Kim Scott wrote the book on “radical candor.”
Literally — Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. Radical candor is a concept that’s been growing in popularity as a management technique, according to Society for Human Resource Management — although it’s a concept that can be misunderstood and misused.
It’s not intended as an excuse for managers to verbally brutalize an employee — you may have even heard it referred to as “frontstabbing.” Rather, it’s the key to developing a close and friendly manager-employee relationship.
“The theme throughout the book is that in order to be a great boss, you have to have a very personal relationship with the people who work for you,” Scott tells Bookweb.
Scott has a great deal of experience in management training, having coached CEOs at Dropbox, Twitter, and other companies in Silicon Valley — that’s after being on the faculty at Apple’s well-regarded internal management training school, Apple University. Her book is her attempt to help fill a void at many companies: management training.
Scott developed a rubric of four types of manager-employee relationships, one of which is radical candor. The other three quadrants describe less constructive manager-employee interactions.
There are two axes: the vertical axis tracks how much a manager personally cares about the employee, and the horizontal axis shows the degree to which a manager is willing to challenge the employee.
The radical candor quadrant shows how you behave when you really care about an employee and are willing to challenge them to help foster growth. The emphasis is on the “candor,” meaning honesty, something that can only work in the context of a strong personal relationship.
So if radical candor is built on sincerity — and that means both genuine praise and genuine criticism — neither can be falsified. With respect for the employee as the foundation, it’s important to express approval of positive behavior and to offer correction and guidance as well. It’s all based on having a good interpersonal relationship: you’re friends, you both genuinely like each other, and the employee can trust you mean well.
In the corner of the rubric where caring and a desired to avoid confrontation meet lurks ruinous empathy.
“By far, the most common mistake I see is Ruinous Empathy,” Scott says.
The manager thinks it’s nice to never criticize the person, but the employee winds up with a diminished chance of improving, because their performance — and talent potential — is capped by low expectations. If the manager really wants to help, it’s better to move over to radical candor and show some respect.
The manager just doesn’t care, really, about the employee and is certainly not going to expend the effort involved in challenging them.
Interaction with the employee is half-hearted and kind of lazy: vague pats on the back for nothing in particular and criticism for equally unclear reasons. Odds are really good that the employee gets the implicit and condescending message: why bother trying?
Here, we are in don’t-care-and-enjoy-hassling territory. The employee’s well-being is a nonissue to the manager, and — perhaps there’s even some personal animosity going on here — if criticism isn’t being doled out, probably nothing is being said at all.
Note that it’s likely some unscrupulous managers have been dressing up obnoxious aggression as radical candor as an excuse for their power-trip behavior, and that this is the source of radical candor’s mixed reputation.
Oh, and Two Other Things
Scott also suggests that any manager who wants to keep improving should periodically ask employees questions along the lines of, “Is there anything I could do or stop doing to make it easier to work with me?” — and it’s critically important to react with grace to whatever response comes back.
She also suggests checking in with employees occasionally to talk about their goals: “You can give people work that will have more meaning to them if you understand what motivates them and what they want to accomplish in life.”
“It’s hard to criticize other people’s work,” Scott says. “It’s hard to find the energy to be specific and sincere; praise can often feel very patronizing and criticizing can feel mean, but in order to give employees good guidance, you have to try to praise and criticize on a regular basis.”
And it only makes sense that being a great manager means putting the time and effort into building constructive and friendly relationships on which to base those honest, and honestly helpful, conversations.
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