper right-hand quadrant. This is where great leaders are situated. Radically candid bosses simultaneously exhibit genuine care for their workers and recognize their “moral obligation” to challenge them to get better. To use Scott’s jargon, they not only give a damn for other people, but are also unafraid to piss them off if that brings results and means progress. Good guidance combines radically candid praises with radically candid criticism. But we’ll get back to that later.
- Obnoxious aggression, the lower right-hand quadrant. Obnoxiously aggressive bosses think of their workers as “lesser beings who can be degraded without conscience.” They challenge directly but they don’t give a damn about other people’s feelings. Even when they praise, they give backhanded compliments such as, “Well, you got it right this time.” On the other hand, when they give criticism, they are especially creative “front-stabbers.” Even so, only radically candid bosses bring better results than them. Think of Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada.” A boss like that will inevitably make you better and get things done, but you wouldn’t want to work for them in the long run.
- Manipulative insincerity, the lower left-hand quadrant. If you don’t care for your employees deeply enough to challenge them directly, then you are a manipulative insincere boss, the worst kind of all four. “Guidance that is manipulatively insincere,” writes Scott, “rarely reflects what the speaker actually thinks; rather, it’s an attempt to push the other person’s emotional buttons in return for some personal gain.” Manipulatively insincere bosses lie compulsively and can even fire an employee soon after telling them they’ve done a great job. When they criticize, they criticize in a muddled manner; when they apologize, they apologize falsely.
- Ruinous empathy, the upper left-hand quadrant. The final type of guidance in our overview is the most common one: high on care, but low on direct challenges. Most bosses are like that. Just like Michael Scott from “The Office,” they’d rather have untainted personal relationships with their employees than say something someone wouldn’t want to hear. However, bosses – much like parents – have an obligation to do the exact opposite; otherwise, their care becomes harmful. Ruinous empathy can be best described by an old Russian joke about a guy who loved his dog so much that he couldn’t get himself to amputate his tail. But because he had to, he started cutting it off an inch each day, rather than all at once. By caring too much about his dog, the guy caused him far more pain and suffering. “Don’t allow yourself to become that kind of boss,” advises Scott. Instead, dole out constructive criticism because that’s how you help your employees improve.
The essence of radical candor
Shortly after joining Google, Scott was asked to give a presentation to the founders on the performance of AdSense. It was a successful presentation, not the least because Scott had contributed to the signing up of a record number of customers during her short time at the company. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt almost fell out of his chair upon hearing the number. Yet, after the presentation, Sheryl Sandberg – a business school classmate of Scott and then-vice president of global operations at Google – asked Scott to walk with her back to the office.
During this walk, Sandberg shared with Scott her impressions regarding the presentation. “Your ability to be intellectually honest about both sides of an argument,” she said enthusiastically, “bought you a lot of credibility in there.” Scott was happy to hear that, but she could feel that a “but” was coming. Inevitably, it did come: “But you said ‘um’ a lot,” said Sandberg. Seeing that Scott was ignoring the criticism as unimportant, Sandberg made herself much clearer: “I am going to have to be really, really direct to get through to you. You are one of the smartest people I know, but saying ‘um’ so much makes you sound stupid.” Now, that got Scott’s attention. So, she immediately accepted Sandberg’s offer to start working with a speech coach.
This was radical candor at its best: Sandberg didn’t let the great presentation get in the way of her pointing out something Scott needed to fix. Moreover, she pointed out the problem immediately after sharing a few compliments, but before it could hurt Scott’s reputation. In doing so, she didn’t “personalize” the issue, that is, she didn’t say Scott was stupid, but that she sounded stupid. Finally, she offered further guidance and tangible help: the contact of a speech coach. All of these things proved to Scott that Sandberg cared for her so much that she was willing to challenge her directly. As already mentioned, these are the two essential dimensions of radical candor:
- Caring personally. All bosses care for their people, but only great bosses care for them personally. They know that when one merely “keeps things professional,” they risk denying the other side the much necessary human touch that can either make or break a relationship. In addition to being the corrective to robotic professionalism, caring personally is also the antidote for managerial arrogance: you can’t build a good relationship with someone you instinctively feel is beneath you. However, be aware: caring personally is not about forced chitchat or memorizing birthdays. It is about acknowledgement, about real conversations, and about learning what’s important to other people. Only then you’ll know how to motivate them.
- Challenging directly. “The source of everything respectable in man either as an intellectual or as a moral being [is] that his errors are corrigible,” John Stuart Mill once wrote. Bosses have a moral obligation to help their employees correct the errors of their ways. That’s why they need to challenge them whenever they can, and criticize them whenever it’s necessary. True, both can sometimes be extremely difficult, but they are part of the job. In fact, if nobody is ever mad at you, you are probably not challenging your team enough. And one day, your results will show this failing.
The seven steps of driving results collaboratively
Radical candor is all about forming trusting and strong relationships with the people who work for you. It is about asking for criticism before giving it, and about offering more praise than reproach. “Be humble, helpful, offer guidance in person and immediately, praise in public, criticize in private, and don’t personalize,” advises Scott. “Make it clear that the problem is not due to some unfixable personality flaw. Share stories when you’ve been criticized for something similar.” The immediate objective is, of course, building a strong, cohesive unit through proper guidance. The final goal is to get the results, that is to “get stuff done.” The “get stuff done” process – or the GSD wheel, for short – is relatively straightforward and can be broken down into seven steps:
- Listen. There are two ways to listen: quietly and loudly. Quiet listeners, such as Apple’s Tim Cook, are patient, tolerant and use long stretches of silence to make employees uncomfortable and get them to talk. On the other hand, loud listeners (such as Steve Jobs, for example) make strong statements through which they incite their employees to fight back. Either way works just fine. The important thing is to create a culture of listening and free-flowing conversations.
- Clarify. A culture of listening inspires ideas and innovation. However, as Scott writes, “trying to solve a problem that hasn’t been clearly defined is not likely to result in a good solution; debating a half-baked idea is likely to kill it.” Therefore, it is important for bosses to express their thoughts and ideas in a “drop-dead easy” manner. It’s just as important to help their employees be clear as well.
- Debate. Once an idea is clarified, it is ready for a debate. A good debate focuses on ideas (not egos), pauses for exhaustion and uses humor. Moreover, in a good debate someone has to be a devil’s advocate and take up the dissenting voice. Rather than spoiling them, dissent makes debates worthwhile.
- Decide. Decisions should always be based on facts. In other words, they don’t really have a “decider”: they are just decided because of what they entail. Therefore, contrary to popular opinion, bosses shouldn’t make them. Quite the opposite, bosses should only create an environment that empowers the people closest to the facts to make as many decisions as possible.
- Persuade. If there are members of the team who don’t agree with a final decision, you must get them on board as soon as possible because they will be the ones to implement it. Being authoritarian will have the opposite effect. As Aristotle knew, persuasion works only when it involves three things: logic, credibility and the listener’s emotions.
- Execute. As the boss, your job is to minimize the “collaboration tax.” By taking a lot of it on yourself, you allow your team to spend the majority of their time executing. That’s the first rule of execution in fact: don’t ever waste your team’s time. The second is: keep the “dirt under your fingernails,” meaning stay connected to the actual job being done. If you get too far away from the work your team is doing, you will stop understanding your team’s ideas.
- Learn. Economist John Maynard Keynes once said that when the facts changed, he changed his mind. “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” wrote before him Ralph Waldo Emerson. Indeed, the GSD wheel is not only about getting stuff done, but also about learning and adapting. What follows afterward is, of course, another round of listening.
Recommended by everyone from Sheryl Sandberg and Shona Brown to Gretchen Rubin and Daniel Pink, “Radical Candor” has sold more than half a million copies since it was first published in 2017 and has been so far translated into at least 20 different languages. The book’s blurb doesn’t exaggerate: the concept of radical candor has become nothing short of “a cultural touchstone.”
Required reading for anyone in charge of other people.
Nobody gets everything right all the time by themselves. So, to be a better guide, allow yourself to be guided from time to time. Listen and learn almost as much as you talk and teach.