17 Apr 2019

Give It to Me Straight

Radical Candor author Kim Scott on what effective feedback really looks like—and why it will make you a better boss


Dan Morrell: Early on in Kim Scott’s career, she had a few wake-up calls that set her on a mission to become a better boss—a leader who was highly effective but still very human. She began to develop a management philosophy focused on effective professional feedback, honing it in roles at tech icons Apple and Google. The idea? Radical candor, or as Scott (MBA 1996) defines it, caring personally while at the same time, challenging directly. At its base, she says, it’s about being humble enough to ask for feedback and feeling confident enough to give praise.

Scott’s book on the topic, aptly titled Radical Candor, was released in 2017, and she’s prepping a follow-up, which applies her theories to the topic of gender and justice at work. But on this episode of Skydeck, Scott and I start at the beginning—with the painful origins of her idea.


Dan Morrell: Kim, you start the book with an anecdote about Bob, this well-liked employee of yours who produced subpar work. Can you recount that story and talk about how that experience was instructive for you?

Kim Scott: This experience with Bob was probably the worst moment of my professional career. Bob was smart. He was charming. He was funny. He was one of those people who brings a little levity, a little humanity to every meeting.

There was just one problem with Bob. Bob was doing terrible work. It was so puzzling. I was so confused because he had this incredible resume, this great trajectory of accomplishments in his past. Now when he would hand stuff in to me, there was shame in his eyes. I would say to Bob something along the lines of, "Oh, Bob, you're so smart. You're so awesome. We all love working with you. This is a great start. Maybe you can make it a little better." So this goes on for 10 months, and eventually the inevitable happens. I realize that if I don't fire Bob, I'm going to lose all my star performers because they're fed up with having to redo his work, having to cover for his mistakes. So I sit down to have a conversation with Bob that I frankly should have started 10 months previously. When I was finished explaining to him where things stood, Bob pushed his chair back from the table, he looked me right in the eye, and he said, "Why didn't you tell me?" And as that question is going around in my head with no good answer, he looks at me and he says, "Why didn't anyone tell me? I thought you all cared about me."

Now I realized that I have failed Bob in six really important ways. I have failed, first of all, to solicit feedback. I've failed to solicit both praise and criticism from Bob. So those are the first two ways that I failed Bob. Now, I made two other mistakes. I didn't give Bob praise that was meaningful. The kind of praise I gave Bob was really just an ego-salve or a head-fake. I also failed to tell Bob when his work wasn't nearly good enough. Because I did that, he didn't know. Then I made two other mistakes as well. These were probably the worst mistakes of all. I failed to create the kind of environment in which everyone would tell Bob what was really great about working with him, would give him real praise, meaningful praise and also the kind of environment in which people would tell Bob when he was running off the rails.

Because I had failed Bob in all these different ways, I'm now having to fire him for it. It was terrible for me. It was, of course, much worse for Bob, and it was really awful for the whole team. But in that moment, I realized it was too late to save Bob. All I could do in that moment was make a very solemn promise to myself that I would never make that mistake again and that I would do everything in my power to help the people around me avoid making that mistake. That's really what motivated me to write Radical Candor and come up with a framework and to be talking to you right now.

Dan: That experience with Bob is relatively early on in your career. How did your time at Google and then Apple sharpen your thesis?

Kim: It took me a long time to make sense of that experience and to make sense of it in a way that other people could also make sense of it. I think it was interesting, actually shortly after the experience with Bob, I got an email with the same article attached from about 10 different people at the company. It was about how people would rather have a boss who is really competent but kind of a jerk than one who's really incompetent but really nice. I thought, "My god, are they sending me this because they think I'm incompetent or because they think I'm a jerk?" And I went, "Which is worse? I don't want to be either." Surely, those are not my two choices. So I spent a lot of time throughout the rest of my career wrestling with this and thinking about how I could be the good person I wanted to be but also be really effective.

I learned so much at Google about this. I want to tell you the story about getting criticism from my boss because I learned a lot from this moment. It was shortly after I joined Google and I had to give a presentation to the founders and the CEO about how the AdSense business was doing. I walked into the room and there is Sergey Brin, one of the founders, standing on an elliptical trainer in one corner of the room wearing toe shoes and pedaling away. There is Eric Schmidt, who was CEO at the time, in the other corner of the room reading his email.

Luckily for me, the AdSense business was on fire, and when I said how many new customers we added over the last couple of months, Eric Schmidt almost fell out of his chair, and he said, "What did you say? This is incredible. Do you need more marketing dollars? Do you need more engineers?" So I'm feeling like the presentation's going okay. In fact, I'm feeling like I'm a genius. As I walked past my boss, who was Sheryl Sandberg, I'm expecting a high five from her, a pat on the back or whatever. Instead, she says to me, "Why don't you walk back to my office with me?" I thought, "Oh, wow. I screwed something up, and I'm sure I'm about to hear about it."

Eventually, Sheryl said to me, "You said, 'Um,' a lot in there. Were you aware of it?" Now I breathed a huge sigh of relief because if that was all I had done wrong, who really cares. So I made a brush-off gesture with my hands. I was like, "Yeah, I know it's a verbal tick. It's no big deal really." Then Sheryl said to me, "I know this great speech coach, and I'm sure Google would pay for it. Would you like an introduction?" Once again, I made this brush-off gesture with my hand.

Then Sheryl stops. She looked at me right in the eye and she said, "I can see when you do that thing with your hand, 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 has my full attention, full and undivided attention. Some people might say it was mean of Sheryl to say that I sounded stupid, but in fact it was the kindest thing she could have done for me at that moment in my career because if she hadn't said it to me just that way in just those words, then I wouldn't have gone to see the speech coach, and I wouldn't have learned that she was not exaggerating. I literally said, "Um," every third word. This was news to me because I had been giving presentations my entire career. I had raised millions of dollars for startups giving presentations. I thought I was pretty good at it. It was almost as though I had been walking through my entire career with a giant hunk of spinach between my teeth, and nobody had had the common courtesy to tell me that it was there.

So this really got me to thinking why had no one told me and also the plaintive question from Bob: "Why didn't you tell me?" But also what was it about Sheryl that made it seems so natural for her to tell me? I realized in the case of Sheryl, it really boiled down to two things. Sheryl cared about me not just as an employee but as a human being. When I moved from New York to California to take the job at Google, I didn't really know very many people in California, and I was really lonely. Sheryl could tell I was lonely and invited me to join a book group and help me make some friends outside of work. When I had a family member fall ill, Sheryl said, "I've got your back. You go to the airport, get on an airplane, go home, take care of your family. I'm going to write your coverage plan. Your team has you covered. That's what we do for one another."

That was the kind of thing that Sheryl did for everyone who worked closely with her. That really had an impact on the culture of her organization. The culture did scale even though the relationships didn't. So I realized it really boiled down to these two things: care personally, challenge directly. At HBS, I learned one really important thing, which is that all of life's hardest problems can be boiled down to a good two-by-two framework. So I used this care personally, challenge directly to come up with a radical candor framework.

Dan: Kim, can you walk me through the quadrants?

Kim: When you care and challenge at the same time, that's radical candor. When you challenge but you don't show the person you show you care, that's what I call obnoxious aggression. Very often when we realize we've been obnoxiously aggressive, instead of moving the right direction on caring personally and moving up to radical candor, we move the wrong direction on challenging directly, and we wind up in the worst place of all, manipulative insincerity. This is where the false apology creeps in. This is where passive aggressive behavior creeps in. This is where backstabbing behavior, political behavior, all the things that make the workplace toxic, creep in in this manipulative insincerity quadrant. We love to tell stories about that kind of behavior in a workplace. But the fact of the matter is most of us make the vast majority of our mistakes in the last quadrant, where we do show our colleagues that we care about them. Because we're so concerned about their short-term feelings, we fail to challenge them directly. That's what I call ruinous empathy.

The Bob story is the classic ruinous empathy story. I really didn't want to hurt Bob's feelings, so I didn't tell him that his work wasn't nearly good enough. I was just trying to be nice to Bob, and then I wound up having to fire Bob, not so nice after all.

Dan: What is it about Silicon Valley that has made it such a good training ground for your management ideas?

Kim: I think that the war for talent in Silicon Valley is especially intense. I think as a result, a lot of companies in Silicon Valley have really started to invest in understanding what it takes to be a good manager. When I first moved here, somebody said to me, "Management is neither taught nor valued in Silicon Valley". It was a harsh statement. I think that that has really changed over the last 15 years. I think management really is taught and valued here. I think that's part of the reason why the ideas started spreading here first, but it's been really fun to watch them spread to other places.

A lot of school districts have adopted radical candor between principals and teachers but also between teachers and students. A lot of very large, industrial companies all over the world are starting to use the principles of radical candor and roll them out to help their organizations be more innovative and also more efficient and productive. So it's been really fun to watch it spread.

Dan: You are working on a new book called Radical Reconciliation: Confronting Gender and Justice at Work. Can you tell me a little bit about that book and the ideas behind it?

Kim: Yes. I'm really excited about this book. Part of the motivation for writing Radical Reconciliation is that as I was going around talking about radical candor at a bunch of different companies, I realized that one of the areas where we most need radical candor but are least likely to either solicit it or to offer it is around topics of diversity and inclusion.

Again, I love the two-by-two, so I think there are two important vectors to move towards. One is respect, and the other is accountability. If we can create cultures that are characterized by respect and accountability, we can really solve so many of the problems of diversity and inclusion. We can really confront gender and justice at work.

But I think in order to solve the problem, we've got to break these respect wreckers down and just take each one in turn because all of these problems demand different responses.

Dan: Now, you were raised in the American South in a way that, as you write about, encourage manners and taught you to do avoid contradicting others in public.

Kim: Yes.

Dan: How hard was it for you personally to overcome that tradition and embrace this idea of radical candor?

Kim: I like to joke that in many ways I was born and bred for manipulative insincerity, so it was very difficult for me. It was probably my biggest management challenge. After I graduated from HBS and I started this software company, my biggest challenge was overcoming my instinct never to say "No" to anybody and never to contradict anybody, and, yet, it was really seeing what happens when I failed to do it. The fundamental goal of all this politeness business is about caring personally and being a good person. I found that by hooking into my desire to be kind and realizing that often my silences were profoundly unkind, that really helped me to become more radically candid. Realizing that there's a big difference between being nice and being kind. Ruinous empathy might be nice, but in the long run it's profoundly unkind. That radical candor is the kinder way to be.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1996, Section I
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