21 minute read

The Radical Candor book came out in 2017, I was recommended it by my manager at the time, as he suggested it would compliment my style.

I read it and it resonated with me almost instantly and it helped me to gain the confidence to become a good manager. I knew what I should be doing as a manager and how to put it into action - and I did quite frequently. It worked. It worked until it didn’t.

I think when Radical Candor can fail is when the rules of engagement aren’t clear between participants, especially upper management. Often elements of Radical Candor can be perceived in a negative light and bad faith may be assumed, which may lead to you being labelled as abrasive or defensive.

This has happened to me on a couple of occasions, especially in times of stress, and it takes a lot of effort to break out of bad habits, to remind yourself of what’s important and rebuild any trust that may have been eroded. Let’s face it, we’re all human and we all suffer with lapses in humility. We are prone to bad days, even weeks or months, fortunately books like Radical Candor can help you to recognise and accept your human flaws, and hopefully learn to manage them better.

Again in 2022, I find myself being reminded of Radical Candor, so in order to get my head back on straight and allow me to rebuild that confidence, I decided to read it again, only this time I’ve taken notes. I intended to share the parts that resonated with me the most as a bit of a quick reference for both myself in future, but also those who might benefit from such advice, especially if you’re new to leadership.

The “Um” Story

One of the cornerstone stories of the book is the “Um” story, where Kim Scott outlines exactly what she means when she says “Care Personally and Challenge Directly”. In this example a manager of Scott’s made a suggestion. I’ve included it here in its entirety as it’s quite difficult to paraphrase without losing much of the essence of the story.

"You are going to have an amazing career here at Google," Sandberg began. She knew how to get my attention -- I had three failed startups under my belt and badly needed a win. "And your ability to be intellectually honest about both sides of an argument, not just your own, bought you a lot of credibility in there." She mentioned three or four specific things I'd said to illustrate her point. I'd been worried that I wasn't arguing my points vehemently enough, so this was welcome news to me. "I learned a lot today from the way you handled those questions." This didn't feel like mere flattery -- I could tell from the way she stopped and looked me in the eye that she meant it. She wanted me to register that something I'd been worried about being a weakness was actually a strength.

This was interesting, but I wanted to file it away to think about later. That nagging feeling persisted in my stomach. There was an axe waiting to fall here. What I really wanted to know was, what had I done wrong? "But, something didn't go well, right?"

Sandberg laughed. "You always want to focus on what you could have done better. Which I understand. I do, too. We learn more from failure than success. But, I want you to focus for a minute on what went well, because overall it really did go well. This was a success."

I listened as best I could. Finally, she said, "You said 'um' a lot. Were you aware of it?"

"Yeah," I replied. "I know I say that too much." Surely she couldn't be taking this little walk with me just to talk about the "um" thing. Who cared if I said "um" when I had a tiger by the tail?

"Was it because you were nervous? Would you like me to recommend a speech coach for you? Google will pay for it."

"I didn't feel nervous," I said, making a brushing off gesture with my hand as though I were shooing a bug away. "Just a verbal tic, I guess."

"There's no reason to let a small thing like a verbal tic trip you up."

"I know." I made another shoo-fly gesture with my hand.

Sandberg laughed. "When you do that thing with your hand, I feel like you're ignoring what I'm telling you. I can see I am going to have to be really, really direct to get through to you. You are one of the smartest people I know, but saying 'um' so much makes you sound stupid."

Now that got my attention.

Sandberg repeated her offer to help. "The good news is a speaking coach can really help with the 'um' thing. I know somebody who would be great. You can definitely fix this."

What I find interesting about this whole interaction is how at almost each interaction, the conversation could have ended and the message may have been lost. Even Sandberg didn’t get to the point straight away, there was quite a lot of sugar coating prior to the feedback, however none of it was insincere.

What stands out here is how persistent Sandberg was in this feedback to Scott, and the eventual directness of the feedback, it was almost rude, if it was misinterpreted - if negative intent was assumed Scott may have not received it so well. It started off gentle and became more and more direct in order to get the message across.

A few things I did notice that are really important when giving feedback:

  • Do it immediately
  • Be sincere, show you care
  • Be gentle, but be direct if the message is not received
  • Don’t personalise it, don’t make it about a personality trait
  • Don’t label people - it hinders improvement

If you can’t show you care, then this isn’t radical candor, it’s obnoxious aggression - however it is the second best thing you can do as it’s better than saying nothing at all, which is ruinous empathy - at least people will know where they stand.

Though it’s not explicitly said in the book, it’s quite clear that conversation needs to be a dialogue, rather than just a direct and positional one, as this will often lead to the recipient becoming submissive or worse, defensive. The nature of the relationship with who you are speaking with is important and so the conversation shouldn’t start with criticism.

It’s not mean, it’s clear

My favourite anecdote in the entire book was the one about the stranger and the dog. Scott’s puppy, Belvedere, was spoiled and thus was itching to dash into a crowded street. A nearby stranger said, “I can see you really love your dog” and went on to reprimand her firmly to train the dog and order the dog to sit.

The story Scott tells is interesting:

One day, while we were waiting at a crosswalk, Belvedere darted into traffic and almost got hit by a car. “I can see you really love that dog,” a stranger said to me. (This is what I later realized was the cornerstone of Radical Candor, also known as Care Personally.)

“But you’re going to kill her if you don’t teach her to sit!” (This is what came to be known as Challenge Directly, which is equally as important as caring personally.) 

He pointed to the ground and bellowed. “SIT!” The dog sat. “It’s not mean; it’s clear,” he explained. Because he started the conversation by acknowledging that I loved my dog, it showed me that he cared and that actually allowed me to hear what he said next.

If he had started by telling me I was going to “kill my dog,” I would have felt judged and doubt I would have listened. But I did listen. I got Belvedere (and myself) some training, and I’m happy to say my dog lived a long life.

From this, we learn what Radical Candor is at its very essence. It means you care deeply about the person you’re saying it to. Your message is kind and clear, specific and sincere. As simple as this may sound, application can be a challenge, especially when the pressure is on and intensity is turned up.

What Radical Candor isn’t is an excuse for brutal criticism. It’s not an excuse for being direct without caring deeply. It doesn’t mean you can just criticise what is essentially a human trait, it must come with dialogue and care, a way to help the individual improve.

This resonates with me, as one of the principles in the book “How To Win Friends And Influence People” by Dale Carnegie is “Begin with praise and honest appreciation”, in the context of the chapter “How to Criticise and not be hated”.

“CHARLES SCHWAB WAS passing through one of his steel mills one day at noon when he came across some of his employees smoking. Immediately above their heads was a sign that said ‘No Smoking.’ Did Schwab point to the sign and say, ‘Can’t you read?’ Oh no, not Schwab. He walked over to the men, handed each one a cigar, and said, ‘I’ll appreciate it, boys, if you will smoke these on the outside.’ They knew that he knew that they had broken a rule – and they admired him because he said nothing about it and gave them a little present and made them feel important. Couldn’t keep from loving a man like that, could you?”

What I really love about this example is its extremely practical, better still, it’s not mean and it is clear.

Be humble, don’t label, care personally

Much of the rest of the book is a repeat of the same ideas from these two stories, but with more detail that gives much more clarification. The main takeaways for me were being humble, not labelling and caring.

I took some notes to help distil some of the detail down to their fundamental message:

  • Criticism can be obnoxiously aggressive if you don’t care personally. Criticism should be humble. When you first join a company or team, you should take the time to get to know the who and the why.
  • Personalising is bad. Attacking someone’s character is personalising, for example, calling someone greedy and hypocritical. Whether it’s positive or negative. Manipulative insincerity happens when you don’t care enough about a person to challenge directly.
  • Let go of vanity and care personally. Worrying about whether they give a damn about you is not caring personally about them and is likely to push you in the wrong direction, it won’t help the team. Don’t fake it.
  • When bosses criticise others to humiliate rather than to help them improve, or permit personalised attacks amount the team or discourage praise as “babysitting people’s egos”, it feels like obnoxious aggression.
  • The worst kind of obnoxious aggression happens when one person really understands their vulnerabilities and targets them for sport or dominance.
  • Obnoxious aggression is a behaviour, not a personality trait - nobody is a bonafide asshole all of the time, we can all be obnoxiously aggressive from time to time.
  • Don’t personalise - personalising is bad - see the fundamental attribution error - A term coined by Lee Ross, a social psychologist from Stanford.
  • Avoid personalising - it’s easy and satisfying in the moment to accuse people, but that might not be the case, it may be a lack of understanding on your part. Try to catch yourself when you find yourself saying “you are”.
  • Don’t put a permanent label on people - most people shift between gradual and steep growth trajectories throughout their career.
  • Be humble, invoke a “we” not an “I” whenever possible.
  • Be humble in delivering feedback (both praise and criticism) - We’re all naturally defensive when we first criticised, but if you deliver criticism humbly, then it breaks down the natural resistance to the feedback
  • Use Situation, behaviour, impact - centre for creative leadership created SBI to help leaders be more precise and less arrogant when giving feedback
  • Show don’t tell - use storytelling
  • Never stop challenging directly. You must challenge directly to be successful. If you’re perceived as abrasive, don’t stop challenging directly, care personally but you don’t need to be an angel.

    “When you get really good people they know they’re really good and you don’t have to baby people’s egos so much….The most important thing you can do for somebody who’s really good and is really being counted on is to point out when their work isn’t good enough.” - Steve Jobs

In summary, Focus on relationships; Ask for criticism before giving it; Offer more praise than criticism; Be humble, helpful, offer guidance in person and immediately, praise in public, criticise in private, don’t personalise, be clear that the problem is not some unfixable personality floor, share stories.

Taking criticism

Probably the most difficult thing to implement in the whole book is this. It sounds simple on the surface, but fighting the urge to respond is tough and one only earned through practice. It’s much easier to handle if you garner the feedback, much harder if the feedback is unsolicited and does not follow the guidance outlined in the book.

Despite this, it’s encouraging that this very human flaw can be overcome by taking the advice found in this book. I picked a few notes that I thought were most relevant to this:

  • If you’re like most people, you’ll probably feel a strong urge to act defensively when you get criticism — or at the least to explain yourself. This is a natural response, but it pretty much kills any chance that you’ll get the person to offer you the gift of candor again. So don’t feel bad that you are having this very normal human reaction. Manage your feelings rather than letting them manage you.
  • Take it on board then come back to it - In some cases, of course, you may disagree with the criticism. It’s here that your Radical Candor skills become essential. It is never enough to simply acknowledge the other person’s feelings— that invariably feels passive-aggressive and insincere. Instead, first, find something in the criticism you can agree with, to signal that you’re open to criticism. Then, check for understanding— repeat what you heard back to the person to make sure you got it. Then, let them know you want to think about what they said and schedule a time to talk about it again.
  • Quiet listening - If I gave any reaction at all - they would often just give me what they thought I wanted to hear. Being careful not to give any reaction means people said what they really thought. Though it has its downsides, some people are uncomfortable with silence. It may be a bad style, it’s often better to say what you think and challenge directly.

Much of this rings true, when I think about the best people I’ve worked with, they are usually very good at taking criticism, very patient and of course, humble.

Good management

Finally, I took some more notes that I will simply put down as “good management”, these are tips and tricks from the book that resonated with me, and a few quotes thrown in for good measure.

  • The key to soliciting criticism is to not react defensively.
  • Worry more about praise than criticism. There should be a 3 to 1 ratio in praise vs criticism, praise helps to guide people in the right direction.

“I don’t really care about being right, I just care about success. You’ll find a lot of people that will tell you I had a very strong opinion, and they presented evidence to the contrary and five minutes later I changed my mind. I don’t mind being wrong, and I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing” - Steve Jobs

  • People who are focused on getting the right answer rather than being right make the best bosses because they keep learning
  • Retain individuals that will keep teams stable, cohesive and productive.
  • Avoid the obsession with career progression - also see, the Peter principle
  • If you want your team to achieve something more than you could achieve on your own, you’ll get more done if you can incorporate their thinking. You have to care about the people you work with. Don’t let your focus on results get in the way of caring about the people you work with. It’s an easy mistake to make.
  • Make each of the managers responsible for just one thing.

“Give the quiet ones a voice.” - Jony Ive

  • Strong opinions, weekly held - strong, sometimes even outrageous opinions can be a good way to get a dialogue going
  • Stick to the style that suits you, it can be a quiet listener or a loud listener, do what suits you and the team

In a 1996 interview Steve Jobs compared teamwork to rocks inside a rock tumbler. It’s through the act of bumping into each other, tumbling together through the process of being a team that we polish each other and help each other to really shine. It’s not always smooth and is sometimes messy, but by sticking with it through the bumps and tumbles we come through the process as a strong team made up of smooth, well polished individuals.

  • Use humour and have fun. Debates don’t always need to be serious. If debates get too heated, they can be deferred until a time when the team is in a better emotional state.
  • Show your working out - Share how you got to an idea.
  • Block time to execute
  • Don’t abandon executing for leading - integrate both - keep playing your instrument - don’t get too far away from the work that the team is doing
  • Learning is rare - pressures consistent and burnout
  • Focus on staying centred, strong relationships - too much emphasis on shareholder value actually destroys value as well as morale
  • Bring your best self to work - you can’t give a damn about others if you don’t take care of yourself. You can’t look after others if you don’t look after yourself.
  • In order to stay centred - planning: daily: sleep 8 hours, exercise for 45 minutes, have breakfast and dinner with my family (ok to skip for a day or two, but that’s the routine), read a novel/book (one per week), go away for romantic weekend (ideally 4 times a year), take a two week holiday (including parents and siblings) once a year
  • It’s important to make time for yourself - Put the things you need to do in your calendar, eg: put your commute time in your calendar - pretend you have a train to catch (even if you don’t)
  • Relinquish control (unilateral authority), relationships are more important

“Simply: if you have to use someone else’s name or authority to get a point across, there is little merit to the point (you might not believe it yourself),” Dorsey writes. “If you believe in something to be correct, focus on showing your work to prove it. Authority derives naturally from merit, not the other way around.”

  • Do management fix-it weeks - everyone stops working on new features and prioritise fixing bugs for a week, you can do the same with management and processes
  • Feedback should like a toothbrush not a root canal, 2-3 minutes - do it consistently, not scheduled
  • Say “that’s wrong”, not “you’re wrong”.
  • Assume positive intent - don’t ask for permission. It’s ok to challenge, but assume positive intent.
  • Give people an opportunity to argue - if you disagree with a decision, ensure you have a conversation so you can have a better chance of understanding the rationale behind it. You can then help to bring the team on the journey by explaining to them that yes, you did have the opportunity to argue, here’s what I said, and here’s what I learned.
  • Being forced to choose between being liked and being successful leads to frustration and poor performance. When you’re labelled as abrasive (ie: too strong or impatient), and take it to heart, it can have a negative impact, you may stop challenging your direct reports, adjusting behaviour means you’ll be more likeable but less effective, instead of being radically candid (which gets you accused of being obnoxiously aggressive), feedback will become ruinously empathetic or manipulatively insincere, which makes you less effective as a leader.
  • Gender bias and Overzealous HR departments - many men who genuinely care about addressing gender bias believe the risk is too high to talk about anything related to gender. The risk doesn’t necessarily come from the women they work with, it can be from other men who want to use it to advance their careers.
  • Have breaks - Doing one to one meetings back to back can be emotionally draining, give yourself at least a 10 minute break between them.
  • Make it safe to fail - this will increase innovation and reduce the chance of problems festering
  • Skip level meetings - as a manager of managers, skip level meetings are important (once a year is fine), how can we be better leaders?
  • Am I showing I care? Demonstrate daily that you care deeply. Am I challenging each person directly?
  • Understand what motivates each person on the team
  • Past before future - ask people about their past before moving onto their future, connect what they are doing now to what they want to do next. Figure out what skills and what experience they need for the next role.
  • Understand the changes - tell me about your life starting from infant school, you can grasp a lot about a person by the changes they made, focus on those changes and understand why they made those changes, as it will help you to understand their values and motivations
  • If you’re not dying to make the hire - don’t make an offer, bias towards no, allow yourself to be overruled
  • Don’t make firing people too easy - bad/unfair decisions can get made. They start taking less risk and innovation suffers.
  • One to one should not be set by you - your direct reports should set the agenda. Hold people accountable when they don’t come prepared.
  • Don’t stockpile feedback - if you often get cancellations it’s a sign that people aren’t finding it useful and you may be using one on ones to dispose of feedback you’ve been stockpiling
  • Avoid staff meetings being overwhelming - Bloated staff meetings can be overwhelming. Review how things have gone, share important updates, clarify the most important decisions for the week. This is not the time to make decisions or get into the weeds.
    • Learn - review key metrics (20 minutes)
      • What went well this week? Why?
      • What went badly this week? Why?
    • Listen - put updates in a shared document (15 minutes)
    • Clarify - identify key decisions and debates (30 minutes)
  • Take time for think time - block out time in your calendar for think time
  • Ask “Are we deciding or debating?” - when a topic is important, we need to avoid making a decision, we can debate it first and spend some time deep thinking
  • Presentation in all hands on decisions
  • Standing - removing chairs means meetings become shorter (max 1h), we’re more creative when standing

There’s almost too much to really summarise here, but these were snippets that I thought were taking note of, often reminders of a few of the things I had forgotten, or gave clarification, or perhaps ones I think are just worth repeating. Hopefully they act as a rough guide to good management.

Final thoughts

Radical Candor has been, on the two occasions I’ve read it, highly impactful and insightful, I’d say maybe even career changing. It really opened my eyes to how leadership should be.

The challenge with Radical Candor, like most things, is making it a habit. The problem comes in times of high pressure or stress, which can often lead to these principles and methods being the first thing to go.

The other time I’ve found Radical Candor difficult is when others in or assuming a leadership role don’t play by the same rules of engagement. This can lead to frustration and results in a perceived abrasiveness or defensiveness.

It’s in times like this then, that we need to step back, reflect on our own actions, revisit our own values and principles, reset boundaries and expectations. Radical Candor helps with that, it helps to remind you what’s important.

For those of you who interact with me on a professional basis, this hopefully gives you an insight into the rules of engagement I’m aiming for. To be clear, Radical Candor is my preferred modus operandi – that’s not to say I always get it right, I too am only human. I am aware that there will be times when I will have fallen into obnoxiously aggressive, and possibly even ruinous empathy - this isn’t acceptable and I would hope that you care enough to challenge me directly when I do go off course.

There’s quite a lot in Radical Candor that I’ve not covered here, so I’d highly recommend a read, especially if any of this resonates with you. Hopefully what I have picked out acts as a bit of a reference point, acting like a cheatsheet or shortcut to help to remind ourselves what’s really important in times of those times of difficulty or uncertainty. To help us stay true to what’s right.