Radical Candor: Why You Need to Create a Culture of Honesty at Work

  • September 24, 2019

Kim Scott has worked for some of the biggest American tech companies—YouTube, Apple, Google, Dropbox and Twitter. Based on her extensive corporate experience as a CEO coach and sales director, in addition to creating a start-up, she wrote the best-seller Radical Candor, in which she explains how to become a powerful leader without losing your humanity. In her book, Scott shares some simple tips that will have radical effects on you and your team so you can do the best possible work together, all while establishing healthy, sustainable relationships. Turns out there’s no need to be ruthless to get the best from your employees!

Care personally

The author organizes her reasoning into two key points, the first of which is “care personally”. Scott warns against misinterpreting the word “professional”, which is often perceived as needing to hide your emotions, humanity, or even identity at work. When viewed in this way, professionalism can lead to apathy towards your relationships with others, who you tend to see as enemies rather than collaborators. In order to care about the other people you see daily at work, it’s important to move past this popular misconception.

According to Scott, your goal as a leader and the head of a company should be to create the best possible environment for your employees so they can be themselves fully, with their personalities, faults, and emotions all in tow. That’s why it’s important to care—about your work, your colleagues, and your bosses. The author even speaks about a kind of love between employees and a company; not romantic love, of course, but as a way to work and collaborate with each other. You spend more time working than on any other single activity in your life, so you might as well develop authentic human relationships while you’re doing that, Scott reminds us. Nonetheless, this first key point shouldn’t keep you from saying things that need to be said.

Challenge directly

As the author points out, you are taught at an early age that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. This is something that you must unlearn. As a leader, it’s part of your job to say unpleasant things. It’s a moral obligation to be up-front and direct with your colleagues while both complementing them and giving them harsh criticism that may be hard to digest at first. Because, deep down, you know that you’re doing them a favor with your criticism. Scott tells the story about when she started at Google and first pitched an idea. Sheryl Sandberg told her that she should take a public speaking course because she had a tendency to say “uhh” every couple of words, which made her speech unconvincing. At first, Scott wanted to ignore the criticism, but she soon realized that it was difficult for her audience to listen to her—she was shocked to think that no one had ever bothered to point it out to her before.

Radical Candor

The difficulty arises when you’re trying to successfully combine these two points. You can, for example, challenge someone without showing that you care. In this case, the dialogue with that person will come off as aggressive, and you run the risk of appearing horrible and obnoxious to employees. Conversely, the most common mistake is not daring to tell the truth for fear of offending someone. In this case, you are keeping your colleagues from hearing what they need to hear—they don’t make any progress or improvement, they don’t understand what is expected of them, nor do they learn from their mistakes—and that has an impact on the entire company. Scott gives the example of Bob, an employee at a company she co-founded called Juice Software. Bob was jovial, well-liked, and friendly, but his work was not up to par. Scott had always preferred to pick up his slack rather than giving him feedback, which meant he had no chance to improve. Until the day when she ended up having to fire him. He shot back at her for not letting him know that his work wasn’t cutting it, even though he had the skills to improve it.

The rules to follow

Thanks to her extensive experience, Scott has established a set of workplace rules to follow:

  • It’s important to be interested in what your colleagues think and feel in the professional sphere: are they comfortable in their positions, do they feel effective and useful on their projects? If someone is having difficulty, ask them how you can help. Seek out feedback from your colleagues, both positive and negative. It can seem awkward to do, but it’s vital. Find a way to phrase this demand that’s the least uncomfortable, for example, “What could I do, or stop doing, that would make life easier for you?” This is a chance to truly listen to them and to not take offense, whatever the responses may be.
  • Return the favor to your colleagues: give them your criticism at the appropriate time. Highlight what’s been done well and where there is room for improvement.
  • Scott insists on the importance of saying things immediately, all the while staying humble and measured, rather than letting things build up and lashing out. Also, it’s much more diplomatic to give criticism in private and praise in public. But make sure that your criticism doesn’t seem like a personal attack.
  • Encourage your teams to react the same way with their colleagues. Encourage dialogue and mediation between everyone to avoid bad-mouthing within the company.
  • It’s also crucial to know how to adapt: each person is unique, so looking out for everyone means understanding and respecting each individual’s sensitivities.

Scott’s book encourages leaders—and managers—to maintain their humanity within their organization and to stimulate radical candor in the professional sphere. The author’s mantra, “GET, GIVE, ENCOURAGE, GAUGE”, sums up her desire for change, an exchange of ideas, and criticism, in everyone’s best interest. Radical Candor reminds us that sticking to political correctness often leads to passive-aggressive behavior due to frustration, hypocrisy or even manipulation. To be avoided at all costs!

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo by WTTJ

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