Thoughts on Radical Candor and Professional Growth

Last week, I read a post on First Round Capital's blog about how radical candor is a component of being a good boss. Empathy, compassion, and kindness serve as the foundations for most mutually beneficial relationships - including ones that involve a power dynamic. The article talks about Kim Scott, a former director at Google, faculty member at Apple University, and now a coach, and how she works to create "bullshit-free zones where people love their work and [love] working together." Scott wants to see people doing the best work of their careers and loving it, and states that the most important thing a boss can do with his or her subordinates is offer guidance - giving it, receiving it, and encouraging it. She also points out the contrasting connotations between guidance and feedback, where feedback isn't always the praise and criticism we seek in pursuit of self-betterment, but often falls on deaf ears in its delivery.

So what is radical candor? Simply put, it's when bosses tell employees that they're screwing up. Scott draws this matrix as a guide:

As a former VP of HR for a local non-profit, I came to believe (or realize?) that feedback is the most important gift one person can give another. On the graph above, the vertical axis, "Care Personally" represents what Scott calls the "give a damn" axis and the horizontal axis, "Challenge Directly," is the "willing to piss people off" axis. She goes on to say that caring personally first as a good boss allows you to piss people off by challenging their assumptions about the quality of their work. In our politically correct world, saying anything that's not positive feels impolite, but as a consequence, communication isn't as clear as it could be. By establishing an initial emotional investment in employees, bosses can guide them toward being their better selves. Radical candor, in the red quadrant, describes when bosses are humble, helpful, immediate, in-person, and don't personalize their guidance. They separate the person from his or her actions and state of mind. People naturally get emotionally invested in the work they do, but by drawing a line between people and their duties, they can improve.

What are the alternatives to radical candor? The graph above illustrates obnoxious aggression (blue), manipulative insincerity (yellow), and ruinous empathy (green). When you challenge someone directly without caring about them, you offer "obnoxious aggression," which is bad, but technically, it's better than nothing - as long as it accomplishes the goals of personal and professional growth for your reports. The yellow quadrant, "manipulative insincerity," comes out as passive-aggressive behavior that neither challenges directly nor cares personally. It's doing very sneaky things akin to behavior you would witness in middle schoolers, and thankfully, it's very rare. However, most management mistakes happen in the realm of "ruinous empathy." This happens when a manager personally likes an employee, but the employee is obviously incompetent and their supervisor is excessively nice to them at the detriment to the team. While the person may not be personally poisonous, professionally toxic, or organizationally cancerous, he or she may still be demoralizing and detracting from the team's goals.

So what's a boss to do? Encourage your whole team to be radically candid: care about each other and support each others' professional and personal growth. This means that in an ideal workplace, bosses shouldn't arbitrate difficult conversations. In the occasion that they are needed, bosses should be used as a last resort, and come up with the best solution quickly that works for both people. Otherwise, indirect or unresolved conflicts can result in passive-aggressive behavior (manipulative insincerity).

Scott concludes with some action steps teams can take to make it easier to speak truth to power - everyone should feel that they can criticize their boss. I agree with this posit - feedback is a two-way street, and everybody at all levels of an organization makes it better by developing themselves. Manager Guidance Sessions involve a boss' employees gathering and with the help of a facilitator, providing feedback with the goal of helping their boss become a better leader. The agenda should be focused and to-the-point: what are one or two things the boss should do differently? The facilitator should take notes and send those notes to the manager right after the meeting. After receiving this output, the boss should communicate the feedback he or she received and come up with a plan of action to follow-through.

As a mindset, radical candor makes sense for teams that work closely together to achieve amazing things, and by being caring, clear, and action-oriented, the inevitable obstructions that come up on a team's road to success can be maneuvered together.

Published November 29, 2015