[Book Notes] 20 insights: Radical Candor


Kim Scott’s book – Radical Candor – has acquired legendary status in Silicon Valley. Unfortunately it has also been used by managers/companies to justify wrong behavior towards employees as seen in the above cartoons.


I found the Radical candor framework a very useful guideline for approaching my own management style. Some of the phrases like “give a damn”, “ruinous empathy”, “challenge directly” have really stuck with me and I routinely use them in my own interaction with the team. Some notes/quotations from the book are as follows:


#1:

Radical Candor framework


The first dimension 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. It’s not just business; it is personal, and deeply personal. I call this dimension “Care Personally.”


The second dimension involves telling people when their work isn’t good enough—and when it is. Challenging people generally pisses them off, and at first that doesn’t seem like a good way to build a relationship or to show that you “care personally.” And yet challenging people is often the best way to show them that you care when you’re the boss. This dimension I call “Challenge Directly.”


Part of the reason why people fail to “care personally” is the injunction to “keep it professional.” Fred Kofman, my coach at Google, had a mantra that contradicted the “just professional” approach so destructive to so many managers: “Bring your whole self to work.”


BOTH DIMENSIONS OF Radical Candor are sensitive to context. They get measured at the listener’s ear, not at the speaker’s mouth.


The names of each quadrant refer to guidance, not to personality traits. They are a way to gauge praise and criticism, and to help people remember to do a better job offering both. They are not to be used to label people. Labeling hinders improvement. Ultimately, everyone spends some time in each of the quadrants. We are all imperfect. I’ve never met anyone who is always Radically Candid. To repeat, this is not a “personality test.”

 

#2:

[On the difference between rockstars and superstars]

I’d always focused on the people most likely to be promoted. I assumed that was how it had to be at a growth company. Then a leader at Apple pointed out to me that all teams need stability as well as growth to function properly; nothing works well if everyone is gunning for the next promotion. She called the people on her team who got exceptional results but who were on a more gradual growth trajectory “rock stars” because they were like the Rock of Gibraltar on her team.


The people who were on a steeper growth trajectory—the ones who’d go crazy if they were still doing the same job in a year—she called “superstars.” They were the source of growth on any team. She was explicit about needing a balance of both.

 

#3:

People give praise and criticism that is manipulatively insincere when they are too focused on being liked or think they can gain some sort of political advantage by being fake—or when they are just too tired to care or argue any more.


Apple’s Chief Design Officer Jony Ive told a story about a time when he pulled his punches when criticizing his team’s work. When Steve Jobs asked Jony why he hadn’t been more clear about what was wrong, Jony replied, “Because I care about the team.” To which Steve replied, “No, Jony, you’re just really vain. You just want people to like you.” Recounting the story, Jony said, “I was terribly cross because I knew he was right.”

 

#4:

[On Ruinous empathy]

THERE’S A RUSSIAN anecdote about a guy who has to amputate his dog’s tail but loves him so much that he cuts it off an inch each day, rather than all at once. His desire to spare the dog pain and suffering only leads to more pain and suffering. Don’t allow yourself to become that kind of boss!


This is an extreme example of what I call Ruinous Empathy. Ruinous Empathy is responsible for the vast majority of management mistakes I’ve seen in my career. Most people want to avoid creating tension or discomfort at work. They are like the well-meaning parent who cannot bear to discipline their kids.


Ruinous Empathy can also prevent a boss from asking for criticism. Typically, when a boss asks an employee for criticism, the employee feels awkward at best, afraid at worst. Instead of pushing through the discomfort to get an employee to challenge them, bosses who are being ruinously empathetic may be so eager to ease the awkwardness that they simply let the matter drop.


In many ways, your job as the boss is to set and uphold a quality bar. That can feel harsh in the short term, but in the long run the only thing that is meaner is lowering the bar. Don’t get sucked into Ruinous Empathy when managing people who are doing OK but not great! Everybody can excel somewhere. And to build a great team that achieves exceptional results, everybody needs to be doing great work. Accepting mediocrity isn’t good for anybody.

 

#5:

Radically Candid criticism is an important part of the culture at both Google and Apple, but it takes very different forms at the two companies. Google emphasizes caring personally more than challenging directly, so I’d describe criticism there as Radical Candor with a twist of Ruinous Empathy. Apple does the opposite, so I’d describe its culture of criticism as Radical Candor with a twist of Obnoxious Aggression.

 

#6:

Kim Vorrath, a leader on the iOS team at Apple that built the software for the iPhone, gave this simple advice about criticism: “Just say it!”


From the moment you learned to speak, you started to challenge those around you. Then you were told some version of “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Well, now it’s your job to say it. And if you are a boss or a person in a position of some authority, it’s not just your job. It’s your moral obligation. Just say it!


You were also born with a capacity to connect, to care personally. Somehow the training you got to “be professional” made you repress that. Well, stop repressing your innate ability to care personally. Give a damn!

 

#7:

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.”


The “choose and ignore” strategy is just as crazy for management as it is for marriage. If you don’t take the time to get to know the people who get the best results, you can’t understand how they want and need to be growing in their jobs at that particular moment in their lives.


Instead, you want to be a partner—that is, you must take the time to help the people doing the best work overcome obstacles and make their good work even better. This is time-consuming because it requires that you know enough about the details of the person’s work to understand the nuances. It often requires you to help do the work, rather than just advising. It requires that you ask a lot of questions and challenge people—that you roll up your own sleeves.

 

#8:

Of all the companies I’ve worked for, Google did the best job of putting safeguards in place so that managers couldn’t curb the ambitions of their direct reports.


For example, consider the promotion process that Shona Brown, SVP of Business Operations, designed at Google. Bosses at Google can’t simply promote people on their teams at their own discretion. In engineering, managers can encourage or discourage a person from pursuing another job, and they can lobby for the person or not, but people nominate themselves for promotion, and a committee makes the decision. Once a “promotion packet” consisting of a list of accomplishments and recommendations has been assembled, a committee reads it and decides if the promotion should go through. The manager is not on that committee. The manager can appeal a decision, but the manager is not the decider. This prevents managers from curbing the ambition of their direct reports or from offering promotions to reward personal loyalty rather than great work.


Google’s distrust of unchecked managerial authority played out in virtually all of its procedures. Managers couldn’t just hire people—they had to put candidates through a rigorous interview process that then sent “interview packets” all the way up to Larry Page to approve or disapprove. Promotions were decided not by the managers but by a committee of peers. Performance ratings were influenced by 360-degree feedback on each employee, not just the manager’s subjective opinion, and then calibrated across teams to make sure standards were similarly upheld across teams. That made it pretty hard to play favorites or hold people back unfairly.

 

#9:

The explainer has the burden of responsibility for communicating something and not the listener

When I was at business school, one of my professors told a story about a meeting between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the economist John Maynard Keynes. FDR was enormously busy, but he spent well over an hour with this academic. If FDR had understood Keynesian economics, some think the Great Depression might have ended sooner and enormous suffering could have been prevented. But at the end of the meeting, the president was not persuaded. My professor asked the question, “Whose fault was it? FDR’s for not understanding, or Keynes’s for not explaining it well?” This was one of those moments in my education that changed my life. I’d always shifted the burden of responsibility for understanding to the listener, not to the explainer. But now I saw that if Keynes’s genius was locked inside his head, it may as well not have existed. It was his responsibility to make the ideas that seemed so obvious to him equally obvious to FDR. He failed.

 

#10:

If you have to, set ground rules at the beginning of the meeting, or—if your team would find it amusing and useful rather than ridiculous—put a prop like an “ego coat check” outside the door.


Another way to help people search for the best answer instead of seeking ego validation is to make them switch roles. If a person has been arguing for A, ask them to start arguing for B.


McKinsey had very consciously created an “obligation to dissent.” If everyone around the table agreed, that was a red flag. Somebody had to take up the dissenting voice. McKinsey alums often brought this with them into the companies they later worked for. One ex-McKinsey executive at Apple struggled to foster a culture of debate on a team he inherited in Japan. He had a bunch of gavels made up with “duty to dissent” written in Japanese on them. If there wasn’t a robust enough argument in a meeting, he’d slide the gavel across the table to someone, as a sign to take up the opposite point of view. This simple prop was surprisingly effective.

 

#11:

At least part of the friction and frustration in a lot of meetings results from the fact that half the room thinks they are there to make a decision, the other half to debate

The would-be deciders are furious that the debaters don’t seem to be driving toward an answer. The would-be debaters are furious that the deciders are refusing to think things through carefully enough, to consider every angle of the argument. When everybody knows that the meeting will end with no decision, this source of tension is eliminated.


Push decisions into the facts, pull facts into the decisions, and keep egos at bay. “BIG DECISION” MEETINGS typically but not always follow a big debate meeting. They serve two important roles. The first is obvious: to make important decisions. The second, though, is subtler. It can be hard to figure out when to stop debating and start deciding. I have never discovered any absolute principles to answer that question. The simple act of being explicit and conscious about when I’m deciding versus when I’m debating is the single most helpful way to figure out when a decision really needs to be made. That’s the main reason why I recommend two separate meetings.

 

#12:

In his book A Primer on Decision Making, James March explains why it’s a bad thing when the most “senior” people in a hierarchy are always the deciders. What he calls “garbage can decision-making” occurs when the people who happen to be around the table are the deciders rather than the people with the best information. Unfortunately, most cultures tend to favor either the most senior people or the people with the kinds of personalities that insist on sitting around the table. The bad decisions that result are among the biggest drivers of organizational mediocrity and employee dissatisfaction. That is why 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.

 

#13:

I told him a story about my twins—one a boy and one a girl—who were in kindergarten. Both of their teachers were speculating why boys raise their hands more often than girls. Then I attended a class and heard the questions: “OK, you guys, who knows what four plus one is?” No wonder the girls weren’t raising their hands! Children are literal, and girls are not guys. I told Dick that story, and confessed that I’m literal too and feel annoyed whenever somebody addresses a mixed group as “guys,” or “you guys.”

 

#14:

Here are some of the most counterproductive words you can utter: “Don’t be sad”; “Don’t be mad”; “No offense, but.”

If you tell somebody they can’t have a particular emotional reaction, it becomes almost inevitable they will have that reaction; your injunction is likely to elicit the very emotions you most fear.

Thus when you try to soften the blow by saying, “Don’t take it personally,” you are in effect negating those feelings. It’s like saying, “Don’t be sad,” or “Don’t be mad.” Part of your job as a boss (and as a human being) is to acknowledge and deal with emotional responses, not to dismiss or avoid them.

 

#15:

When you encourage people to criticize you publicly, you get the chance to show your team that you really, genuinely want the criticism.


I adopted a go-to question that Fred Kofman, author of Conscious Business and my coach at Google, suggested. “What could I do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” If those words don’t fall easily off your tongue, find words that do.


Listen with the intent to understand, not to respond. You’ve finally gotten the other person to offer some criticism. Once again, you have to manage your response. Whatever you do, don’t start criticizing the criticism. Don’t start telling the other person they weren’t Radically Candid! Instead, 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. Listen to and clarify the criticism—but don’t debate it. Remind yourself going in that no matter how unfair the criticism, your first job is to listen with the intent to understand, not to defend yourself.

 

#16:

Don’t let the fact that you can’t offer a solution make you reluctant to offer guidance

The Center for Creative Leadership, an executive-education company, developed a technique called “situation behavior impact” to help leaders be more precise and therefore less arrogant when giving feedback. This 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. This helps you avoid making judgments about the person’s intelligence, common sense, innate goodness, or other personal attributes.


Adopting the mindset that guidance is a gift will ensure that your guidance is helpful even when you can’t offer actual assistance, solutions, or an introduction to someone who can help. In my experience, most bosses fear being jerks but employees fear their bosses are not shooting straight. When a boss sees clearly that the employee wants to hear it straight, it’s much easier to say it straight.

 

#17:


Most men are trained from birth to be “gentler” with women than with men. Sometimes this can be very bad for the women who work for them. The most sexist man I ever worked for was invariably far more reluctant to criticize me than the men who worked for him. He lived in mortal fear of making me cry. One common bias women often fall prey to: the “Abrasive Trap.”


Kieran Snyder, cofounder of Textio, applied linguistic analysis to performance reviews, and she found that when women challenge directly—which they must do to be successful—they get penalized for being “abrasive.” (That word actually comes up verbatim a lot.) The “abrasive” label gets placed on women by other women as well as by men.


When bias plays out over a whole organization, the impact on female leadership is profound. Researchers ran a simulation of what happens to promotions over the course of several years when bias impacts ratings just a little bit. When gender bias accounts for just 5 percent of the difference in performance ratings, an organization that starts out with 58 percent of the entry-level positions filled by women winds up with only 29 percent of the leadership positions filled by women.


Let’s look at what happens to Jessica personally over the course of her career. If she’s early in her career, she’ll probably get promoted eventually despite her alleged “abrasiveness,” but now she’s a year or so “behind” Steve. Fast forward another five to seven years. Now Steve is two levels ahead of Jessica. Since pay increases steeply with each promotion, he may be getting paid a lot more than Jessica is. If Steve and Jessica get married, and they have a child, guess whose career is more important for family income, and who’s more likely to stay home from work when the baby is sick?


Let’s imagine that she takes the “abrasive” feedback to heart and quits challenging her reports directly. She adjusts her behavior so that she’s more likeable but less effective at work. Instead of being Radically Candid, which gets her unjustly accused of being obnoxiously aggressive, her feedback tends to be ruinously empathetic or manipulatively insincere. This makes her less effective as a leader. So now, in addition to gender bias, there are real performance issues to contend with.


Similarly, if you’re a woman and worried that your male boss is hesitant to criticize your work, it can be helpful to make him aware that you want more feedback.


Too often, in order to move up on the “care personally” dimension, women expend too much energy picking up the office housework or otherwise being the angel in the office, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf. Self-abnegation is never an effective way to show you care. You don’t have to bake cookies or get coffee or make the copies or spend a lot of time and money on your clothes while the guys wear jeans and company t-shirts if you don’t want to!

 

#18:

There are four very good reasons to push yourself to identify underperformance early. One, to be fair to the person who’s failing. If you identify a problem early, you give the person time to address it. Two, to be fair to your company. Three, to be fair to yourself. Four, and most importantly, you want to address underperformance early to be fair to the people who are performing really well.


I usually email people about a month after I’ve fired them to check in. I try to keep my ear to the ground about jobs they might be well-suited for. But even if I don’t have anything to offer, I will reach out. Often, I’m the last person they want to hear from, and so if I don’t hear back I don’t push it, and I don’t blame them.

 

#19:

Absentee management vs. micromanagement vs. partnership

TO HELP YOU figure out when you’re being a good partner rather than slipping into micromanagement or absentee management, I’ve developed a simple chart. I hope it will help you partner better with the people who report to you.

 

#20:

[On how to conduct a 1:1 meeting]

The 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.


Here are some follow-up questions you can ask to show not only that you are listening but that you care and want to help, and to identify the gaps between what people are doing, what they think they ought to be doing, and what they want to be doing: “Why?” “How can I help?” “What can I do or stop doing that would make this easier?” “What wakes you up at night?” “What are you working on that you don’t want to work on?” “Do you not want to work on it because you aren’t interested or because you think it’s not important?” “What can you do to stop working on it?” “What are you not working on that you do want to work on?” “Why are you not working on it?” “What can you do to start working on it?” “How do you feel about the priorities of the teams you’re dependent on?” “What are they working on that seems unimportant or even counterproductive?” “What are they not doing that you wish they would do?” “Have you talked to these other teams directly about your concerns? If not, why not?” (Important note: the goal here is to encourage the people to raise the issue directly with each other, not to solve the problem for them. See “Prevent Backstabbing” in chapter six.)


Cancellations. If people who report to you cancel 1:1s too often, it’s a sign your partnership is not fruitful for them, or that you’re using it inappropriately to dispose of criticism you’ve been stockpiling.

 

Others:


An 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. That’s it. It shouldn’t be the place to have debates or make decisions.


Here’s the 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)

 

Being ruthless about making sure your team has time to execute is one of the most important things you can do as a boss.


One approach that many have tried is to remove chairs from conference rooms. This has the theoretical impact of shortening meetings because most people won’t stand around a table for more than about an hour. There is research indicating that people are more creative when standing than when sitting. Some say sitting is the new smoking, so there may be health benefits as well. Plus, you save money on furniture. This is all appealing, but it never really works. I don’t know any company that has stuck to the no-chairs-in-conference-rooms thing.

 

Early in my tenure, the AdSense Inside Sales Team was supposed to cold-call large Web sites. But they received an overwhelming number of inquiries from smaller Web sites every day, and of course answering the phone was so much easier than cold-calling. In other words, they were supposed to be out catching big fish, but since so many small fish were just jumping into the boat, they didn’t bother going after the big ones. When we just kept track of the huge sums of money rolling in, it looked as though the team was doing great. It was only when we looked at an activity metric—the number of cold calls the team was generating—that we realized we had a problem; we didn’t need to pay an expensive sales force just to take orders. After we started measuring activity, revenue spiked significantly. Measuring activities also allowed us to figure out who the good salespeople were. Taking orders is a skill very different from selling. Measuring activities will also create more respect between teams.