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[Book Summary] Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity

Radical Candor (2017) is a roadmap for leaders looking to establish the best possible relationship with their employees. Its insightful approach to management shows how to create a working environment where great ideas emerge, individuals reach their full potential, and employees are proud to follow their boss.

[Book Summary] Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity

Content Summary

Introduction: What’s in it for me? Learn how to become a radically candid boss.
The two dimensions of radical candor.
Three behaviors to avoid as a radically candid boss.
How to give radically candid guidance.
How to identify what motivates your colleagues.
How to help your employees grow.
How to practice collaborative leadership.
How to foster a great debate culture.
Final Summary
About the author
Video and Podcast


Management, Leadership, Corporate Culture, Business Culture, Workplace Culture, Management Science, Human Resources and Personnel Management

Introduction: Learn how to become a radically candid boss.

“Hey, do you have a minute?”

Actually, Kim Scott didn’t. She had just stepped out of the elevator at Juice Software’s headquarters, where she worked as a manager. And that morning, she felt stressed. She needed to rework an important presentation, and she needed to do it now. But the employee who’d approached her, asking if she had a minute, looked distraught – and for good reason. It turned out that he would probably need a kidney transplant, and it was really weighing on him. They ended up talking for an hour, and Kim managed to calm him down somewhat.

OK, now! If she rushed to her desk immediately, she might be able to finish her presentation in time. But – surprise, surprise – a second colleague was soon standing in front of her with another urgent topic.

After a morning of nothing but distractions, Kim was frazzled. She called Leslie Koch, her CEO, to complain about her situation: it didn’t feel like she was these people’s boss but, to be honest, some kind of babysitter. Leslie answered, “This is not babysitting. It’s called management, and it’s your job!”

Those words have guided Kim in her career ever since. Because what she did that day was exactly what she was supposed to be doing: building relationships with the people she was leading.

Relationships are central to everything when trying to succeed as a leader. No matter whether you’re a CEO or a first-time manager, you’re going to be embedded in a network of people, and it’s your job to guide and motivate them to achieve the best possible results.

To cultivate these strong relationships, you need your employees to trust you. But trust is not something you can build by snapping your fingers, and voilà! You actually – pardon our French – need to give a damn about someone. You need to care. But you also need to be honest with the person, which means being able to make hard decisions and give constructive feedback.

These two dimensions – care personally and challenge directly – are at the heart of radical candor. It’s radical because when you apply it, you’ll step out of your comfort zone and say what you really think, and candid because you’ll be communicating clearly but with humility.

Care personally and challenge directly

In this summary to Kim Scott’s book, Radical Candor, we’ll show you why this concept should inform all of your actions as a leader. At the end, you’ll know how you can use it to strengthen your professional relationships, give your team good guidance, motivate them to do their best work, and foster meaningful collaboration.

The two dimensions of radical candor.

To start, let’s take a closer look at the first dimension of radical candor: care personally.

Of course you care about the people you work with. But listening to someone share their deepest fears and insecurities, or even sharing your own? That’s just a bit too much, isn’t it? That’s unprofessional.

Actually, it’s one of the best things you can do if you want to establish an environment where people feel safe and cared for. Again, think about Kim Scott when she listened to that colleague who was concerned that he might need a new kidney. She listened. She gave him her time. She showed him that his feelings mattered. If you create an environment where people feel like they can be vulnerable, they will feel seen. And this will then work to strengthen the bond between you.

It’s important not to let your compassion cloud your judgment, though – which leads us to the second dimension of radical candor: challenge directly.

Back when Kim worked at Google, early in her career, she gave a presentation to the company’s CEO and founders. She was understandably nervous, but it all went well – or so she thought. Afterward, her boss – Sheryl Sandberg – called her into her office to offer some feedback. Sheryl praised Kim’s presentation, but she also made her aware of something: Kim had said “um” a lot. The problem with this was that it made Kim sound dumb and undermined her credibility. This was a shame because Kim was obviously smart and had important things to say. Sheryl managed to give this feedback in such an encouraging way that Kim felt supported, though she also understood that she needed to work on her presentation skills.

So if you notice room for improvement in a team member, challenge them. Be kind, be encouraging, be compassionate, but be direct – don’t beat around the bush. When employees discover that you truly want them to grow, and that you’re willing to challenge them, they’ll admire – and trust – you more than they would if you’d held back.

Now that you’ve learned more about the two dimensions of radical candor and why they’re so important for your relationships with others, let’s talk about another relationship: the one you have with yourself.

Dating wisdom holds that, before you can really love someone else, you have to love yourself. Well, the same is true for professional relationships: if you want to care about others, you have to care about yourself first.

What does that mean?

Mostly, you will need to find a way to stay centered – even in stressful situations. You know best what you need to get there, but, for many people, it helps to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Kim, for example, makes sure she sleeps eight hours a night and makes time for exercise and regular meals with her family. These types of routines might sound trivial, but they can contribute to your overall well-being. So try to stick to them, and block time in your calendar for activities that are important to you.

If you show up for yourself like this, you can show up for others as well. And you’ll become a role model for your team. Which is important, because guiding others – as you’re about to find out – is a crucial part of being a radically candid manager.

Three behaviors to avoid as a radically candid boss.

Let’s talk about Kim’s experience with Sheryl Sandberg again. It’s a great example of how a manager can make someone feel appreciated but also give them the guidance they need. Sheryl praised where praise was due, but she didn’t shy away from bringing up what she perceived as a problem – a problem that might stop Kim from advancing in her career. And she did all that with gentleness and sincerity. This two-minute encounter – yep, it was only two-minutes long – changed Kim’s outlook on how to guide her own team.

How had Sheryl done this? She had applied the two principles of radical candor: care personally and challenge directly. But she had also avoided the three behaviors that you can easily fall into when you don’t apply those principles or when you misunderstand them: obnoxious aggression, ruinous empathy, and manipulative insincerity.

Let that sink in for a moment. Maybe you’re already protesting: “I’m not a manipulative manager! Ruinous empathy – that doesn’t sound like me.” Remember, it’s not about who you are but how you act. Separating those two things will help you identify the areas that you actually can improve in.

Let’s take a closer look, then, at those three less-than-ideal behaviors to understand how you can avoid them.

The first one is obnoxious aggression. Maybe you’ve had a boss who’s criticized you, or even yelled at you without listening. You didn’t feel like they cared about you – not in the least. Well, that person behaved with obnoxious aggression. The problem is that people often confuse honesty with blunt aggression. Even worse, many people prefer someone who seems like they are a “competent asshole” – someone who, though unpleasant, at least isn’t “nice but incompetent.” The thing is, you don’t have to be obnoxiously aggressive to show your competence. You can be direct and kind, like Sheryl’s example shows.

But beware – don’t let your kindness prevent you from voicing criticism. Because then you’ll slip into ruinous empathy. This is a convenient mode to slip into. After all, you don’t want to risk your relationship with someone by offending them with your criticism. You want to avoid conflict and discomfort. But if you don’t give honest feedback to the people you lead, you will harm your relationship eventually.

Manipulative insincerity, the third behavior to avoid, looks similar to ruinous empathy on the outside: you don’t tell people what you really think, and you hold back with criticism. But you do this not because you care about other people’s feelings, but because you don’t care enough. You manipulate them just because you want them to like you, which is not a great way to build trust.

So, now that you know what to avoid, how can you actually give good – radically candid – guidance to your team?

How to give radically candid guidance.

At Google, Kim once witnessed a discussion between Larry Page, Google’s famous cofounder, and software engineer Matt Cutts. They were debating a strategic proposal, and the discussion got heated. Matt, usually calm and composed, started shouting at Larry. Kim was afraid that Larry would be infuriated by this behavior, but instead he only smiled. Why? Because he enjoyed being challenged. To him, it proved that, at Google, employees felt comfortable enough to criticize their superiors.

This is what’s at the core of radically candid guidance: a culture where you give, receive, and encourage both praise and criticism.

So, how can you make sure you foster this culture where people know how to praise and criticize each other – and feel comfortable receiving praise and criticism?

As a manager, you have to lead by example. Start by openly talking about your own strengths and areas of improvement. Tell your employees, “These are my strengths, and these are the things I want to become better at. Would you help me with this?” This invitation will make it easier for people to give you constructive feedback, and they will also feel inspired to reflect on their own areas for growth.

If you want more specific feedback, prepare a go-to question like, “What could I do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” Most people won’t respond to this immediately, so be persistent and wait for a genuine response to come up. When someone does respond honestly, be prepared to sit with the feedback and don’t try to defend yourself. Instead, make sure you understood it correctly, and thank the person for their honesty.

When it comes to giving feedback to your team, practice what you preach. Be humble. Share what type of behavior you perceived and what impact it had instead of jumping to conclusions about the person. Try to make your criticism as clear and actionable as possible. Give timely feedback – for example, directly after a meeting; don’t save it for the next performance review.

A lot of these guidelines apply to praise as well. When praising someone, make sure you don’t wait too long with your positive feedback. Be specific, and, again, focus on behaviors instead of focusing on the person. A good rule of thumb is to criticize in private, but to praise in public – so share what someone did well in the next team meeting!

In all of this, it’s important to keep your employees’ preferences in mind. Public praise might motivate one person, but the next person might be intimidated by it. Keeping people motivated and knowing their preferences is part of your job. We’ll take a closer look at this in the next chapter.

How to identify what motivates your colleagues.

Here’s a story about Sir Christopher Wren, the seventeenth-century architect who oversaw the reconstruction of St. Paul’s cathedral in London. One day, he was walking around the construction site when he encountered three bricklayers who were building a wall. He asked them what they were doing. The first one said, “I’m working.” The second one mentioned that he was building a wall. The third bricklayer, though, gave an astonishing response: “I’m building a cathedral to the Almighty.”

This story is often used to illustrate the difference between a mere worker and a visionary. But to Kim Scott, the anecdote actually reveals something else: people can do the same job but find meaning in different aspects of it. It also shows that a manager is not there to tell their employees what these aspects should be. Instead, their job is to recognize the differences and make sure there is an environment in which everyone can find their own purpose.

Radical candor applies here too. As a manager, you should hold space for your employees because you care deeply about them, but you shouldn’t manufacture a false sense of purpose.

There are some jobs that have only one reward: earning enough money to pay the bills and live comfortably. So be honest with your employees. Tell them that there is satisfaction to be had in doing a job well, and make sure that good work is acknowledged. There’s no need to feel you must solve their existential dilemmas.

However, you can provide them with perspective on their careers and the tools to help them grow and develop as professionals.

To do this honestly, you’ll need to spot the difference between a superstar and a rockstar.

Superstar employees need to be challenged and permitted to grow quickly so they can move up the corporate ladder and reach their full potential.

Rockstar – as in “rock-solid” – employees offer a steadier presence, and they will be great as long as they’re given the stability and time to excel at their job.

Both types of employees are equally valuable to your team. You need the ambitious visionaries, but you also need the people who keep the ball rolling.

So, let’s move on to the practical part: How can you find out which category your team members belong to – and keep them motivated?

How to help your employees grow.

Russ Laraway, the former director of sales at Google, once sat down with Sarah, one of his employees. When he asked about her aspirations, she initially hesitated, then said she hoped to one day be a boss like Russ. But Russ sensed that Sarah wasn’t being completely honest with him, so he asked her if she had any other visions for her future. Sarah paused for a moment and then shared her actual dream with him: she wanted to own a farm that grew spirulina, an algae-like superfood. She did want to be a boss – she hadn’t lied to Russ about this – but in a field she really cared about.

What a revelation! Russ was now able to talk to Sarah about her upbringing and identify her main motivators, such as helping the environment, working hard, and being a financially independent leader.

Knowing this, together they could focus on developing Sarah’s management skills rather than her analytical skills – and make sure her current job was preparing her for running that spirulina farm.

The conversation was successful because both parties had been radically candid with each other. Russ cared about Sarah, so he wanted to find out what really motivated her. And Sarah had openly shared with Russ that she didn’t want to stay at Google forever – which, ironically, helped both of them define a clear career plan for her at the company.

If you want to motivate your employees, you’ll need to have those kinds of conversations. Here are three approaches you can use.

The first is the life story conversation. Here, you discuss – you guessed it – a person’s life story with them and look at the choices they’ve made. Try to understand why they made them. Maybe someone dropped out of grad school to work on Wall Street because they wanted to become financially independent. Great – you’ve just identified one of their key motivators. Continue like this, and you’ll find out what people really care about.

Then there’s the dream job conversation, where you let your employee describe their biggest career desire. Remember Sarah, who wanted to have her own spirulina farm? Letting people talk about their aspirations, however lofty they might be, can actually help both of you map out a concrete personal development plan.

The third approach is the 18-month plan conversation. This is where both of you look into the immediate future and identify everything that can be done to keep your employee on the right track.

By following these guidelines, it won’t be long before you have a team of highly motivated individuals working together and achieving great things. Remember, though, that it’s your job to make them drive results – we’ll look at how you can do this next.

How to practice collaborative leadership.

If you recall, Kim used to work at Google. When she joined the AdSense team as a lead, everybody was doing a little bit of everything – and nobody seemed to believe that they really needed bosses to do their job. But what her employees saw as an agile culture with flat hierarchies, Kim perceived as a problem. She noticed that her team often felt stressed and wasn’t nearly as effective as it could be. So Kim restructured the team into smaller units, gave each of them a well-defined task, and established clear lines of reporting. Everything should’ve run smoothly now, right? Well . . . no. The result was that people started complaining about Kim’s autocratic leadership style; a few of them even left the team.

Why? Again, Kim’s boss Sheryl Sandberg offered some insightful advice. It wasn’t that Kim’s ideas hadn’t been great. The problem was that she had been a few steps ahead of her team – and therefore failed to get them to buy into her vision.

This brings us to what Kim calls “the art of getting stuff done without telling people what to do.” You could also call it collaborative leadership.

If you want to practice it, there are seven steps you can follow:

First, listen. Really listen to what the people in your team have to say. When you do this, your team will feel safe to speak their minds and have the kind of discussions that lead to brilliant ideas.

Second, clarify. Give your team the time and space to develop and clarify their ideas. Otherwise, they might end up being shot down before they ever have a chance to be clearly understood.

Third, debate. Allow for healthy debate so that the best ideas are presented and agreed upon.

Fourth, decide. Decide on an idea that you want to try out.

Fifth, persuade. It’s your job as a manager to persuade other company executives that your team’s idea is worth pushing forward.

Sixth, execute. After having secured buy-in, execute your team’s idea.

And seventh, learn. This last step is really important. You have to learn from the outcomes of the implementation so you can adjust and improve next time.

Once you’ve done all this, you can start the entire process all over again!

Most importantly, always keep the two dimensions of radical candor in mind: care personally and challenge directly. This means fostering a culture where everybody feels comfortable sharing their ideas – but also empowered to challenge and criticize them. In the last chapter of this summary, we’ll take a closer look at two key aspects of collaborative leadership that can help you create that culture.

How to foster a great debate culture.

First, let’s talk about the art of listening because it’s the thing that will have the biggest impact on collaboration within your team. There are two types of listening: quiet listening and loud listening.

Quiet listening suits leaders who prefer to let others do the talking. Don’t offer your opinions off the bat; instead, sit back and listen attentively. You might be surprised by how much your employees share with you! For it to work, though, you need to have established an environment where people feel comfortable saying what’s really on their minds.

Loud listening, on the other hand, is good for leaders with a more confrontational personality. Start by making a strong statement, and insist that others provide an equally strong response to keep the discussion going. Since loud listening pushes people into talking, it’s an effective way to draw shy employees out of their shells – but only if they feel supported enough to speak up.

When you’ve managed to establish a great listening culture, you need to establish a great debate culture as well. How can you do this?

First, you have to remind yourself and your team that a discussion is about ideas – not egos. This means that no one should enter a meeting with the desire to win an argument. Instead, everyone should collectively look for the best outcomes. If your team has a hard time doing this, consider introducing an “ego coat check” where everyone is prompted to leave their ego at the door.

Once you’ve done this and there’s a discussion going on, introduce the obligation to dissent. Because if everyone in your team immediately agrees on a solution, there’s most likely something wrong with it. To counteract this, give someone the role of devil’s advocate. If your team is well-versed in the practice of radical candor, they will enjoy being challenged.

Establishing those two cultures – a culture of listening and debating – means laying the groundwork for healthy collaboration. It ensures that your team feels safe, supported, and motivated to reach its goals. And what else could you wish for as a manager?!

Final Summary

Let’s end this summary with a question: If you suddenly woke up in the middle of the night, would you be able to name the two dimensions of radical candor? If your answer is “Yes. Care personally and challenge directly,” then our job is done. Because, obviously, those two aspects hold the key to what radical candor is all about.

We’ve looked at how you can build closer relationships at work, give effective guidance to your team, motivate your employees, and help them reach their goals through collaborative leadership – all by applying the principles of radical candor. Knowing this concept and having it in your professional toolbox will make you a better leader and ultimately lead to your team’s success.

About the author

KIM SCOTT is the co-founder of an executive education firm and workplace comedy series, The Feedback Loop, based on her perennially bestselling book, Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity. Kim was a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and other tech companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led operations teams for AdSense, YouTube, and Doubleclick at Google. Kim was a senior policy advisor at the FCC, managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo, started a diamond cutting factory in Moscow, and was an analyst on the Soviet Companies Fund. She lives with her family in Silicon Valley.

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