I am not a manager, nor do I aspire to be one anytime soon. Radical Candor by Kim Scott was a book that I saw repeatedly being read at The Nerdery and I had heard good things about it. After listening to a podcast interview with the author, I realized that it wasn’t only about management, and that it could apply equally well to general workplace relationships. Here are some notes – abbreviated and not by any measure a thorough representation of the book, but nevertheless potentially helpful to others considering reading the book (and of course to my future self trying to remember what the book was about ?).
High-level takeaways from Part 1
Fundamentally, management is about building relationships in order to fulfill the three core responsibilities of a manager: guidance, team-building, and results.
Relationships are built on two primary dimensions: caring and challenging.Caring means not just showing interest in work performance, but to treat each other as human beings. In other words, you “bring your whole self to work” and not hide behind a mask of professionalism. Challenging means communicating feedback clearly, precisely, immediately, and directly, whether it be praise or criticism.
Using caring and challenging as axes on a graph, Scott builds a framework in which you can plot guidance onto 4 quadrants: radical candor (you both care personally and challenge directly), ruinous empathy (you care personally but don’t challenge directly – this is the quadrant I am personally most likely to slip into), manipulative insincerity (you neither care personally nor challenge directly), and lastly obnoxious aggression (you don’t care personally, but you do challenge directly).
Guidance is not something you save up for an annual review or even 1:1s – guidance should be embedded into everyday interactions and given in 1 or 2 minute doses. This keeps the relationship active and there is less uncertainty around where people stand.
Radical candor works in all directions: not only should managers be giving radically candid guidance, they should be prepared to receive it (and indeed that is the first step to building a culture of radical candor in the workplace). They should also encourage it between workers.
“Getting it right” is better than “being right”: Steve Jobs famously demanded excellence from his teams and could at times harshly criticize people (“your work is shit”). He could also change his mind overnight and adopt a position he had hitherto fought strongly against, and adopt that position so fully that it would almost seem to be his from the beginning. Why? Because ultimately “getting it right” in the end is better than having been right all along.
To “get it right” you need a strong process for getting things done. Scott calls it the “Get Stuff Done” wheel (borrowing some terminology from David Allen’s Get Things Done methodology). This process has the following stages: Listen, Clarify, Debate, Decide, Persuade, Execute, Learn, and then you are back at Listen. This process stuff might get overshadowed by the sections on radical candor, but it’s really worth reading and understanding, especially the clarify and debate stages.
Debate stage highlights: focus on ideas, not egos (do an “ego coat check” or have people switch positions midway through the meeting (let them know they will be switching ahead of time)); create an obligation to dissent – if there is total agreement on something, someone needs to argue the counterpoint; separate debating from decision-making – put a Big Debate meeting and a Big Decision meeting on the calendar.
Decide stage highlights: just because you are the boss/manager, that doesn’t mean you will or should be making all the decisions; the people with the best information should be the deciders; try to seek out facts rather than recommendations, as ego is less likely to get inserted into facts;
Persuade stage highlights: play to your audience’s emotions and context rather than your own; demonstrate humility (use “we” not “I” whenever possible); show your work (share the origin story of your idea, and how you got to where you are now).
Learn: there will always be pressure to be consistent, but learning sometimes means that we have to change and show why we are changing.
The rest of the book (Part 2) details tools and techniques for implementing a culture of radical candor and the getting stuffy done wheel. It’s definitely worth reading if you are a manager or a leader of teams (or just interested in building a better culture and process!). Below are some other interesting pieces from the book and some final thoughts.
Interesting tidbits and quotes
Some high-performers on a team will be superstars (steep growth trajectory) and some will be rock stars (gradual growth trajectory), and the same person can alternate between these two phases depending on their life circumstances. A good manager will figure out which phase someone is in and motivate them accordingly (for example, a rock star doesn’t necessarily want to be promoted).
“Quiet listening”: the idea of quiet listening is that in a 1:1 meeting, you make sure to spend some of that time quietly listening without immediately reacting or responding (p.83). If you don’t, you might inadvertently encourage people to tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than what they actually think.
“Loud listening”: The opposite of quiet listening, loud listening is the idea of loudly (perhaps even obnoxiously) proposing an idea or argument, not because you are convinced it is right, but rather because you are asking for it to be challenged as directly as possible (this approach can also be represented in the “strong ideas, weakly held” mindset). The point is to quickly expose flaws in reasoning and flush out opposing viewpoints. Scott doesn’t endorse either quiet or loud listening but rather suggests whatever style best suits you and the team.
“It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things” – Georgia O’Keefe (p.89)
John Stuart Mill (via Joshua Cohen): “The source of everything respectable in man either as an intellectual or as a moral being [is] that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted.” (p.14)
To provide good and effective praise and criticism, first describe the situation, then point out the behavior you noticed, and finally the impact this behavior had. This will depersonalize the praise or criticism, making it more likely to be heard (so remember: situation, behavior, impact).
“Listen, Challenge, Commit” – I first heard of a similar idea in the book on Amazon The Everything Store by Brad Stone, but apparently it originated with Intel and Andy Grove. The basic idea is that you should have a chance to listen to ideas, challenge them, but ultimately commit to the direction to the team has chosen (until you get to the next opportunity to learn and listen).
An example of the Radical Candor grid that I found particularly helpful for understanding the different quadrants:
I admire how freely Scott admits to the many mistakes she has made in her career. She uses her own mistakes as case studies, and frequently turns to the successes of others to show the flip side. This is a humble and admirable way of personalizing these stories while not coming across as self-aggrandizing in a book about management.
Personally, the book has really clarified for me what kind of communication and guidance I have been giving to colleagues and where I might be able to improve.