READ ON TO DISCOVER:
- Why too much empathy can be bad for you
- The phrase to eliminate from your vocabulary when giving feedback
- The difference between “rockstars” and “superstars”—and why we need both at work
Kim Scott is the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity. Kim led AdSense, YouTube, and Doubleclick Online Sales and Operations at Google, developed and taught a leadership seminar at Apple, and coached CEOs at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and more. Kim recently joined Robert Glazer, host of the Outperform podcast, for a conversation about the power of using radical candor both in and outside of the office.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To hear Kim and Robert’s full conversation, click here.
Kim: I’m hoping I’ll get some radical candor on Radical Candor. You’ll tell me what works and what doesn’t.
Robert: Perfect. That will be like a picture in a picture. [First,] it would be great if you could share how you [were] first introduced to the concept of radical candor.
Kim: One of my first experiences with radical candor was not being radically candid. Early in my career, I started this software company called Juice. I came into work one day and [had received] an email with a link to an article about how people would rather have a boss who is a total asshole then one who is really nice but incompetent. I thought, “Gosh, am I getting this because I’m a total asshole or because I’m nice but incompetent? Which is worse?” That really got me thinking [about] it. My ideas around radical candor began to solidify when I was working at Google, [where] we taught a very radically candid culture. Early in my career, I had to give a presentation to the founders and the CEO. The business that I was leading was on fire—when I said how many AdSense customers we had added over the last couple of months, Eric almost fell off his chair. He looked at me and said, “What do you need? Do you need more marketing dollars? Do you need more engineers?” I’m thinking the meeting is going okay. In fact, I think I’m a genius.
As I walked out of the room, I passed by my boss, Sheryl [Sandberg] and she said, “Why don’t you walk back to my office with me?” I thought, “Oh boy. I’ve done something wrong and I’m about to hear about it.” Sheryl started the conversation by telling me about the things I had done well, giving me some information that I wasn’t aware of. Of course, all I wanted was to hear about what I had done wrong.
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Eventually Sheryl said to me, “You said ‘um’ a lot in there. Were you aware of it?” I made this brush-off gesture with my hand. I said, “I know, it’s a verbal tic. It’s no big deal, really.” Then she said, “I know a great speech coach. Google would pay for it. Would you like an introduction?” I said, “No, I’m busy. Didn’t you hear about all those new customers? Who cares if I say ‘um’ when I have a tiger by the tail?” Sheryl stopped, looked right at me and said, “Kim, when you say ‘um’ every third word, it makes you sound insecure and stupid.”
Now she has my full attention. Some people would say it was mean of Sheryl to say that, but in fact it was the kindest thing she could have done for me at that moment in my career. If she hadn’t said it that way to me, I wouldn’t have gone to see the speech coach where I learned that Sheryl was not exaggerating. I really did say “um” every third word.
I had been giving presentations my entire career. I had raised millions of dollars for a couple of start-ups giving presentations—I thought I was pretty good at it. This got me thinking, “Why had nobody told me? Had I been walking around my whole career with spinach between my teeth but no one had the common courtesy to tell me?” Two things about Sheryl made it so seemingly easy for her to tell me, but also so difficult for other people to just say it. One was that she cared about me as a human being, as a real person. Not just as an employee. But she also never let her concern for my short-term feelings get in the way of her willingness to challenge [me] directly. Really, the whole idea of radical candor is based on these two ideas. Challenge directly and care personally at the same time.
“Why had nobody told me? Had I been walking around my whole career with spinach between my teeth but no one had the common courtesy to tell me?”
Robert: That story went on to launch your passion for radical candor. I love two by two matrices [and] was drawn to yours—the two axes of the radical candor. Can you walk us through the matrix and [how] the quadrants play out?
Kim: Sure. Let’s first back up though. When we get our first job, somebody comes along and says, “Be professional.” For an awful lot of people, that gets translated to mean, “Leave your emotions, leave your true identity, leave everything that is best about you at home and come to work like a robot.” The other problem is in the challenge directly dimension. Colin Powell said, “Sometimes leadership is the willingness to piss people off.” Yet, our unwillingness to piss people off begins not when we’re 18 years old, but when we’re 18 months old and we had a parent who said some version of, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Radical candor requires undoing training that’s been pounded into us since we were 18 months old. One of the things that I’ve done is to develop this two by two that you mentioned, which points out in strong language what happens when we fail on one dimension or another. The way to use the framework is to guide conversations in a better direction, like a compass.
“Radical candor requires undoing training that’s been pounded into us since we were 18 months old.”
When you do challenge directly but you fail to show that you care personally, I call that obnoxious aggression. Very often, once we’ve been obnoxiously aggressive, once we realize we’ve been a jerk, the temptation is to move the wrong direction on challenge directly, instead of to go the right direction on care personally. If you do that, you wind up in the worst quadrant of all, manipulative insincerity. This is where you neither show you care, nor challenge directly. Manipulative insincerity is sort of backstabbing behavior, political behavior, the false apology. We love to tell the obnoxious aggression stories, but by far the most common mistakes that get made at work and, frankly, in all relationships, happen when we show we care. Because we’re so concerned for others’ feelings, we fail to tell them something they really need to know. We fail to challenge directly. That mistake I call ruinous empathy. That’s the one I spend a lot of time trying to help people overcome.
Robert: Why is radical candor such an unnatural act for most people? Are we societally not comfortable with telling people the truth?
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Kim: The fact of the matter is we don’t know what the truth is, usually. We know what we think, but we might be wrong. Very often, from a young age, children are so sure they’re right about everything and they’re so blunt. It gets them in trouble. It’s hard to be nuanced with kids. I have twins who are nine and I’m tempted sometimes to say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” because they come out with some real doozies. We need to be more nuanced in how we teach people from a young age to be kind and respectful of others without lying to them. It’s easier to focus on one thing at a time than two things. Being radically candid requires you to be kind and clear at the same time.
Also, we are programmed to learn the most from the biggest disasters. Sometimes you will try to be radically candid with someone and you will get a really terrible reaction from them. Those experiences loom so large in our minds that we forget that, nine times out of ten, people genuinely appreciate the radical candor.
“Being radically candid requires you to be kind and clear at the same time.”
Robert: How you react to [radical candor] probably determines if you’re going to get it the next time, right?
Kim: Yes. Another problem that I notice in my career is that a lot of feedback training teaches people to believe that if they say it just right, they can control the other person’s reaction. That’s just not true. You can’t control or predict how another person is going to react to what you tell them. All you can do is start out gently, notice how they respond and then move in the right direction. If somebody gets really upset you can react with compassion. If somebody is blowing you off the way I did to Sheryl, you’ve got to move out on the challenge directly dimension probably more than you’re comfortable doing. One of the best things you can do is to eliminate the phrase, “Don’t take it personally” from your vocabulary and react with human compassion.
“One of the best things you can do is to eliminate the phrase, ‘Don’t take it personally’ from your vocabulary and react with human compassion.”
Robert: I’m writing my second book about using capacity-building as a leadership strategy. How do you see one’s ability to give and receive feedback associated with their ability to build capacity and skills?
Kim: You cannot possibly learn and improve if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong. One of your first jobs as a leader is to really solicit feedback from the people who work for you. You are going to get the best feedback of your career from your employees because very few people are going to observe you as closely as your employees do. They’re going to watch every move you make and they’re going to critique it. If you can learn what they’re thinking and what they’re observing, nothing will improve you more as a leader.
The second reason to solicit feedback is because it gives you an opportunity to teach your team that you view feedback as a gift. It gives them the opportunity to see that their feedback doesn’t make you weaker as a leader, it makes you stronger. Your willingness to hear about mistakes you’re making is the source of your strength.
“You cannot possibly learn and improve if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong.”
Robert: One of the things you talked about in the book is this notion of A players and B players and C players, and how that system of identification is [frequently] misused. You talk instead about the concepts of rockstars and superstars. Can you walk through the difference between rockstar and superstar?
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Kim: My fundamental belief is that there is no such thing as a B player. It’s just a cop out to dismiss people as B players. Every single human being has real potential to be great at some kind of work. You want to make sure that you understand that for every job that you have in a company—you want to respect the work and the people who do the work. You want everyone to have an opportunity to be excellent at their work. There are two very different kinds of people who are excellent at work. Some of the people are those who are great at the work, but who are going to be hungry to grow, who are going to want to change things, who are going to want to be doing different work in the near future, who keep growing and expanding their skill sets.
There are other people who are great at the job and they’re happy to keep doing it. They don’t necessarily want to pour a ton of energy into learning the next job. You want a balance of both of those kinds of people. The people who are eager to change, the change agents on your team, I call the superstars. The people who are great at their job and happy to keep doing it I call the rockstars. We shift between these modes throughout our lives and careers.
“Every single human being has real potential to be great at some kind of work.”
Robert: What are some guideposts that let us know we’re operating in the right quadrant of radical candor and not the wrong quadrants?
Kim: There’s no universal measure for radical candor. The only way that to know that you’re being radically candid is to gauge the other person’s reaction. To ask the other person how it’s going from their perspective. If you’re self-aware, you know what your intentions are. You know what’s coming out of your mouth, but it’s hard to know how it’s getting interpreted.
If you see that somebody’s not reacting well to some feedback you’re giving them, you can just ask. Say, “I feel like maybe I’m being obnoxiously aggressive here. How could I say this better?” Or “I feel like I’m not getting through to you. If I don’t say it more strongly I’m going to wind up getting ruinously empathetic, but I’m going to feel mean if I do say it more strongly. What’s a better way to get through to you?” It can be very helpful.