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How to Implement Radical Candor in Your Organization

Author ryan.drawdy Category FlipMyFunnel

Everybody struggles with Radical Candor. 

To care personally about everyone you work with, but also to challenge them directly, is hard for everyone. Because even though Radical Candor is a simple idea, it’s not so easy to do. It requires emotional discipline and lots and lots of practice. Kim Scott literally wrote the book on Radical Candor, so if she hasn’t perfected it, neither will you. But the point is to keep practicing it, not to be perfect at it.

Kim successfully led a team of 700 people at Google, although at times she felt like it was like watching a slow-motion train wreck happening day after day. She admits that many times, she caused the wreck herself.

“The reluctance to solicit feedback,” Kim told us on the FlipMyFunnel podcast recently, “to offer both praise and criticism, and to create an environment in which everybody is doing the same, is one of the biggest problems in business.” 

How do we solve that problem? Here’s some of what Kim shared on the episode.

What We’re Covering in This Blog

  • Advice to leaders trying to filter what to share/what not to share with their direct reports
  • The “Um” story
  • The difference between working at Google and working at Apple
  • Why Ruinous Empathy is ruinous
  • A Challenge From Kim Scott
  • Two Key Takeaways From the Interview

This post is based on an interview with Kim Scott from Radical Candor.  If you’d like to listen to the full episode, you can check it out here and below.

Advice to Leaders Trying to Filter What to Share/What Not to Share

If you’re worried about how to strike the right balance between being honest and caring about someone personally, the first step for you will be to solicit feedback before you worry about what you’re sharing. 

There’s a definite order of operations with Radical Candor.

Step one is to ask for feedback. Drag it out of people. Find out where they’re coming from. 

Even if someone is obnoxiously aggressive with you, as their boss, that’s a triumph. Often, we feel like we’ve failed as bosses if someone is aggressively honest with us. We  feel like we haven’t asserted our authority. But if someone tells you what they really think, even if they don’t say it just right, you are succeeding as a leader. 

Step two is to focus on the good stuff. We’re very reluctant to give voice to what we appreciate about working with other people, because it’s easier to look smart and authoritative when you’re giving criticism than when you’re giving praise. 

But your job as a leader is not to look smart; your job is to pull the best out of people.

Step three is to offer criticism. Start gently. You don’t want to go all the way to the outer edge of challenging directly. 

Remember that there are no “right words.” There is no emotional novocaine. Maybe the criticism will bother the other person; maybe it won’t. The point is to say it gently, to show that you care personally. Then look at their response and go from there. 

The “Um” Story

One of the best examples of Radical Candor comes from a time when Kim’s boss criticized her:

I had just started working at Google, and my boss was Sheryl Sandberg. I had to give a presentation to the founders and the CEO of Google about how the AdSense business was doing. I walked into the room, and there was Eric Schmidt, who was CEO at the time in a corner doing email. He’s so intense, it’s like his brain has been plugged into the machine. 

Like any normal person in this situation, I felt a little bit nervous. How in the world was I supposed to get these people’s attention? Luckily for me, the AdSense business was on fire and when I said how many new publishers we had added, Eric almost fell off his chair. He said, “What did you say? What do you need? Do you need more marketing dollars, do you need more engineers?”

So I’m feeling like the meeting’s going all right. In fact, I now believe I’m a bona fide genius. As I walked out of the room, I walked past Sheryl, and I’m expecting a high five or a pat on the back or something. And instead, Sheryl says to me, “Why don’t you walk back to my office with me?” 

And I thought oh, wow. I have screwed something up and I’m sure I’m about to hear about it. Sheryl began the conversation by telling me about the things that had gone well in the meeting. Not in the feedback sandwich sort of “kiss me, kick me, kiss me” way, but really seeming to mean what she was saying. But of course all I wanted to do was to know what I had done wrong.

Eventually Sheryl said to me, “You said ‘um’ a lot in there. Were you aware of it?” At this point I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Because if that was all I had done wrong, who really cared? I had a tiger by the tail. 

I kind of made a brush off gesture with my hand, and I said yeah, I know, it’s a verbal tic, it’s no big deal, really. And then Sheryl said, “I know a great speech coach, I bet Google would pay for it. Would you like an introduction?” Once again I made a brush-off gesture with my hand, and I said no, I’m busy, didn’t you hear about all these new customers? 

Then Sheryl stopped and looked right at me and said, “I can see when you do that thing with your hand, that I’m going to have to be a lot more direct with you. When you say “um” every third word, it makes you sound stupid. 

Now she’s got my full attention.

You could say it was mean of Sheryl to say I sounded stupid, but in fact it was the kindest thing that she could have done for me at that moment. Because if she hadn’t said it to me just that way, then I wouldn’t have gone to the speech coach, and I wouldn’t have learned that I literally said “um” every third word. 

This was news to me, because I had raised millions of dollars for two startups giving presentations. I thought I was pretty good at it. It really got me thinking, why had no one told me? It was almost like I had been walking through my whole career with a giant hunk of spinach between my teeth, and nobody had had the common courtesy to tell me. 

What was it about Sheryl that made it so seemingly easy for her to tell me? I realized in it boiled down to two things. 

The first and most important was that she cared about me at a personal level, not just as an employee but as a human being. For example, when a family member fell ill, she said, “I’m going to come up with a coverage plan for you. You go get on an airplane; your place is with your family right now. We’ve got your back. That’s what teams do for each other.” 

But at the same time I always knew that she was never going to let her concern for my short-term feelings, which were real, get in the way of her willingness to tell me something that I really needed to know—like this “um” problem. So I was really grateful to her for telling me. 

And that was really kind of the genesis of the Radical Candor framework. 

The Difference Between Google and Apple

Having worked at both Google and Apple, Kim says they are very, very different. 

They also are similar in a lot of ways, and Kimwould say they’re both really great cultures, and realize the importance of Radical Candor.

But if she were to use the Radical Candor framework to analyze their cultures, she’d say Apple is radically candid with a twist of Obnoxious Aggression, and Google is radically candid with a twist of Ruinous Empathy

If you want a really great example of the difference between the two cultures, go eat lunch at each place. 

At Google, lunch is free. It’s organic and delicious, but it’s a smorgasbord. Kim says she would put all kinds of things on her plate, then sit down and realize it was all good and organic and delicious but it didn’t quite go together. 

At Apple, you had to pay, but you got your money’s worth, with beautifully composed, well-planned meals. 

Both are great cultures—they’re just vastly different. If Google is a sort of “let a thousand flowers bloom” culture, Apple is a “choose one flower and cultivate the hell out of it” culture.

Why Ruinous Empathy Is Ruinous

If you’re not familiar with the Radical Candor framework, Ruinous Empathy is what happens when you care personally about someone but you don’t challenge them directly.

Ruinous Empathy is not much fun. 

In addition to being ruinous, it’s boring. So you want to keep the care high, but also to move the organization back to Radical Candor.

It can be done, even with bigger organizations. But it does require effort up, down, and sideways. You can’t only do it top-down. You’ve got to get buy-in from people. 

There are things you can do to encourage Radical Candor between people. There are processes and norms you can put in place. Probably one of the most important norms is what Kim’s coach when she was at Google, Fred Kofman, calls “clean escalation.” 

The point of clean escalation is this: if you’re a manager, don’t let somebody on your team come to you and complain about somebody else on your team. Make them work it out. Ask them to try to work it out directly. If they can’t, they can come to you and you’ll help them, but they need to come to you together in a three-person meeting. 

Yes, it feels awkward. It feels like you’re the principal calling two kids into the principal’s office. But part of your job as a manager, as a leader, is to get over that awkwardness and do it anyway.

A Challenge From Kim Scott

Figure out right this minute the way you’re going to ask for feedback from your team. 

What’s the question you’re going to use? The question Kim uses is, “What could I do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” But if you ask that question, you’re going to sound like you just listened to a podcast with Kim Scott. It won’t feel authentic. So you’ve got to figure out how you are going to ask the question. 

Here are a couple of guidelines:

1) Don’t ask a yes or no question. If you say something like, “Do you have any feedback for me?” they’re going to say everything’s fine. So you need to say something like, “What could I do?” Or “Tell me why…” Your question needs to push them into a response. 

2) Do it in the next two days. Decide what you’re going to ask and ask it. There’s no reason to wait.

Two Key Takeaways From the Interview

1)  Don’t judge yourself too harshly. It’s OK to fail as a leader. Just recognize where you want to go and gently move in that direction. When you constantly judge yourself, you lose context and even the very authenticity that you’re trying to establish. So give yourself a break, do the best you can, and learn from your mistakes.

2) Worry about getting it wrong, not being wrong. Steve Jobs always said he didn’t care if he was right as long as he and others got it right in the end. Two co-workers can yell at each and look like they hate each other but smile and hang out at the end of the conversation. How? Because the heated debate isn’t personal: How is that possible? Because they share a desire to get to the right answer as fast as possible—together.

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