Book Review: Radical Candor by Kim Scott
Former Google executive (and by extension, my former Google co-worker) Kim Scott suggests a compelling and intuitive remedy to many performance issues in our organizations. When someone's not cutting it, tell them. But demonstrate you care about that someone long before it comes time to deliver the direct feedback. Scott's book, "Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity" is well-summarized by her catchphrase "care personally, challenge directly." An important read in organizations that struggle with difficult conversations, Radical Candor is especially valuable for these days of asynchronous digital communication and work from home.
The concept of radical candor comes from Scott's 2x2 grid of caring and challenging. When we care personally about our peers and challenge them directly, we exhibit "radical candor." Conversely, to challenge directly without caring personally is to exhibit "obnoxious aggression," something far too common in techy, start-up environments.
Scott suggests that caring personally without challenging directly is an example of "ruinous empathy," a practice that perpetuates poor performance while entrenching a culture of passive aggression and back-stabbing. Finally, to not care and to not challenge directly is to exhibit "manipulative insincerity."
The Radical Candor framework is effective for its simplicity. Anyone who has ever worked in an organization can attest to the times when poor performance went unchallenged. Many can relate to the instances in which the only critical and constructive feedback came from the most aggressive, dislikable personality in the room. But few will be likely to describe a time when a deeply trusted, respected colleague provided timely, meaningful, and actionable feedback. It is likely that we all would benefit from more constructive coaching, not from some anonymous or untrustworthy voice, but from the voicest closest to us. And that is the foundation of Kim Scott's work - to turn us away from passive aggression, while steering us clear of aggression, to inspire us to have the necessary conversations with those whom we admire, respect, and love working with.
Having spent my career in the technology industry, I have plenty of experiences with "ruinous empathy." The tech industry creates desirable workplace cultures because teammates genuinely care for one another. As a co-worker of mine described during a weekend social outing (at an archery range!) during my Google years, we weren't so much co-workers, as we were "a group of close friends who happened to work together."
While this altruistic attitude creates an environment that anyone would want to be a part of, it causes friction in feedback conversations. It's far easier to give necessary criticism to a casual acquaintance or stranger. It's far more challenging to share that same criticism with a colleague that plays on our volleyball team and meets us for a happy hour every Thursday.
"Radical Candor" is effective not just in its diagnosis, but in its prescriptions. The second half of the book includes tools, templates, and conversation starters for implementing radical candor in one's organization. With so many tools for so many scenarios, the ideas of "Radical Candor" can be as meaningful to readers working in the tech as it can be to readers within the non-profit sector. The wisdom of this book can be just as applicable those working for a large enterprise as to those working for a small LLC.
Still, the book is not without opportunities for improvement (would I sincerely be reviewing a book on feedback if I left out areas for development?). At times, the author is prone to name-dropping. One wonders if she, a leader of Google's AdSense organization, really engaged Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt as frequently as the book implies. And while the tools and frameworks in the book's second-half are intriguing, the section makes for slow reading at times. Much of this content would have been better suited for an appendix or as a digital supplement.
The book also skews too far towards addressing "obnoxious aggression." While this quadrant of Kim Scott's framework undoubtedly exists, it's my experience that passive aggression is far more common than aggression, that the real challenge in an asynchronous, virtually-driven workforce is that of ruinous empathy. Further revisions might choose to focus on moving from ruinous empathy to radical/compassionate candor in a distributed workplace.
Finally, using the word "boss" in the title suggests that this is a book about management. It's better understood as a book about conversations. Holding a management position in an org chart is not a prerequisite to reading and applying this book, regardless of what the title might infer. The insights are too important to be confined to those with managerial responsibilities.
Those who invest the time to read this book will be challenged to work more effectively, to become more coach-like, to hold themselves and their colleagues accountable to the highest standards. Amidst this pandemic, many leaders are reexamining the workplace, re-imagining the future of work. During this time of discernment and consideration, it's time to expect the best from one another as we commit to deeply caring for each other. It's never been a better time to put Radical Candor into practice.