“The meaning of ‘Radical Candor’ is care personally, challenge directly, and when you do both at the same time, that’s good.”
“When you fail to challenge because you care so much, that’s what I call ruinous empathy.”
-Kim Martin Scott
Kim Scott recently spoke with Kara Swisher of Recode about her time at Google, Apple, and a couple of other notable companies.
You quickly get the idea that Scott isn’t a stranger to fast-paced cultures, results driven team members, and management in general.
And she has much to say about the state of management - in the Valley and elsewhere.
When Swisher asked her to share a failure, she offers one that fully illustrates her point about Radical Candor as a strategy.
Swisher: What did they have in common in failure? What were the issues?
Scott: Bad management. I mean, it was really pretty simple. In the first two cases, it was other people’s bad management, and then I imagined, from those two experiences, that if I were the boss, if I were the CEO, human nature would change, which of course it didn’t. And so, those were where a lot of the early painful lessons came from.
Swisher: Could you talk about some of that bad? What was bad?
Scott: Yeah, so, here’s a good example of badness.
So, at Juice I had hired this guy, we’ll call him Bob. And I liked Bob a lot. Bob was funny, he was smart, he was charming, he would do stuff, like we were at one of those management off-sites, where we’re playing one of those stupid get-to-know-you games that everybody hates and nobody dares to admit that they hate.
Swisher: I dare to admit it! They did a falling game thing and I didn’t catch them.
Scott: The trust fall! It’s like, such bullshit. Anyway, but you hate to admit that the trust fall is bullshit, you know, what does that make you? So, anyway, Bob was brave enough to do this. He was like, “This is taking a long time. I’ve got a great idea, we’re gonna go around the table and we’re gonna tell each other what candy our parents used when potty training us.”
Weird, but fast, right? Hershey Kisses right here. We all remembered.
And then for the next 10 months … yeah, if ever I’m grumpy, you know what to give me. For the next 10 months, every time there was a tense moment in a meeting, Bob would whip out just the right piece of candy for the right person at the right moment. So, I liked Bob. It was one problem with Bob.
Scott: He was doing terrible work. Absolutely atrocious.
I learned later, the problem with Bob was that he was smoking pot in the bathroom six times a day, but I didn’t know. Yeah, hence the candy, exactly.
But I didn’t know any of this at the time and I was puzzled ’cause Bob had this amazing resume, like, why was he doing such bad work?
And I liked him, and so, instead of giving him feedback when he screwed up, when he would hand something in that was incoherent, I would say, “Bob, you’re so awesome, you’re so smart, this is a really great start, but why don’t you try a little harder? Come back, I’m sure it could be a little better.”
And this goes on for 10 months. Eventually the inevitable happens, and I realize if I don’t fire Bob, I’m gonna lose half my team. And we can’t afford that.
And so, when I had the conversation with Bob and explained to him how things stand, he pushes his chair back from the table, looks at me right in the eye, and he says, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Swisher: So why didn’t you tell him?
Scott: Yeah, it’s a good question, but then he asked another question. I didn’t have a good answer at the moment, I mean, I thought I didn’t tell him ’cause I wanted to be nice to him and not criticize him and now I’m firing him. Not so nice after all, right?
Then he asked me another question, and the other question is, “Why didn’t anybody tell me?” And I realized that was even the worst mistake.
He says, “I thought you all cared about me. You didn’t tell me.”
And, why didn’t I tell him?
I didn’t tell him for a couple of reasons, neither of them that good. One is that I was so worried about hurting his feelings that I didn’t tell him and then the other problem, of course, was that I was … everybody liked Bob and I was afraid if I told Bob what a bad job he was doing, he would get upset and the whole team would think I was a bitch, right?
And I didn’t want that to happen, either.
And so, the meaning of “Radical Candor” is care personally, challenge directly, and when you do both at the same time, that’s good, that’s Radical Candor.
When you fail to challenge because you care so much, that’s what I call ruinous empathy.
So that was one mistake I was making with Bob, but then there’s this other, even worse, mistake you can make where you neither care nor challenge because you’re worried about yourself, usually, and that I call manipulative insincerity.
So I would say those were my two screw ups as a manager with Bob.
And the worst part about this was that it was too late to save Bob. I realized I had screwed up and because I had screwed up, now I’m firing Bob because of it.
And that’s the worst thing about managing people, is that you make your biggest mistakes on the backs of these people who work for you.
The Care & Feeding of Superstars vs. Rockstars
Scott: Anyway, so, another mistake that people make all the time, especially here in Silicon Valley, is they look around at their team and they think that everybody has to be hyper ambitious all the time.
Especially when I was at Google I had this intense, you know, “You’ve gotta be on this super-fast track,” and then when I got to Apple, there was an executive there who said to me, “There’s two different kinds of people who do really well on the team and the key thing to building a high-performing team is to balance the two. You’ve gotta balance your superstars and your rockstars.
“Like, what the heck is the difference between a superstar and a rockstar?
So I’m sort of scratching my head and she says, “Your superstars are the people who are responsible for growth and change on your team. They want new challenges, new stuff, you gotta make sure they’re getting promotions fast, all that kind of stuff.Your rockstars are the people … don’t think about Ozzy Osbourne or something like that, think about the Rock of Gibraltar, they’re solid as a rock. And these are the people who are great at their job, and they’ll keep doing that job for years if you don’t screw it up for them.”
And I realized that I had been sort of systematically undervaluing the people who were in rockstar mode for my whole career and that that was not only bad management, it was sort of out of alignment with my personal humanity.
The Journey to Radical Candor
Swisher: So, what are the things you’ve learned at Google and took away into the book in this idea of … You radically can move into just …
Scott: Obnoxious aggression.
Swisher: Not just, it’s not necessarily mean, but, you know, “Shut up. Stop talking,” kind of thing. Everybody has an opinion and nobody has a decision-making process.
Scott: Yeah, Google was interesting, it was a fast-moving consensus-based organization, which I would have said was impossible until I was working there.
Swisher: So, fast-moving consensus-based? It was a very cohesive group of people, even if people didn’t like each other, they were cohesive.
Scott: Yeah, it was, and I think that radical candor was part of what held it together. So what do I mean by that?
A simple example is, again, shortly after I joined Google, I had to give a presentation to the founders and the CEO about the AdSense business, and, you know, you walk in and there’s Sergey. Pretty much all of you have worked at Google, right?
In his toe shoes on the treadmill in the corner of the conference room, and Eric staring into his computer like his brain is attached, and you think, how am I gonna get these people to listen?
Why am I even here?
And, like any normal person, I felt a little nervous in the situation and luckily, the AdSense business was on fire and when I said how many new customers we had added, Eric’s head jerks up out of his computer and to the extent you can screech to a halt on an elliptical trainer, Sergey does, and Eric says, “What do you need to keep this going? Do you need more engineers? What resources?”
And I’m thinking, “You know, this meeting went okay.” In fact, I’m kind of feeling like a genius.
And as I walk out — my boss at the time was Sheryl Sandberg — and I’m expecting a high five or at least a pat on the back from Sheryl, and instead she says, “Why don’t you walk back to my office with me?”
I think, “Oh boy, I screwed something up and I’m sure I’m about to hear what it was.” and so, she started out focusing on the good stuff, and not in a feedback sandwich kinda way, but seeming to mean it.
But this wasn’t bad. It was badder than that, trust me. But anyway, all I really wanted to know was what I screwed up, and so, eventually she says to me, “You said ‘um’ a lot in there.”
Now I breathe a huge sigh of relief. If that’s all I’ve done wrong, it’s no big deal. And I kind of make this brush-off gesture with my hand. And she said, “I know this great speech coach and Google would pay for it. Do you want an introduction?”
And I make this brush-off gesture. “I’m busy! Didn’t you hear about all these new AdSense publishers we just added?”
And she stops, she looks at me, and she says, “I can see when you do that thing with your hand that I’m gonna have to be a lot more direct with you. When you say ‘um’ every third word, you sound stupid.”
Now, she has my full attention, right?
And some people might have said that it was mean for her to tell me that I sounded stupid, but in fact, it was the kindest thing she could possibly have done for me at that moment in my career, and kind for a couple of reasons.
One, because she knew me well enough and she was paying enough attention to know I was blowing her off, to know she had to sort of move out on that “challenge directly” dimension of Radical Candor, but also kind because I had been giving presentations my whole career, and if she hadn’t said it to me just that way, I wouldn’t have gone to see the speech coach and I wouldn’t have realized that she wasn’t exaggerating.
I really did say “um” every third word. It was like I had been going through my entire career with my fly down and nobody had the courtesy to tell me, “Hey! Your fly …”
I mean, I could zip it up if you’d tell me that it’s down, and that really made me think, “Why had nobody ever told me that I had this problem and what made is easy for Sheryl to tell me?”
And I think that, at Google in general, with Sheryl especially, everybody who worked for her knew that she really had their back, that she really cared personally about them. But she also didn’t let her concern for our short-term feelings get in the way of saying what she needed to say for our long-term success.
Scott makes some really great points and you can get the rest of the interview here:
And the book here: