Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity
By Kim Scott
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2017
Search the web for “top 10 reasons people quit their jobs” and you’ll find “bad boss”, “terrible boss”, or “relationship with boss” at or near the top of every list that comes up. I don’t believe anyone sets out to become a bad boss, but there sure seem to be a lot of them out there. And for every truly horrible, psychopathic, soul-destroying boss there are thousands of simply average or first-time bosses who could use some help. (I’ve been one of these myself.)
Radical Candor is about how to be a better boss. Author Kim Scott has been a senior manager at Google, a co-founder of her own Silicon Valley startup, and an advisor to Apple, Dropbox, Twitter and other tech companies. Her book, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, takes all that experience and packages it up into a neat framework and a set of detailed instructions to help you become a more effective boss.
Scott uses the word “boss” deliberately, to cover both “manager” and “leader.” She has an equally concise description of the boss’s job:
“Bosses guide teams to achieve results.” [p. 6]
From this one simple definition, she spins out an entire book full of step-by-step instructions for giving guidance, building teams and getting results. More on those elements in a moment.
Caring and Challenging
These days, bosses won’t get the best performance and the deepest engagement from their employees just by barking out orders. It’s not the boss’s power that counts, it’s their relationships with their employees. What’s needed are relationships based on mutual trust. To develop these relationships, Kim Scott says bosses must care personally and challenge directly.
- Bosses must care personally about their employees. They have to treat each employee as a whole person, not a fungible resource. They need to get to know their employees well enough to understand what their dreams are and what motivates them. And they need to open up and share something of themselves to show that they too are whole human beings. This helps to build trusting relationships.
- Bosses must also directly challenge their employees. This means giving them challenging assignments, and also, when necessary, challenging the quality of their work or the thoroughness of their research, or the soundness of their decisions. Challenging employees and encouraging them to challenge you, helps build trust because it shows you’re committed to helping them improve and to improving yourself.
These two dimensions, care personally and challenge directly, form the framework for the book. Get the balance right, and bosses can establish relationships built on radical candor, shown in the upper right quadrant of the figure below. With radical candor, bosses care personally enough to give employees specific, meaningful and sincere praise when it’s due, and at the same time to challenge directly with specific, clear and actionable criticism when it’s needed.
Too much emphasis on challenging directly, without caring personally, results in obnoxious aggression. These are the bosses who belittle employees, criticize or humiliate them in public, and freeze them out of important discussions and decisions. They’re the people the “no asshole” rule was designed to filter out. They can sometimes achieve great results in the short term, Scott says, but they inevitably leave a trail of traumatized employees and damaged careers behind them.
On the other hand, caring too much without challenging directly can result in ruinous empathy. When a boss doesn’t give enough criticism, they might end up letting poorly performing employees skate by. This is unfair to the employee who never gets the guidance they need to improve. It’s also unfair to the rest of the team who end up doing extra work to cover for their under-performing colleague. Ruinous empathy can prevent bosses from asking for criticism too. This means they won’t get the feedback they need to mature as bosses. Finally, a boss who is more concerned with everyone getting along may not encourage the healthy, sometimes contentious debate between team members that results in ideas getting clarified and sharpened.
Bosses who neither care about their employees personally nor challenge them directly often display manipulative insincerity. Possibly these bosses just want to be liked or they’re just plain fake, Scott tells us. They don’t provide necessary feedback because they don’t want to offend anyone, or don’t want to be perceived badly. So they give insincere praise and vague, useless feedback.
Radical candor helps bosses guide teams to achieve results. The second half of the book provides tools and techniques for doing just that.
Guidance consists of praise and criticism. It’s part of the boss’s job to give, get and encourage guidance. In fact, Scott wants bosses to foster a “culture of guidance.” It starts with bosses asking for criticism from their employees. Since most people will feel reluctant to criticize their boss, Scott proposes a number of strategies such as asking a question like, “what can I do or stop doing to make it easier to work with me?” She advises bosses to listen for understanding rather than listening to refute. And it’s important for bosses to act on the feedback quickly to demonstrate their sincerity and to encourage more.
When bosses are giving guidance, either praise or criticism, it should be clear, specific and grounded in facts. Scott suggests a situation-behavior-impact format. Criticism, in particular, should focus on the work not the person. And it must be actionable. “It’s not mean, it’s clear,” she says. Most guidance should be impromptu, in the moment, and Scott offers plenty of suggestions for how to do this. Some situations, such as annual performance reviews, are more formal and require preparation. She has tips for delivering this type of guidance too.
Scott includes a section on gender and guidance. Women are often perceived, treated and evaluated differently than men in the workplace, usually to their detriment. For example, assertive behavior by men is considered “normal” but the same behavior by women is often criticized as “abrasive.” Another example: male bosses can feel uncomfortable challenging female employees as directly as they challenge males. This denies women both the opportunities and the feedback they need to develop in their careers. Over time small differences can accumulate and contribute to wide gaps between men and women in salary and rank. She offers some suggestions for both men and women on how to address these gender differences.
Since it’s impossible to accomplish anything significant by yourself in most organizations, bosses need to be adept at building and motivating teams. Contrary to a lot of current leadership thinking, Scott says it is not the boss’s job to inspire their employees.
“Sure, it’s the boss’s job to put the team’s work in context, and if you share why the work gives you meaning, that can help others find their own inspiration. But remember, it’s not all about you.” [p. 51]
Instead, bosses have a more practical job: to get the most out of each employee, bosses need to understand what motivates them, find out what dreams or aspirations they hold, identify the skills the employee needs to advance towards their dream and then provide the assignments, training and mentoring to help them develop those skills. This is an intensely pragmatic approach. It recognizes that the employee’s goals and the team’s goals may not be perfectly aligned and that it’s the boss’s job to align them as much as possible for as long as possible. If they don’t align, the employee may need to move to another team or to another organization where there is a better match. Scott notes that people change over time, so bosses need to regularly re-connect with their employees to check on alignment and adjust accordingly.
Bosses have another key responsibility: assessing the performance of team members. Scott presents a useful framework for doing this, noting that healthy teams have a mixture of “superstar” performers with steep career growth trajectories, and steady “rock star” performers with slower growth trajectories. Bosses need to reward and accommodate both.
Bosses can’t get the best answer, or design or solution by telling people what to do, so they must collaborate and they must get their teams to collaborate.
Scott provides a detailed framework for getting results that she calls the “Getting Stuff Done” wheel. The GSD wheel consists of seven steps:
- Listen – give everyone on the team, especially the quiet ones, the opportunity to be heard and to contribute. Use the “strong opinions weakly held” model.
- Clarify – create a safe space to nurture and clarify new ideas
- Debate – subject ideas to vigorous debate and criticism to strengthen and polish them
- Decide – the people closest to the facts, not necessarily the boss, should decide on a course of action
- Persuade – enlist the support of the rest of the team, especially those who might disagree with the decision.
- Execute – help the team execute by staying involved and by shielding them from distractions and organizational “taxes”.
- Learn – Collect feedback, learn and adjust.
Scott compliments the GSD wheel with suggestions on how bosses can balance meeting time (1:1, team, all-hands) and execution/thinking time to maximize results.
Radical Candor is relentlessly pragmatic. It starts with a crisp and clear definition of the boss’s job, to guide teams to achieve results. Then it provides simple and practical frameworks for thinking about the three components of the job: giving guidance, building teams and getting results. And lastly, it’s full of detailed, roll-up-your-sleeves tips and techniques for doing these things.
I think it’s an especially useful book for new managers or for individual contributors aspiring to be managers. (I prefer the term manager to boss.) It could also be helpful to anyone who just wants to make a bigger impact on their team. You don’t have to be a manager to use and benefit from many of the strategies Kim Scott presents in Radical Candor.
However, I do think there might be a quadrant (or maybe a small wedge) missing from the care personally / challenge directly grid. Sometimes the boss just doesn’t know how to handle a given situation. They might care personally and want to challenge directly but just don’t know what to do. The guidance they give when this happens can be maddeningly vague. Radical Candor doesn’t deal with situations like this where the boss needs help and I think that’s a gap in the book.
One of the key points in the book is the need to really get to know what motivates the people on your team. When I first became a manager, I tended to focus mainly on task assignment and coaching to help team members advance up the career ladder. That’s not a terrible approach, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of understanding each individual’s motivations and aspirations. Radical Candor helps you get that deeper level of understanding.
The book is also highly personal. It’s based mainly on Kim Scott’s own career and consulting experience. Many of the examples come from her own jobs. To her credit she doesn’t hide or sugar coat her mistakes. But if you’re looking for a book that’s backed by academic research or industry-wide surveys of Fortune 500 executives, or similar data, Radical Candor is not that book.
There are some similarities between Radical Candor and other leadership books I’ve read recently, such as Dare to Lead by Brené Brown (book, review). Both books stress the need for clear, actionable feedback. Scott says, “It’s not mean, it’s clear.” Brown says, “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.”
There are some differences too. Dare to Lead goes deep into the psychological aspects of building trust in the face of vulnerability, and it presents strategies for developing a trusting culture across the whole organization. Radical Candor is focused mostly on the relationship between a boss and their team members. While it talks about developing a “culture of guidance” and a “culture of listening” the book is not really about the relationships between team members themselves. In other words, there’s less emphasis on building an overall team culture.
But that’s OK. Radical Candor contains plenty of pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts advice to keep you busy for quite a while learning to be a better boss