Radical Candor, by Kim Scott

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Kim Scott starts this book with the story of how she once had an employee Bob, who was really nice and had great credentials, but who did not deliver great results when he started working for her. At the first big review of his work, she was worried about being too aggressive and hurting his feelings so she didn’t criticize the work, and fixed it herself. And that set a pattern that eventually led to her firing him a year later. Her initial instinct to be nice and supportive led to a far worse long-term outcome than if she had given him the honest, tough feedback from the start, so that he knew where he stood, and could improve his work. Radical Candor is how she describes this stance of honest feedback to improve long-term outcomes.

Scott later describes another situation where somebody advised her that direct feedback was helpful, not hurtful: “It’s not mean, it’s clear!”. By trying to avoid criticism, managers often don’t make it clear what the real problem is with the work. Scott learned that it is “kinder in the long run to be direct, even if articulating my criticism caused some momentary upset”. I find this realization to be useful for me to consider when I hesitate to share feedback with someone; I can check with myself to determine whether I believe that the relationship is strong enough to handle direct feedback (does the recipient believe that I care about them personally?), and if it is, then remind myself that it is better to be clear and direct with my feedback rather than leave them fuzzy about how their behavior could improve.

At the book’s page, you can see how Scott expresses this core concept of the book, which is that radical candor is the intersection of caring personally, and challenging directly. She puts it on a two-by-two matrix to illustrate how other behaviors are less effective.

  • Manipulative Insincerity: When you don’t care personally, and you don’t challenge directly, you are just offering insincere praise that is non-specific designed to make the person feel good without having to invest any effort. For me personally, when somebody who doesn’t know my work says “Great job!”, it doesn’t mean much to me compared to the praise of those who understand what makes my work special.
  • Ruinous Empathy: Scott cared personally about Bob, but didn’t challenge him directly, and so her empathy actually led to a disastrous outcome for Bob where she had to fire him. That’s why she calls this quadrant Ruinous Empathy – it feels like you’re being nice in the moment, but leads to long-term failure.
  • Obnoxious Aggression: When many people hear the book title Radical Candor, they think it is giving them license to just tell people whatever they think – “I’m just being radically honest with you about how terrible you are”. The distinction that Scott makes is that if you challenge someone directly without caring personally about them, it’s just Obnoxious Aggression. Radical Candor is not a license to be a jerk, and spout out your opinions and feedback without consequences.
  • Radical Candor: In contrast to Obnoxious Aggression and Ruinous Empathy, Radical Candor is taking the stance that I care enough about you to offer you sincere, honest feedback about how you are performing, so that you know where you stand with me, and can shift your behavior if you care to change.

When describing good management, Scott suggests that “Bosses guide a team to achieve results”. She therefore suggests that management includes:

  • “Building Radically Candid Relationships: Bringing your whole self to work” – This includes setting an example for your team by being transparent and vulnerable at work in sharing your own insecurities and challenges.
  • “Get, Give, and Encourage Guidance: Creating a culture of open communication” – This includes being the first to ask for feedback from the team and accepting it rather than arguing. Scott points out that this also includes delivering praise as well as criticism; in fact, her recommendation is to deliver more specific targeted praise than criticism. And in the spirit of Radical Candor, make it clear that any negative feedback is about the work, not the recipient; similar to the “magical feedback” described in Coyle’s The Culture Code, you make it clear that you care about the person and believe they can perform to higher standards, and that is why you are offering the feedback.
  • “Understand what motivates each person on your team” – Scott makes a great point that caring personally means spending the time to learn what each team member wants out of work right now – are they ambitious and looking to grow quickly, or are they looking for more stability? She emphasizes that managers should not only focus on the superstars on their team who are growing quickly, but also value the stability that other top performers on slower growth trajectories can provide – she calls them “rock” stars (as in they are the rock of stability for the team). This resonated with me, as I was less ambitious at work last year because I was focusing my energy outside of work; I was still doing my job really well, but not looking to take on more responsibility or growth opportunities.
  • “Drive results collaboratively: telling people what to do doesn’t work” – A good manager facilitates good results for the team, and can only do that when they understand the team’s situation, and enlists them in a shared vision. She posits a feedback cycle of “Listen -> Clarify -> Debate -> Decide -> Persuade -> Execute -> Learn -> Listen”, which I see as a manager’s expanded version of the OODA loop.

Those are the main concepts in the book; the rest of the book is a set of tools and techniques that Scott shares to teach people how to manage via Radical Candor.

I find Radical Candor to be a powerful concept in both my professional and personal life. I suspect we have all had experiences like Kim Scott did with Bob, where we don’t say something at the start of a relationship (whether personal or professional) because we are uncomfortable being critical, and that leads to bigger problems later. As a result of reading this book, I’ve become more aware of that initial discomfort, and been more proactive about saying the hard thing at the start, rather than hoping it gets better later. An example from this week at work was my VP adding an item to my to-do list; I initially said “Yes, I’ll get on that”, but felt my discomfort with that, so I immediately added “But I’ve got a ton of other stuff on my plate, and that’s a difficult problem, so I don’t know how quickly I’ll be able to get it done.” He was somewhat taken aback, but I’d rather have that expectation setting conversation now, rather than have him wonder in two weeks why I haven’t gotten the task done yet. And my ability to build personal relationships (both romantic and platonic) improved dramatically when I learned to speak up for myself and challenge behaviors directly that were not working for me in the relationship. I read this book last year, and continue to find its framework useful, as I have referred to its concepts several times recently in coaching conversations. Let me know if you find this summary useful!

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