Book review: Radical Candor

Towards the end of last year, I read No Rules Rules, the story behind the culture at Netflix and all the personal work that goes into making the company one of the most sought-after workplaces in the world.

In it, the authors talk about Radical Candor which, at first blush, appears to be simply having chutzpah; just saying what you feel when you feel like it. But, like any good business strategy, there’s a lot more that happens in the background.

First, is establishing trusting relationships. Author Kim Scott (and co-founder of Candor Inc, a company that offers executive education based on the book) distils this into two dimensions:

Care Personally and Challenge Directly

Contrary to popular corporate belief, it isn’t necessary to be one person in your personal life and someone completely different at work. In fact, we have to bring our whole selves to work (vulnerabilities and all) in order to build these relationships, and we have to care about the whole selves of our colleagues, too. Sounds easy enough. But, then, you need to step up and Challenge Directly and actually tell people when their work doesn’t meet your standards. This engenders more mutual respect, not only because it shows that you can be honest, but also because it shows that you care enough to want to develop the person you’re being candid with.

But, even harder for some leaders, is the requirement to invite the same from your teams – accept their direct challenges and own up when you’ve made a mistake.

The Handy Candor Quadrant

The book gives a handy quadrant framework, Radical Candor (a set of actions, not a personality type) sitting in the top right. Care too much? Well, you’ll fall foul of Ruinous Empathy and will probably be worrying more about the other person’s feelings than improving their performance. On the other hand, Manipulative Insincerity is a situation where you don’t care enough and you don’t challenge – this will often devolve into passive aggression or complaining about the person when they’re not around. And, arguably worst of all, is Obnoxious Aggression, which is high on the challenge side, but shows no care. And I think we all know the managers who fall here; they think they’re “telling it like it is”, while leaving a wake of destruction behind them.

The other models Scott has developed (Growth Management Matrix, Get Stuff Done Wheel) help crystallise leadership concepts in an otherwise very anecdote-driven book. Not that the anecdotes aren’t outstanding – who wouldn’t want to hear about the time that Sheryl Sandberg offered Kim Scott the feedback that she sounded stupid in a presentation?! (I highly recommend reading the book, so you don’t take this out of context!)

There is also great guidance on how to incorporate Radical Candor into your usual processes until it becomes the natural way of doing business (differentiate between Decision Meetings and Big Debate Meetings, to allow for disagreement and feedback) and other advice that is a bit harder to pin down (be humble, be helpful, don’t wait too long).

But the sentence that has sore thumb written all over it for me is this: Prove you can take it before you start dishing it out. Entire swathes of the book are dedicated to helping leaders seek out feedback and guidance from their teams, encouraging them to move past the discomfort and listen to understand, not react.

So, business leaders, stand up – who’s up for a Radically Candid Challenge?