On Radical Candor

This article is a discussion of the book by Kim Scott, Radical Candor. At its heart, this book is about working well with your team. Even though Kim makes it clear in the subtitle and the writing her target audience is bosses, the observations and techniques apply to some extent to all team members.

What is Radical Candor?

Radical Candor is the intersection of Caring Personally and Challenging Directly. Kim’s main message is that doing just one or the other of these is not enough. If you care personally about your teammate but don’t challenge them directly, she claims you are being Ruinously Empathetic. If you don’t care about your teammate but do challenge them directly, you’re Obnoxiously Aggressive.

Kim starts with a story about how she hired a guy who looked fantastic on paper but performed poorly. She talks about the first moment she was confronted with his poor work. He looked nervous, seeming to understand the situation. But she complimented his work and fixed it up herself, leaving him mistakenly thinking there was no issue with his performance. The staff under her saw this and followed her example, cleaning up after him. The toll of doing their own work in addition to redoing his led to missed deadlines and all that obvious stuff. Kim had to fire him. When she did, his response was simply “why didn’t you tell me?”

It’s unclear from the story just how much or little her employee understood about what was going on, but it’s safe to say if he did realize everyone was cleaning up after him it must have felt pretty crappy. Kim points out to the reader up front that avoiding tough feedback is no favor to your teammate.

Caring Personally

Caring personally is exactly what it sounds like. It’s not enough to just understand the professional side; you must also understand the human side. If you want to care about someone personally, you need to understand what drives them. What do they find rewarding? Do they enjoy receiving direct praise, or prefer more indirect praise for their good work? What are the most important things to them in the office: the coffee, a quiet space to work, a 4K monitor, ridiculously difficult problems, or fun lunches?

Challenging Directly

Challenging directly is all about giving feedback. Specific, targeted feedback. It’s not enough to just tell someone “you suck.” One of Kim’s points is that the best feedback is not personalized. She frequently uses the example that Steve Jobs would tell people “your work is shit.” While this is still on the poor end of feedback, it acknowledges that the problem is in the work produced rather than the person. And it’s a lot easier to change your work than it is your core being. Kim’s best example in the book of good feedback was her boss telling her after a presentation that saying “um” so much made her sound stupid. Kim is plenty smart, her lack of verbal forethought in public speaking was just obscuring that.

Even when giving praise, it’s important to give focused praise. Think about why you’re pleased with something. Kim gave an example where she praised a coworker for being a little league coach. They told her they didn’t feel like it was sincere praise because Kim doesn’t care about sports. Kim had the opportunity to explain the praise: she admired the dedication to the children. Having children herself, she understands how difficult it can be to make time for them. And so while she doesn’t appreciate sports, she does appreciate that her coworker is a coach.

To challenge directly, we must have a good relationship. If they don’t understand our direct challenge’s intent is to better them because we care about them, it is just obnoxious aggression and it won’t have great effect. Kim has a few stories in the book supporting that well-executed direct challenges will lead to an even stronger relationship.

The Cycle

Kim presents a cycle in the book that consists of Learn > Listen > Clarify > Debate > Decide > Persuade > Execute. The first part of the cycle is all about listening clearly to the members of your team and clarifying their ideas, giving them some time to grow before being debated. The debate and persuade pieces of this cycle had a particularly strong impact on me when I read about them.

Debate

I avoid debates and arguments. Typically, debates I witness consist of side A saying “A! A! A!” and side B saying “B! B! B!” and they continue alternating without making any progress. Neither side is actually listening to each other, any time they spend not talking isn’t spent listening but rather thinking about how they’re going to respond. Kim pushes the importance of debate multiple times in the book. After reading the book, I would like to find a structure that leads to productive debates. There are two major problems that must be addressed: (1) people aren’t listening and (2) only the loudest speak.

People Aren’t Listening

I mentioned the A/B issue above. I think one reason this occurs is because A says the point they’re trying to make and is looking for acknowledgment. Rather than acknowledging A’s point, B puts forth their thoughts, also looking for acknowledgment. Since A didn’t receive acknowledgment, they think B must not have heard them properly and say their point again. This cycle continues until someone in the room runs out of patience.

We need to work on acknowledgment. Don’t respond to an idea with another idea. First, let’s repeat the idea in our own words and consider it for a moment. There have been many ideas that did not have much merit at face value to me, but after a brief moment of thought merit appeared. Only after we’ve given that idea its due time do we move on to the next one. One of the keys here is to acknowledge verbally the merit of what other people say. We are naturally inclined to only speak up about what we disagree with, but this gives a mistaken impression that we disagree with all of it.

Only the Loudest Speak

Another aspect of most debates I’ve witnessed is even though there may be 8 people in the meeting, only 2 of them are talking. Coupled with the point above, this is a waste of everyone’s time. Generally, I find that after 2 people have gone back-and-forth 2 times they’ve said most of what there is to say. Anything after that is diminishing returns. We need some structure to rate limit the more talkative. Waiting a moment and forcing the more quiet ones to talk also gives the louder a chance to think and listen.

Persuade

The other piece of the cycle that interests me is Persuade. The point of this piece is that not everyone on the team will have been involved in the debate and decide meetings. Yet they still must be persuaded the decision is a sound one and worth executing. It’s not enough to just say “well, we decided it so go do it.” One of the struggles at work lately is making sure meetings are lean, but also coming to good decisions that the rest of the team can agree to.

Summary

I enjoyed this book. It reiterated and solidified some lessons I’ve learned along the way. Coming away from it, I want to invest some time in reading about debate and how to address the typical pitfalls I’ve witnessed. I’m looking forward to giving and receiving more focused feedback.