Summary of Radical Candor by Kim Scott

I was recommended Radical Candor by Kim Scott and I have found it to be a treasure trove of practical and invaluable leadership and management advice. After reading it, I felt compelled to share what I had learnt; the information was too rich to digest alone.

Key insight behind Radical Candor is that command and control can hinder innovation and harm a team’s efficiency and that collaboration and innovation flourish when human relationships replace bullying and bureaucracy. The goal of Radical Candor is to help managers and leaders achieve collaboratively what they cannot achieve individually and to help them realize that in order to do that they need to care about the people they are working with. The book is for managers and leaders who are responsible for results and who achieve those results not by doing all the work themselves but by guiding the people on their teams.

Three areas of responsibility for managers: guidance, team-building, and results.

The book emphasizes that there are 3 main responsibilities of manager: 1) to create a culture of guidance (praise and criticism) that will keep everyone moving in the right direction; 2) to understand what motivates each person on your team well enough to avoid burnout or boredom and keep the team cohesive; and 3) to drive results collaboratively. The key insight of of the book is that a manager cannot do these 3 things without strong relationships. The first responsibility, Guidance is often called “Providing Feedback”; second responsibility is Team-Building and it means figuring out the right people for the right roles through hiring, firing, promoting. While the third responsibility is apparent, it can only be done if the first two responsibilities are executed well and that’s where the book focusses on.

“Radical Candor” is what happens when you put “Care Personally” and “Challenge Directly” together.

Care Personally

First dimension of Radical Candor leadership is about being more than “just professional.” It’s about giving a damn, sharing more than just your work self, and encouraging everyone who reports to you to do the same.

To have a good relationship, you have to be your whole self and care about each of the people who work for you as a human being. It’s not just business; it is personal, and deeply personal. This dimension of a manager is to “Care Personally.

A stark truth is that part of the reason why people fail to “care personally” is the injunction to “keep it professional”; but the book makes the point that when we repress who we really are to earn a living, we become alienated. It makes us hate going to work and so instead we should bring our whole self to work and show some vulnerability to the people in our team. It should be “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. It comes down to finding time for real conversations.

Build trusting relationships with your directs – If you lead a big team, you can’t have a close relationship with everybody. But the relationships you have with your direct reports will impact the relationships they have with their direct reports. The ripple effect will go a long way toward creating—or destroying—a positive culture. Relationships may not scale, but culture does. Your ability to build trusting, human connections with the people who report directly to you will determine the quality of everything that follows.

Challenge Directly

The second dimension of the Radical Candor leadership is to ‘Challenge Directly’ and this helps managers provide transparent feedback. Many of us are conditioned to avoid saying what we really think to avoid conflict or embarrassment. But in a leader, that kind of avoidance is disastrous since paradoxically challenging people is often the best way to show them that you care when you’re the boss. A manager’s job is to set and uphold a quality bar; this can feel harsh in the short term, but in the long run the only thing that is meaner is lowering the bar. Delivering hard feedback; making hard calls about who does what on a team, and holding a high bar for results should be the main focus of any manager. Most people prefer the challenging “jerk” to the boss whose “niceness” gets in the way of candor. Furthermore, it’s the fear of being labeled a jerk that pushes many people towards giving praise and criticism that is manipulatively insincere since they are too focused on being liked or think they can gain some sort of political advantage. What happens in Ruinous Empathy is that you’re so fixated on not hurting a person’s feelings in the moment that you don’t tell them something they’d be better off knowing in the long run. Unregulated emotional empathy can be the source of distress and burnout. An empathetic response would be to feel the same sense of crushing suffocation, thus rendering you helpless. The compassionate response would be to recognize that that person is in pain and to do everything within your power to remove the boulder and alleviate their suffering. Compassion is empathy plus action. In my experience, most bosses fear being jerks but employees fear their bosses are not shooting straight.

Reacting to criticism: How should a manager respond when he gets candid feedback from his team? The way you ask for criticism and react when you get it goes a long way toward building trust. The authors offers the tip that if a person is bold enough to criticize you, do not critique their criticism. But if somebody criticizes you inappropriately, your job is to listen with the intent to understand and then to reward the candor.

When you encourage people to criticize you publicly, you get the chance to show your team that you really, genuinely want the criticism. You also set an ideal for the team as a whole; everyone should embrace criticism that help them do their jobs better. Ask – “What could I do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” One technique is to count to six before saying anything else, forcing them to endure the silence. Try to repeat what the person said to make sure you’ve understood it, rather than defending yourself against the criticism that you’ve just heard. Try saying, “So what I hear you saying is…”

One on One Meetings

1:1’s are your must-do meetings, your single best opportunity to listen, really listen, to the people on your team. 1:1s should be a natural bottleneck that determines how many direct reports a boss can have. Probably the most important advice for 1:1s is just to show up. So, no matter what fires erupt in your day, do not cancel your 1:1s.

Never let one person on your team talk to you about another behind their back. It feels like you’re being empathetic to listen, but actually you’re just stirring the political pot. Instead, insist that they talk directly to each other, without you. Hopefully, they’ll work it out. But if they can’t, offer to have a three-way conversation. Important that you, as the leader, encourage your team to take the time to talk to one another.

Begin “career conversations” with your team. Start with people whom you’ve been working with for the longest. Good idea to do one round of “career conversations” a year with each of your direct reports during your 1:1 time. In parallel, perfect your 1:1 conversations and make sure you are having meaningful 1:1 conversations with your direct reports.

Know your direct reports—to move up on the “care personally” dimension of the Radical Candor framework. Purpose of a 1:1 meeting is to listen and clarify—to understand what direction each person working for you wants to head in, and what is blocking them. Begin treating these meetings as if you were having lunch or coffee with somebody you were eager to get to know better. If you never ask a single question about a person’s life, it’s hard to move up on the “care personally” axis.

Their Agenda – Ask your directs to come to 1:1s with a list of problems that you can help resolve. Managers should make sure to spend at least ten minutes in every one-on-one meeting listening silently, without reacting in any way. Make sure that at least some of the issues raised are quickly addressed, and regularly offer explanations as to why the other issues aren’t being addressed. If people just give you updates that could simply be emailed to you, encourage them to use the time more constructively. Also, you need to ask explicitly for the bad news. Don’t let the issue drop till you hear some.

Managers need to push their directs to communicate with such precision and clarity that it’s impossible not to grasp their argument. Also, they need to take the time to help your direct reports explain what a certain change mean, so that they can do something about fixing the problem or pursuing the opportunity rather than just complaining about it. Far too often we assume that if somebody doesn’t understand what we’re telling them, it’s because they are “stupid” or “closed minded.” That is very rarely the case.

It is said of Steve Jobs, “He’s a lion. If he roars at you, you’d better roar back just as loudly—but only if you really are a lion, too. Otherwise he’ll eat you for lunch. This follows a technique he calls “strong opinions, weakly held.” If you tend to state your positions strongly then learn to follow up with, “Please poke holes in this idea—I know it may be terrible” the that sets the stage for the team to flourish.

Team Dynamics

For team cohesive, you need both rock stars and superstars

Rock starts are the team members that are solid and dependable and if you honor and reward the rock stars, they’ll become the people you most rely on. If you promote them into roles they don’t want or aren’t suited for, however, you’ll lose them—or, even worse, wind up firing them. Superstars, on the other hand, need to be challenged and given new opportunities to grow constantly. Rock stars are just as important to a team’s performance as superstars. Stability is just as important as growth. Some roles may be better suited to a rock star because they require steadiness, accumulated knowledge, and an attention to detail that someone in a superstar phase might not have the focus or patience for.

Recognize Superstars: Best way to manage rock stars, the people whom you can count on to deliver great results year after year? You need to recognize them to keep them happy. For too many bosses, “recognition” means “promotion.” But in most cases, this is a big mistake. In addition to top ratings, a great way to recognize people in a rock star phase is to designate them as “gurus,” or “go-to” experts. Generally, people who are great at a job enjoy teaching it to others; giving them this role can not only improve the performance of the whole team but also give the rock stars a different sort of recognition.

Keep superstars challenged: The best way to keep superstars happy is to challenge them and make sure they are constantly learning. Give them new opportunities. Build an intellectual partnership with them. Find them mentors from outside your team or organization. Make sure you don’t get too dependent on them; ask them to teach others on the team to do their job, because they won’t stay in their existing role for long. Recognize that you’ll probably be working for them one day, and celebrate that fact. Not every superstar wants to manage. When management is the only path to higher compensation, the quality of management suffers.

Managers should use the “growth management” framework to clarify their thinking about how to manage the two different types of high performers—those on a steep growth trajectory and those on a more gradual growth trajectory—differently. It will remind you to help people conduct their careers in the way they desire, not in the way you think they should want to. Managers have to understand what growth trajectory each person wants to be on at a given time and whether that matches the needs and opportunities of the team.

One of the most common mistakes bosses make is to ignore the people who are doing the best work because “they don’t need me” or “I don’t want to micromanage. It requires that you ask a lot of questions and challenge people—that you roll up your own sleeves. Your job as a manager is not to provide purpose but instead to get to know each of your direct reports well enough to understand how each one derives meaning from their work. Be a partner, not an absentee manager or a micromanager.

Gradual vs Steep Career Trajectory: Plenty of individual contributors remain on a steep growth trajectory their entire careers, and plenty of managers are on a gradual growth trajectory. Most people shift between a steep growth trajectory and a gradual growth trajectory in different phases of their lives and careers. Gradual growth is characterized by stability. People on a gradual growth trajectory, who perform well, have generally mastered their work and are making incremental rather than sudden, dramatic improvements.

There’s nothing wrong with working hard to earn a paycheck that supports the life you want to lead. That has plenty of meaning. A wise man once told me, “Only about five percent of people have a real vocation in life, and they confuse the hell out of the rest of us.” There is no shame in being in the same job for many years. We all need a bit of both growth and stability in our lives and on our teams. Over the course of our careers, most of us go through waves. Sometimes we are in learning mode or transition mode. However, lack of courage and energy leads to a tremendous loss of human potential—to lives of quiet desperation.

Firing: When is it time to fire someone? There’s no absolute answer to that question, but here are three questions to consider: have you given her Radically Candid guidance, do you understand the impact of poor performance on colleagues, and have you sought advice from others? Generally, by the time one of your direct report’s poor performance has come to your attention, it’s been driving their peers nuts for a long time. Steve Jobs put it succinctly, if harshly, when he said, “It’s better to have a hole than an asshole.” When you fire someone, you create the possibility for the person to excel and find happiness performing meaningful work elsewhere. On the other hand, retaining people who are doing bad work penalizes the people doing excellent work. If you do three things, you can make it far, far easier on the person you are firing—as well as on yourself and your team. (1) Don’t wait too long (2) Don’t make the decision unilaterally (3) Give a damn – when you have to fire people, do it with humility.

Build a culture of open debate

Andy Grove had a mantra at Intel that we borrowed to describe leadership at Apple: Listen, Challenge, Commit. A strong leader has the humility to listen, the confidence to challenge, and the wisdom to know when to quit.

Debate and decide explicitly. Don’t let things that pervert your culture “just happen”

First, you have to listen to the ideas that people on your team have and create a culture in which they listen to each other. If you can build a culture where people listen to one another, they will start to fix things you as the boss never even knew were broken.

Second, create space in which ideas can be sharpened and clarified, to make sure these ideas don’t get crushed before everyone fully understands their potential usefulness.

Next, you have to debate ideas and test them. There, manager’s most important role is to “give the quiet ones a voice.” Steve Jobs said that when a team debated, both the ideas and the people came out more beautiful—results well worth all the friction and noise. Make sure that they happen, and that there is a culture of debate on your team.

Debate takes time and requires emotional energy. But lack of debate saps a team of more time and emotional energy in the long. Keep the conversation focused on ideas not egos. Remind people what the goal is: to get to the best answer, as a team. Create an obligation to dissent. Don’t grab a decision just because the debate has gotten painful. People often look to the boss to end the suffering and make a decision however it is a bad thing when the most “senior” people in a hierarchy are always the deciders. Kick-ass bosses often do not decide themselves, but rather create a clear decision-making process that empowers people closest to the facts to make as many decisions as possible. One strategy is that when debates start to feel tedious, identify a “decider,” and ask that person to come back to the rest of us with a decision by a particular date.

As a manager: (1) Don’t waste your team’s time (2) Keep the “dirt under your fingernails” and (3) Block time to execute.

First, wasting people’s time is a cardinal sin for a boss.

Second, keep the “dirt under your fingernails” – you need to stay connected to the actual work that is being done; if you mange a team of plumbers, fix some faucets. Go spelunking As the boss, you do have the right to delve into any details that seem interesting or important to you. You don’t have to stay “high level” all the time. When you are the decider, it’s really important to go to the source of the facts. This is especially true when you’re a “manager of managers.” You don’t want the “facts” to come to you through layers of management.

Block time to execute – Manager should have the ability to stay centered, to do things like block two hours of think-time on his calendar every day. Fear, anxiety, and self-doubt can be the constant companion of any boss. STAY CENTERED You can’t give a damn about others if you don’t give a damn about yourself. Essence of leadership is not getting overwhelmed by circumstances.

EXECUTION TIME Fight meeting proliferation For the same reason, I blocked off think-time in calendar; I also found it necessary to block off time in my calendar to be alone and execute.

Schedule an hour a week of walking-around time. Management by walking around is a tried-and-true technique. First they’ll help you find the devil in the details. Second, being aware of small problems and maybe even rolling up your sleeves and fixing them yourself is the best way to kill the “it’s not my job” or, worse, the “that’s beneath me” mentality on your team. Third, when you show that you care about the small things that contribute to customer happiness or the quality of life on your team.

Figure out your “recipe” to stay centered and stick to it. It is even more important to focus on making time for whatever keeps you centered when you are stressed and busy than when things are relatively calm. Calendar – put the things you need to do for yourself on your calendar, just as you would an important meeting.

Work-life integration – Be relentlessly insistent on bringing your fullest and best self to work—and taking it back home again. Your work and your life can give each other a “double bounce.” The time you spend at work can be an expression of who you are as a human being, an enormous enrichment to your life, and a boon to your friends.

There are few things more damaging to building a trusting relationship with another person than unilateral authority or a sense of superiority. Reduce the odds that any individual can be at the mercy of a single person. Bosses can’t become petty bureaucrats.

How to handle emotional outbursts

All people, including the people who report to you, are responsible for their own emotional lives. To build Radically Candid relationships, do not try to prevent, control, or manage other people’s emotions however try to master your reactions to other people’s emotions. When somebody is frustrated or angry or upset enough about a situation at work that they react emotionally, this is your cue to keep asking questions until you understand what the real issue. Just because somebody is crying or yelling doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong; it just means they are upset.

Don’t try to mitigate them by saying things like, “It’s not personal,” or “Let’s be professional.” Instead say, “I can see you’re mad/frustrated/elated/____”. Telling other people how to feel will backfire. Here are some of the most counterproductive words you can utter: “Don’t be sad”; “Don’t be mad”; “No offense, but.” If you see that somebody is getting upset, offer a bottle of water. Often, the simple pause to unscrew the top and take a sip of water is enough to help the person feel calmer.

When someone is upset or angry, focus on showing that you care personally, don’t let the emotions knock you off your good intention to challenge directly.

How to give criticism: Stating your intention to be helpful can lower defenses, if you deliver criticism humbly, it breaks down the natural resistance to what you’re saying. Being humble is just as important when delivering praise. huge part of what makes giving guidance so valuable is that misperceptions on both sides of the equation get corrected. Simple technique reminds you to describe three things when giving feedback: 1) the situation you saw, 2) the behavior (i.e., what the person did, either good or bad), and 3) the impact you observed. As an example, “In your presentation at this morning’s meeting (situation), the way you talked about our decision to diversify (behavior) was persuasive because you showed everyone you’d heard the other point of view (impact).” Try a little preamble. For example, in your own words, say something like, “I’m going to describe a problem I see; I may be wrong, and if I am I hope you’ll tell me”. By explicitly describing what was good or what was bad, you are helping a person do more of what’s good and less of what’s bad. Don’t let the fact that you can’t offer a solution make you reluctant to offer guidance. Other pointers;

  • Be as specific and thorough with praise as with criticism. Go deep into the details. When you do start giving it, start with praise, not criticism.
  • Radical Candor is not a license to be gratuitously harsh or to “front-stab.” It’s not Radical Candor if you don’t show that you care personally.
  • Be humble, helpful, offer guidance in person and immediately, praise in public, criticize in private, and don’t personalize.
  • Radical Candor is also not an invitation to nitpick.
  • When you’re faced with telling a person something that will be extremely hard to hear, pretend you’re just saying, “Your fly is down,” or “You have spinach in your teeth”.
  • Criticism is a gift, and you need to give it in equal measure to your male and female direct reports.

Impromptu guidance really, truly is something you can squeeze in between meetings in three minutes or less. You’d never let the fact that you go to the dentist for a cleaning a couple times a year prevent you from brushing your teeth every day. Don’t use performance reviews as an excuse not to give impromptu in-person feedback. Unspoken criticism explodes like a dirty bomb. Just as in your personal life, remaining silent at work for too long about something that angers or frustrates you makes it more likely that you will eventually blow up in a way that makes you look irrational, harms your relationship, or both. Don’t let this happen to you. Unless you feel you’re in a rage, just say what you’re thinking right away! Often the reason why you’ll be tempted not to deliver guidance in person is that you are trying to avoid seeing the other person’s emotional reaction. This is natural.

Avoid black holes – be sure to let them know the reaction to their work. If you don’t, the person who did the work feels as if their efforts have gone into a black hole. It is important to pass on both praise and criticism for the contributions they made. For praise on small things, I found that a quick Reply All email worked pretty well. For remote offices, it’s really important to have quick, frequent interactions.

Skip-Level Meetings: Rationale for skip level meetings is that most people are very reluctant to criticize their boss. The intent of these sessions is to be supportive of the managers who report to you, not to undermine them. And part of being supportive is knowing when they are screwing up, and helping them address the situation. Be careful not to judge or defend the manager about whom you are soliciting feedback. Do not judge anything on the spot. Don’t defend or malign the boss you’re hearing about.

Never have skip level meetings for some of the people who work for you but not others.

When you begin the meeting, reiterate that one of the goals of the meeting is to help their boss get better. Remind people that the goal is to create a culture where everyone always feels comfortable giving guidance, especially criticism, directly to their bosses.

Explain to each of your direct reports that you have two goals: 1) to help each of them become better bosses and 2) to make sure people on their team feel comfortable giving them feedback directly.

Staff Meetings: effective staff meeting has three goals: it reviews how things have gone the previous week, allows people to share important updates, and forces the team to clarify the most important decisions and debates for the coming week. Make sure your staff meetings are maximally productive. During the meeting, you are reviewing key metrics, sharing updates, and identifying your big decisions and debates.

Agenda that I’ve found to be most effective: Learn: review key metrics (twenty minutes) Listen: put updates in a shared document (fifteen minutes) Clarify: identify key decisions & debates (thirty minutes). Updates are different from key metrics. Updates include things that would never make it into the dashboard, like, “We need to change our goals for this project”. Have everybody take five to seven minutes to write down the three to five things that they or their team did that week that others need to know about, and five to seven minutes to read everybody else’s updates. If you are a boss of bosses, these snippets should be made public to the broader team.

Clarify: identify key decisions/debates (30 minutes). What are the one or two most important decisions and the single most important debate your team needs to take on that week?

Put some topics on the agendas of separate “big decision” and “big debate” meetings and identify owners for each. These separate meetings are a way for you to delegate debates and decisions. Delegating debates and decisions pushes them into the facts, and avoids thinking that is hierarchical.

“BIG DEBATE” MEETINGS Lower the tension by making it clear that you are debating, not deciding. Debate should occur constantly on a well-functioning team. Having these meetings regularly and seeking topics for them can help build the muscle and tolerance for discussion and dissension. Having regular debates—arguments, even—also lowers tension because it prevents explosive fights. The principle of “self-organizing criticality”—a lot of little corrections create stability but one huge correction creates catastrophe—applies to human relationships as much as it does to markets. Sole product of the debate should be a careful summary of the facts and issues that emerged, a clearer definition of the choices going forward, and a recommendation to keep debating or to move on to a decision.

“BIG DECISION” MEETINGS Push decisions into the facts, pull facts into the decisions, and keep egos at bay. The leader of the meeting is the “decider,” whom you will have appointed in your staff meeting.

ALL-HANDS MEETINGS Bring others along

These meetings usually include two parts: presentations to persuade people that the company is making good decisions and headed in the right direction, and Q&As conducted so leaders can hear dissent

BE CONSCIOUS OF CULTURE Everyone is watching you, but that doesn’t mean it’s all about you “CULTURE EATS STRATEGY for lunch.”

Summary: You can build a team like that if you have career conversations with each of the people on your team, create growth-management plans for each person who works for you once a year, hire the right people, fire the appropriate people, promote the right people, and reward the people who are doing great work but who shouldn’t be promoted, and offer yourself as a partner to your direct reports.

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