You would be surprised at how many questions and emails I get each week on the topic of difficult conversations – giving and getting feedback and the general discomfort that goes along with being candid with employees, teams, and family members.
That’s why I am so happy to have Kim Scott here this week for a Q&A. She’s not only the author of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity, but also co-founder and CEO of Candor, Inc.
Let’s dive in!
Paul: Why did you choose the title Radical Candor for your book and what are intending to communicate with it?
Kim: Radical Candor is the ability to care personally at the same time that you challenge directly. That doesn’t sound so radical, does it?
And yet it is. I chose the word “radical” because so many of us are conditioned to avoid saying what we really think. This is partially adaptive social behavior; it helps us avoid conflict or embarrassment. But when you’re trying to have a difficult conversation or give a boss, a peer, or an employee feedback, that kind of avoidance is disastrous.
Why “candor?” The key to getting everyone used to being direct when challenging each other (and you!) is emphasizing that it’s necessary to communicate clearly enough so that there’s no room for interpretation, but also humbly. I chose “candor” instead of “honesty” because there’s not much humility in believing that you know the truth. Implicit with candor is that you’re simply offering your view of what’s going on but that you expect people to offer theirs. If it turns out that in fact you’re the one who got it wrong, you want to know.
Paul: One phrase that struck me seems to be a foundation for everything else—Care Personally. Will you expand on this idea for us?
Kim: It seems obvious that good bosses must care personally about the people who report directly to them. Very few people start out their careers thinking, I don’t give a damn about people, so I think I’ll be a great boss. And yet, 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.
Part of the reason people fail to “care personally” is the injunction to “keep it professional.” That phrase denies something essential. We are all human beings, with human feelings, and, even at work, we need to be seen as such. When it doesn’t happen, when we feel we must repress who we really are to earn a living, we become alienated. That makes us hate going to work. To 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.
Fred Kofman, my coach at Google, had a mantra that contradicted the “just professional” approach so destructive to so many managers: “Bring your whole self to work.” This saying has become a meme; Google it and you’ll get more than eight million results. Sheryl Sandberg referred to it in her 2012 commencement address at Harvard; author Mike Robbins devoted a TEDx talk to it in 2016; and Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s CEO, has made it a priority for his company. Bringing your whole self to work is one of those concepts that’s hard to define precisely, but you develop a feel for it when you start to open up to it. This often means modeling the behavior yourself by showing some vulnerability to the people who report to you—or just admitting when you’re having a bad day—and creating a safe space for others to do the same.
In addition to the obsessive devotion to “professionalism,” there’s another, less virtuous reason people fail to “care personally.” When they become a boss, some people consciously or unconsciously begin to feel they’re better or smarter than the people who work for them. That attitude makes it impossible to be a kick-ass boss; it just makes people want to kick your ass. There are few things more damaging to human relationships than a sense of superiority. That’s why I detest the word “superior” as a synonym for “boss.” I also avoid the word “employee.” Of course, if you are a boss, there is some hierarchy involved. There’s no use pretending otherwise. Just remember that being a boss is a job, not a value judgment.
Caring personally is the antidote to both robotic professionalism and managerial arrogance. Why do I say “caring personally” instead of just “caring”? Because it’s not enough to care about the person’s work or the person’s career. Only when you actually care about the whole person with your whole self can you build a relationship.
Caring personally is not about memorizing birthdays and names of family members. Nor is it about sharing the sordid details of one’s personal life, or forced chitchat at social events you’d rather not attend. Caring personally is about doing things you already know how to do. 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; about learning what’s important to people; about sharing with one another what makes us want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work—and what has the opposite effect.
It isn’t simply a matter of allowing your approach to your responsibilities show that you care, however; you must also care deeply about people while being prepared to be hated in return.
The movie Miracle, which is centered around the head coach of the 1980 U.S. men’s Olympic ice hockey team, depicts this really well. Head coach Herb Brooks unifies his team by pushing them so hard that he becomes the common enemy. In the movie it’s clear how much he cares about each player, and it’s painful to watch how long it takes the players to see it. Being the boss can feel like a lonely one-way street at times—especially at first. That is OK. If you can absorb the blows, the members of your team are more likely to be good bosses to their employees, when they have them. Once people know what it feels like to have a good boss, it’s more natural for them to want to be a good boss. They may never repay you, but they are likely to pay it forward. The rewards of watching people you care about flourish and then help others flourish are enormous.
Paul: What are the two principles that a great boss follows when approaching relationships with employees?
Kim: Care Personally and Challenge Directly. The best bosses apply these principles as they build a relationship with each employee, and also in the way they conduct their three responsibilities as managers: create a culture of feedback, build a cohesive team, and achieve results collaboratively.
Paul: I love the notion of asking for public feedback from your team. It seems like a wonderful way to demonstrate that you care about feedback and that it’s safe to have these conversations. Would you share your thinking about this?
Kim: When you ask for public criticism (you’re not fishing for compliments here), it does three things for you.
Most importantly, it gives you the opportunity to model how to respond to feedback. No matter how hostile the question may feel, remember this is NOT the time to criticize the criticism you get. It’s the time to show how to master one’s natural defensive reactions and to treat feedback like a gift.
Also, inviting public criticism makes it more likely you’ll hear it. As a manager it’s easy to get so busy that it’s hard for people to get on your calendar. That’s why the “criticize in private” mantra doesn’t always apply to you.
Finally, it saves you time. When you are a leader, you usually have more than one direct report, and sometimes hundreds or even thousands or tens of thousands. Usually a lot of people have the same feedback for you, and it’s faster/more efficient to hear it and respond once than it is to respond lots of times.
Tune in next week for Part II.