Radical Candor: Summary & Review

radical candor book cover

In Radical Candor (2017) author Kim Scott teaches techniques and mindsets to develop effective leadership and high-performance cultures. 
To be an effective manager, Radical Candor advises that you must both personally care for your employees, while constantly challenging them to with truthful feedback.

Summary

About the Author: Kim Scott holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. She gained management experience leading the AdSense team at Google, then moved to Apple to develop and teach management seminars, and she is now fully focused on leadership trainings as the founder of Candor, Inc.

Differentiate Between Rockstars (do work) & Superstars (seek growth)

To develop a great team you need some stability, so you can’t have in your team only people who strive to go up the hierarchy.

That’s where rockstars come in handy: these are the people who love the job they’re doing and focus on the job they’re doing instead of wanting to be promoted into managerial roles and move up the ladder.

The author, early in career, committed the mistake of only focusing on superstars in the beginning, and she passed her own judgment along. Being a superstar herself, she had a tendency to look down on people who didn’t care about career.
But she learned, and corrected herself -that’s what “Radical Candor is all about, after all: self-development-.

To become a better manager, also read:

8 Types of Toxic Employees & How to Deal With Them

Managing People is Your Job

Managing people is emotional labor, and it’s what being a boss is all about. 
You can’t focus on your work and “save time” on the people’s side, otherwise, you are not doing your job.

Bosses are responsible for results, but are responsible for results through their teams.
Says the author:

Bosses guide the team to achieve results

The 3 Tasks of A Manager: Guidance, Team, Results

  • Guidance: helping individuals grow personally and professionally with your radically candid feedback
  • Team: making sure the team works harmoniously together. And structuring the team with the right mix of superstars (wants to grow quickly) and rockstars (do great job without caring for career advancement)
  • Results: make sure the team stays on track, and that you have enough time blocked for strategic thinking and planning

Relationships Drive You Forward (Not Power)

Says the author:

Your ability to build trusting, human connections with the people who report directly to you will determine the quality of everything that follows. Defining those relationships is vital. 

“Radical Candor” is dedicated to helping managers develop those relationships.

The Two Dimensions of Radical Candor: Care Personally & Challenge Directly

Caring personally means you care about the person. The whole person, not just about the employee “doing his job”, and not just him having a good career.

Says the author:

It’s not just business; it is personal, and deeply personal

When you truly care, people are more likely to:

  1. Accept and act on your praise and criticism
  2. Express what they really think about your work and attitude
  3. Engage in this same behavior with one another
  4. Embrace their role on the team
  5. Focus on getting results.

Challenge directly means that you give direct, early, and precise feedback on people’s performance, both when they are doing well, and when they can do better.

When you put together the two dimensions of caring and giving accurate feedback, you get radical candor.

Challenging Directly is Part and Parcel of Caring Deeply

Most managers struggle with the “challenging directly” part.

Challenging can initially hurt or displease people, and that does not seem like the best way to build good relationships.
Yet, it’s the best way to actually care.

Being a good boss means accepting that sometimes people are going to be pissed off at you. But you still deliver the tough feedback that you need to deliver as a boss. 
Caring deeply at this point means that you acknowledge the anger or hurt.

“Keep It Professional”: The Death of Caring Deeply

The mantra of “keeping it professional” denies us the freedom and the right to be our true selves. 
And that’s damaging to developing deep relationships. 

Says Kim Scott:

That phrase denies something essential. We are all human beings, with human feelings, and, even at work, we need to be seen as such. When that doesn’t happen, when we feel we must repress who we really are to earn a living, we become alienated.

And that’s where “bring your whole self to work” fits in.

Invite People to Challenge You Directly Part

As much as it can be difficult to give some tough feedback, the hardest part for most bosses is to encourage their employees and reports to give them feedback.

But challenging directly must go both ways: from boss to employees, and from employees to bosses.
To do the best job you can, as a boss, as an individual, and as a team, also means that you need to foster an environment where people feel comfortable to challenge you as much as possible.

What Radical Candor is Not

Radical candor is not:

  • An opportunity to be gratuitously harsh
  • A chance to “front-stab”
  • An excuse to nitpick
  • A hierarchical tool: radical candor must go up, down, and sideways
  • Endless talk that exhausts the introverts in your team: build relationships, but be brief and to the point with the feedback
  • Lots of after-work time: those can help and complement the relationships at work, but they’re not necessary
  • A cultural thing: radical candor can work anywhere in the world

It’s Not Mean, It’s Clear

Kim Scott shares the story of how a stranger hit her with one of the most memorable radical candor interactions she’s ever had.

She was struggling to keep her dog put on the traffic light, and this is what happened next, in the words of the author herself:

“I can see you really love your dog.”
In the two seconds it took him to say those words, he established that he cared, that he wasn’t judging me.
Next, he gave me a really direct challenge. “But that dog will die if you don’t teach her to sit!” Direct, almost breathtakingly so.
Then, without asking for permission, the (said to) Belvy (…) “SIT!”
She sat. I gaped in amazement.

He smiled and explained, “It’s not mean. It’s clear!”

That taught the author that you don’t need to spend hours and hours of time with someone to develop enough trust that you can be radically candid.
As a matter of fact, direct, radically candid guidance, is a great way to build trust in and by itself.

And that stranger’s man last words became a mantra for the author when giving direct and honest feedback.
It’s not mean, it’s clear.

Assholes & Obnoxious Aggression

There is plenty of advice that wants people to be more like an asshole.

Just think of:

The author calls the competent and aggressive jerk style “obnoxious aggression”.
Obnoxious aggression is preferable to a “nice” boss who doesn’t have the courage to be honest.
Obnoxious aggression sometimes can also get great results in the short-term, but it leaves a trail of dead bodies in the long run. 
The author says to think of Bobby Knight, who won several championships, but was ultimately fired. Or the movie character in “The Devil Wears Prada”:

The worst kind of obnoxious aggression happens when people understand others emotionally, or at least understand others’ vulnerabilities, and use it to hurt them the most, or to get under their skins (cruel empathy).

The author says that when a boss sees his employees as lesser beings who can be degraded at will, employees view their bosses as tyrants to be toppled.

I couldn’t agree more.

Luckily, competent jerk and nice incompetent is a false dichotomy. And radical candor takes the best of both approaches.
See later a matrix to explain radical candor.

Obnoxious Aggression Can Come From All Levels

When you think of obnoxious aggression from a jerk, you usually think of a boss.

Yet, a report can be obnoxiously aggressive towards a boss. And one can be obnoxiously aggressive while speaking directly to someone’s face (front-stabbing).

The author made that mistake when she pressed “replied all” and accused Larry Page of going against his own values.
She thought she was being radically candid and “speaking truth to power”. But instead, she jumped the gun and attacked too early without even having spoken to Larry to make sure she understood. And she didn’t understand. She had acted obnoxiously aggressive, swept away by her personal values of hating those who “kick down and kiss up”.

I loved this part because this was a mistake that I have also fallen prey to. I also hate the “kick down and kiss up”, and I have a tendency to dislike abuses of power.
That sometimes leads me to be more aggressive and distrustful of people in power than I should actually be.

How to Criticize Without Discouraging

  1. Develop personal relationships
  2. Ask for criticism before giving it
  3. Offer more praise than criticism
  4. Praise in public, but criticize privately
  5. Be humble
  6. Be helpful: your criticism is always an opportunity for them to do better
  7. Offer guidance in person and immediately
  8. Share stories when you failed or were criticized for something similar
  9. Don’t personalize: make it clear it’s an action, behavior, or result, and not about them as persons

Make it clear that the problem is not due to some unfixable personality flaw, but that they can address it and improve.
Also read:

The Radical Candor Matrix

When you combine the two dimensions of challenge and caring, you get the radical candor matrix, with four quadrants.

The example Kim Scott uses, which is the same here, is how you handle the situation of a colleague or an employee who forgot his fly open. 

radical candor quadrants with descriptions

Colors reflect the relative efficiency of each, from worst to best

Going from Ruinous Empathy to Radical Candor can be a direct path, so it’s not true that you need to dwell on Obnoxious Aggression before making it to Radical Candor -don’t allow people or yourself to use that as an excuse-.

However, sometimes, it’s possible that people need to over-correct, and they may spend some time in the Obnoxious Aggression stage.
If you’re moving from Ruinous Empathy, that might feel scary, but push through reminding yourself of your final goal.

Don’t Feel Guilty if They’re Upset

When you are giving tough feedback with radical candor, it’s possible that someone might be upset, angry, or sad about your words.

That’s OK, you can and should empathize. But refrain from feeling guilty. Feeling guilty focus on yourself, while you must focus on them.
Says Kim Scott:

Just because somebody is crying or yelling doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong; it just means they are upset.
If you feel guilty about the fact that they are upset, you’re more likely to have a defensive reaction than a compassionate one. Your defensive reaction can lead you, in turn, to unintentionally patronizing or cold behavior.

Radical Candor is a gift you are giving people, it’s an opportunity for them to improve and move forward. When you are pulling punches and don’t tell the whole truth, you are doing them a disservice.

Real-Life Applications

  • Drop the “positive to negative ratio”: you know those guides recommending a certain ration of positive to negative ration? Well, don’t follow them. It’s insincere to force praise just because you have to hit a certain ratio
  • Focus on your top performers: don’t let the poor performers hog all of your time, it’s your duty to help the top performers keep delivering for the team
  • Use skip-level meetings to avoid bad bosses ruining the environment: to avoid having assholes in your team who kiss up and kick down and sour the culture, have once a year “skip level meetings”, meeting where you talk to the direct reports of your reports (also check: “The No Asshole Rule“)

Quotes

On the need of managers’ guidance:

You can draw a straight line from lack of guidance to a dysfunctional team that gets poor results.

On relationships VS power:

Relationships, Not Power, Drive You Forward

On “dog eat dog” mindset:

I once worked for a man who told me, “In every relationship there is a screwer and a screwee.” Needless to say, I didn’t work for him for long.

On avoiding a sense of superiority as a boss:

Of course, if you are a boss, there is some hierarchy involved. There’s no use pretending otherwise. Just remember that being a boss is a job, not a value judgment.

On winning and criticism:

To keep winning, critize the wins.

On “caring deeply” applying at all levels:

Fundamental human decency is something every person owes every other, regardless of position.

On not confusing the need to be liked with the need to be honest:

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.”

On the need of sharing what’s difficult to share:

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!

One of the reasons why you must focus on top performers:

Moving from great to stunningly great is more inspiring for everyone than moving from bad to mediocre. And seeing what truly exceptional performance looks like will help those who are failing to see more clearly what’s expected of them.

When you hear that you should fire someone, they have already been a problem for a while:

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.

On the quest for “life-missions” VS being content:

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.

On the culture of moonshots and larger-than-life missions:

Trying to describe a job in lofty, save-the-world terms is often going to make you look like the ridiculous Hooli CEO Gavin Belson from the show Silicon Valley.

On Steve Job’s narcissistic mission (not the words of the author):

In current-day Silicon Valley, inspirational slogans run more along the lines of “putting a ding in the universe,” as Steve Jobs put it. But motivations are highly personal. Although I admire Jobs, it seems to me that the universe, or at least our world, is plenty dinged up already. So, I don’t find his call to put a “ding in the universe” inspirational, though others do.

CONS

  • Sometimes unneededly dismissive towards power

The author says that “relationships drive you forward, not power”. It makes for a nice and tweetable quote and, in part, it’s true. Yet, relationships are power.
And power is nothing but your ability to get things done. So strong relationships are part of your personal power.

Later, the author says: 

I’m not saying that unchecked power, control, or authority can’t work. They work especially well in a baboon troop or a totalitarian regime.

That’s a bit simplistic both towards baboons (see “Behave“) and totalitarian regimes (see “The Dictator’s Handbook“). But I’m nitpicking here: overall, her point is valid, and it’s to use power through instead of power over.

  • Obnoxious aggression is a behavior, not a personality trait? Not always…

The author righteously advises people not to make attribution errors, such as to generalize a behavior to a whole personality.

She is right.
Yet, that needs an important footnote: assholes do exist, and some of them are not going to be reformed by your radical candor, no matter how hard you try.
So you shouldn’t be making eternal excuses for assholes -or for mean people, as Marta Stout correctly points out-.

  • Ground a million-dollar diamond to dust, true story?

This is not a con, but when the author told about one of her workers who got distracted and ground a million-dollar diamond to dust, I had to wonder. How can you so easily grind to dust the strongest material on earth?

  • Eliminating “you guys” from vocabulary?

Trying to remove “you guys” from the vocabulary sounded silly to me, though. A bit like Justin Trudeau calling “mankind” “people kind”.

  • Great for ideal environments, less for “realpolitik”

While this is the best book for those “ideal working environments” and for seeking to move towards that direction, in most “normal” working environments you might be better served with some realpolitik guides.

PROS

Simply the best management book I have read.
If you want to develop the best company’s cultures and be the most effective manager you can be, this is your book.

Review

“Radical Candor” is the best management book I have read.

Together with Ray Dalio’s “Principles“, which in turn is the best book on developing company’s cultures geared for effectiveness, it has informed much of my lesson on “ideal workplaces” in the workplace module of Power University.

My only note for you is that if you are working in more “normal” and “average” companies, which are the majority, you might want to develop your political savvy first. In the real world, most work environments and bosses aren’t going to follow the Radical Candor practices (unluckily).

Other than that, read it and apply it, and you will help contribute not only to more effective companies, but to a better world.

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Or get the book on Amazon

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