Radical Candor: The Surprising Secret To Being A Good Boss

Remember learning the rule “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing?” Kim Scott calls bullshit on that. As a faculty member at Apple University and a former longtime director at Google, she learned all about happy, productive workplaces, and what makes them the land of pure imagination.

Her own startup, Candor, Inc., is building the mothership for excellent communication in business. The idea: to get everyone moving in the same direction -- and keep them moving. The rules of this game are so simple and logical that, of course, they sound revolutionary and daring.

The key: feedback. And that’s a mutual deal, among everyone in the organization, including the most great and powerful bosses.

To be really great at feedback, Kim says, you have to get it, give it, and encourage it. Talking back to your boss? Stranger things have happened, but Kim is going to show us how it’s done right -- and how effective it can be.

Her Radical Candor concept is a sweet spot located between “take this job and shove it” and “take this job and love it.”

We asked Kim why something so simple sounds so radical.

Truly, is everybody cut out for radical candor? Don’t you have to be wired a certain way?

I think that most people are really nice. The biggest mistake they make is to fail to say what they really think. They don’t want to challenge other people because they don’t want to hurt their feelings, but [ultimately] they wind up inadvertently hurting that person. I think that really resonates.

Isn’t it good to be the boss?

At first, it seems pleasant because you are not getting any criticism. But then you start to feel like a dead man walking. And that doesn’t feel so good. Nobody wants to be a dead man walking. You do want to know how you can improve or know what you can be doing better, but nobody will tell you.

So when it comes to criticism, a boss should encourage getting as well as giving.

When people are managers, they’ll see the solution to a problem. But they may tend to jump too quickly at giving feedback and not quickly enough at soliciting feedback.

When you’ve got some criticism for your boss, how do you tell them in a way that doesn’t get you fired?

I think it’s just about getting people comfortable. They should realize that if they can’t get radically candid with their boss, they should probably find a new boss. But there are steps they can take to try. It’s not as dangerous as it first seems.

How do you start the process?

Start by soliciting feedback, not doling it out. Don’t dish it out until you can prove you can take it, and when you start to understand the other person’s perspective.

Start the conversation by asking questions about what you can do to improve. What could be done to make it easier to work with you?

First of all, it helps you understand how you may be contributing to the problem.

What shouldn’t you say or think?

Common complaints are usually “my boss is an asshole” or “my boss is a wimp,” or some version of that. That’s not really very helpful. If you can begin to understand from your boss’ perspective what’s going on -- if you can start there -- that’s helpful.

Sometimes, though, getting feedback doesn’t exactly tickle.

Soliciting feedback shows that you truly view it as a gift. You appreciate getting it. You are giving feedback for the same reason you want to solicit it, because you want to make things better. It helps you mirror how you want the other person to accept your feedback.

How exactly do you “take it?”

When you solicit feedback, you are not going to cross a boundary. The other person may cross a boundary with you, and you have to be prepared to take it. When you solicit feedback, whatever you do, don’t criticize the criticism. Just take it. Listen with the intent to understand and then figure out how to reward the other person’s candor.

Now it’s my turn. How do I give feedback?

When it comes time for giving feedback, there are a few important things to keep in mind. Focus on the good stuff. Feedback is both praise and criticism.

When someone is seriously soliciting feedback, they are probably not fishing for compliments. Start with the good stuff, and that’s not to patronize the person or butter them up. The reason to do this is that it puts you in a better frame of mind.

There are usually more good things than bad things happening. By starting with the good things, you let the person know that you appreciate what they do, and also help them know what to do more of.

Giving praise is both caring personally and challenging directly. It’s actually a way of getting even more of the good stuff.

Should you keep it even keeled between giving and getting?

The rules for both giving praise and giving criticism are the same. You want to make sure that what you are offering is helpful. You are either helping the person do more of what’s good -- praise -- or you are helping the person fix the problem -- criticism.

You are not always going to be right. You want to offer praise that is humble. You want to offer criticism that is humble. And you want to do it immediately in both cases. There is no reason to wait, especially with criticism: it will build up and then blow up like a dirty bomb all over your relationship. Often people will bottle it up. The reason: they think that if they say something, they might get fired or penalized in some way. Then -- because they’ve been bottling it up -- they wind up exploding in the least productive way, and often quitting. If you are going to wind up quitting, you may as well see if you can fix it along the way. So doing it immediately is really important.

Make sure you offer both praise and criticism in person whenever possible. Most communication is nonverbal, so the only way to know if you are offending somebody is if you can see them. It’s almost impossible to know if you are offending somebody if you send them an email. Do it in person.

Make sure you praise in public and criticize in private. And don’t make it about personality. No name calling. The purpose for feedback is to help people improve.

Should we remember to be tactful?

I think tactful is a dangerous word. The value of your feedback is not measured in your mouth, but in the other person’s ear. If somebody is getting really upset, the thing to do is not back off your challenge, but don’t escalate the upset. React with compassion.

Is radical candor different when you have different types of bosses and employees?

It’s dangerous to make generalizations based on gender or race. The important thing about radical candor is not to generalize about any group of people -- a particular generation or nationality. You have to make sure you are treating each individual as an individual.

A shared vocabulary is surprisingly powerful.

Radical candor is probably best when it starts with young people, at the beginning of their careers.

People get their first job out of college, and it’s usually really boring. And they’re trying to understand how the job is going to be relevant to their dream, and radical candor can really help with that.

It’s always been the job of the younger generation to challenge the older generation. The older generation doesn’t like being challenged, and they usually complain about it.

Is radical candor any different for entrepreneurs and small startups?

The culture gets set really early, and it’s going to matter a lot to the growth of your company to get this right, right at the beginning. Get everyone on the same page about being really open with each other, and being caring at the same time. One of the mistakes that gets made is people who say “let me be radically candid with you” and then they proceed to be a total jerk. That’s not radical candor. Make sure you share with your organization the whole framework of radical candor, so that it’s understood.

It requires new habits, and new habits are brutally hard to form. I think it’s really important that you learn to make feedback a daily habit.

Click here to find out more about Radical Candor, and listen to the podcast.

Click here to read the book. It’s a New York Times bestseller!



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