Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a boss you just didn’t quite get along with. Both of mine are reaching for the stars. ;)
I always thought it was just me…until one day I met up with a previous boss I had, who saw all the work I had done since leaving the company and told me, “Wow, we were really holding you back!”
That statement was vindicating.
But I didn’t want vindication. What I had wanted all along was a boss who would lead me by providing consistent guidance and feedback to help me improve.
I’m sure my story is not unique, but it has become an accepted leadership style, because we’re told that the best products and companies are led by bossholes—people who rule through fear.
While there are maybe a few of those lurking out there, it’s actually a pretty big myth, and one that we’re going to debunk in today’s episode of FemgineerTV!
We’ll also talk about how the boss who is a buddy, aka Michael Scott, is even more damaging than the bosshole, because they are holding back the criticism you need to perform better.
So what does it take to be a great leader and boss?
It’s a framework for providing constructive guidance to employees, even when employees have screwed up, and was created by Kim Scott.
Kim has a rich background in tech. She formerly led Online Sales and Operations for a number of products at Google such as AdSense, YouTube, and Doubleclick. She’s also an advisor to a number of Silicon Valley startups such as Dropbox, Kurbo, Qualtrics, Rolltape, Shyp, Twitter, and more.
Through all these roles, Kim has had firsthand experience with radical candor and is writing a book on it. I’ve invited her on the show to help us explore the framework and learn how to practice it.
As you watch the episode, you’ll learn:
Even if you aren’t a leader or a boss, I’d highly recommend watching this episode, because it showcases how employees can spot toxic cultures, how to change them, and the traits to spot in great leaders.
You can listen to this episode of FemgineerTV on iTunes. Please take a moment to leave us a review. Your positive review will help us get featured in News & Noteworthy and bring more exposure to the work we’re doing, as well as the talented guests we feature!
Poornima Vijayashanker: Welcome to the 15th episode of Femgineer TV, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker, the founder of Femgineer. In this show, I host innovators in tech and, together, we debunk a number of myths and misconceptions related to building tech products and companies.
We’re often led to believe that the best products and companies are led by bossholes, those who rule by fear. While there are a few of those lurking out there, there are good folks who actually lead and want to provide guidance to their employees. You might be wondering how to spot some of these good bosses, especially if you’ve had a string of bad bosses, or maybe you’re worried about becoming a bosshole yourself. In today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about radical candor, a way to provide your employees guidance anytime that they want to advance, or even if they just screw up.
To help us out, I’ve invited Kim Scott, who is formerly the lead of Online Sales and Operations at a number of products for Google, such as AdSense, Doubleclick, and YouTube. She’s gone to be an adviser at a number of Silicon Valley startups, like Twitter, Shyp, Kurbo, Qualtrics, and more, and she’s writing a new book called Radical Candor: How To Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. Her company is also called Radical Candor. Thanks for joining us today, Kim.
Kim Scott: Thank you so much. Great to be here.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. I’m really excited to dig into the framework, but before we dig into the framework for how we can be better bosses and leaders and find those better bosses, I want to go way back. I know you’ve built a number of products and companies, but I want to start by knowing how did you get interested in tech and what was your first role?
Kim Scott: My very first role in tech was right out of business school. This was not exactly tech, but I joined the Federal Communications Commission.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, wow!
Kim Scott: It all started actually in the federal government. I got very interested in the telecommunications revolution. That, in a bizarre twist of fate, led to an early job at a super early voiceover IP company called Deltathree, where I led a business development and US operations for that.
Poornima Vijayashanker: OK, yeah. Then at some point you decided that you wanted to strike out on your own, start your own company. Tell us a little bit about that journey.
Kim Scott: At a certain point, I realized that the thing that I cared most about in my career was creating an environment that I would call a bullshit-free zone, the kind of environment where people love the work they did and at least enjoyed working with each other. A big driver behind my decision to start a company called Juice Software was this goal of creating a great working environment. Of course, we also had an excellent product idea. In fact, a lot of what was Juice became Google Documents.
The main goal, for me at least, the thing that I cared most about was creating this great working environment. When the company failed, it was very sad for me for all the usual reasons, but in addition, I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to go work for the man again, which I wasn’t excited about.
Then I went and interviewed at Google. From the moment I stepped on the campus for interviews, I felt like something different was happening there. In fact, it was almost like the resurrection of a dream.
Poornima Vijayashanker: When was this?
Kim Scott: This was in…I guess I started interviewing there in 2003. I wound up starting there in 2004. That environment that I had imagined was alive and well there. It was thrilling.
Poornima Vijayashanker: When you started at Google, what team were you working on? What was your first team?
Kim Scott: I started out leading the AdSense Online Sales and Operations team.
Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. Your boss was Sheryl Sandberg?
Kim Scott: Yes, exactly, which was really lucky. She was an absolute fantastic boss and an old friend from business school.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, OK. Great. What was that experience like, leading the AdSense team?
Kim Scott: It was amazing, and it was amazing working for Sheryl. I mean I was lucky because I had known her for a long time. I already knew what a wonderful person she was, but it was also great how honest she was with me when I screwed up.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, give me an example.
Kim Scott: Really early in my experience at Google, I had to give a presentation to the founders and to the then-CEO, Eric Schmidt. I was nervous about it for all the usual reasons that one might be.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.
Kim Scott: Luckily, the business was on fire. When we explained how many new customers we had added over the last few months, Eric almost fell off his chair and threw up his hands, “What resources do you need? This is wonderful.” I felt like it had gone reasonably well.
Then Sheryl said to me as we were walking out, “Why don’t you walk back to my office with me?” and I thought, “Oh, no. What did I do wrong?” I knew there was something, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. She started out by pointing out and forcing me to listen to all the things that went well, because, like a lot of people—
Poornima Vijayashanker: It’s important.
Kim Scott: —I don’t want to hear the good news, just get to the bad news. She was good at making sure that I focused on the good stuff. Then she said, “Were you aware of how many times you said ‘um’ in that presentation?” I said, “Oh, yeah. I know.” I breathed an enormous sigh of relief because it’s like, “Who cares if I say ‘um’ that many times when I have a tiger by the tail?”
She said, “Would it help if Google got you a speaking coach? It’s not that hard of a problem to fix. It’s just a verbal tic.” “I don’t have time for that. I’m really busy.” It was true. I was working really hard. Sheryl stopped and she looked right at me and she smiled, and she said, “When you do that thing with your hand, I can tell I’m going to have to work really hard to get through to you. When you say ‘um’ every third word, it makes you sound a little stupid.”
That got my attention. She got through to me. She succeeded. Some people would have said that was a mean thing to say.
Poornima Vijayashanker: She didn’t say you were stupid.
Kim Scott: No, but, regardless, some people would have chased at it, but those people would be wrong. It wasn’t mean; it was the kindest thing that Sheryl could have done for me in that moment was to tell me. I mean, I had been giving presentations all my life. I had raised a lot of money for my startup, presented to a lot of people, and nobody had ever bothered to tell me that I said “um” every third word. I actually wasn’t aware of it.
I was very grateful to her. It sounds like a small, silly thing, but, in aggregate, over the time that I worked for Sheryl, I learned tremendously, and it was because she was willing to be so candid with me.
Poornima Vijayashanker: You’re at Google, you’re leading the AdSense team, everything’s going great, Sheryl’s your boss, and then what happens next?
Kim Scott: One of the things, as I mentioned earlier, that I really cared about was creating a great working environment. It was interesting to me how Sheryl was able to do this so naturally and so easily for me. I wanted to understand how she had done it so that I could do it myself for my team, but also so that I could teach all the managers who were working for me to do it as well. There were, at Google, a lot of first-time managers working on the AdSense OSO team.
Poornima Vijayashanker: They were probably technical before.
Kim Scott: Some of them were technical, some of them were not. A lot of them had graduated from college in history two years before.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, wow!
Kim Scott: This was Online Sales and Operations. I wasn’t leading an engineering team; although a lot of them were technical just because Google was Google, and we were building a lot of tools to automate what we were doing. Anyway—
Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it, but first time leading a team or a group?
Kim Scott: Yeah, a lot of first-time managers. It took me actually 15 years to figure out a truly simple framework. I didn’t figure it out immediately. What I’m going to do is flash forward to my ability to finally figure it out.
I finally boiled it down to a pretty simple framework. On the vertical axis is care personally. That was something Sheryl is really remarkable at doing, is showing that she cares about people. Obviously, if you’re on her team, you get a lot of love from her.
I remember when I first started at Google, I had moved from New York to California, I didn’t have any friends here, I didn’t really know anybody, and Sheryl went out of her way to make sure I had a steady stream of invitations to two dinners. In fact, she invited me to join her book club. She hosted parties when I got engaged for me, even though she was pregnant and really sick.
She showed in a million ways to me, and she did this for everybody who worked directly for her, but she was also really good at showing she cared personally to someone she had just met just like that. It didn’t necessarily require years of relationship building.
On the vertical axis is care personally. That’s the give-a-damn axis. I think that it’s worth stressing a thing, something important about that axis, because very few people start out their career thinking, “I don’t give a shit about people, so I’m going to be a great boss,” but that’s not usually how it happens.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, there’s usually something that’s happened to them. Maybe it was a bad boss or maybe it was a leader who got away with being a bad boss.
Kim Scott: Sometimes that’s the problem, but I think more often it’s something that gets internalized when people first start out in their careers. When people first start out in their careers, they get told that they’re supposed to be professional. Then they fail to bring their whole selves to work. They feel like they’re not supposed to show that they care personally.
The vertical axis sounds like a “no duh” axis, but it’s actually pretty profound, I found, especially when I’ve been working with people who were new to management. They think they’re not supposed to show that they care personally. They think that’s somehow unprofessional. Just shifting that mindset is important. That’s the vertical axis: care personally, the give-a-damn axis.
The horizontal axis is challenge directly. I chose the word “challenge” very carefully. The word “challenge” implies reciprocity. If I challenge you, I must expect that you’re going to challenge me back. It’s not a one-way street. That’s the horizontal axis.
Now why is that so rare? Why is it so rare at work that we challenge each other? We know we’re supposed to point out…if somebody has spinach in their teeth, you would tell them, “You have spinach in your teeth.”
Poornima Vijayashanker: Fear?
Kim Scott: I think a lot of it is fear. I think that fear starts from something that most of our parents told us from the moment we learned to speak, which is some version of, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” In every culture I’ve ever worked in, and I’ve worked in most countries in the world, people have a version of this told to them from the time they’re very young.
All of a sudden when you become a boss, not only is it your job to say it, even if it doesn’t sound very “nice,” I would argue it’s your moral obligation to say it. It’s your moral obligation to tell somebody when they’re going off the rails. It’s one of the things that you owe somebody to be really clear on when you’re the boss.
Poornima Vijayashanker: I think people aren’t told that they’re supposed to do that.
Kim Scott: Yes, I think that is true. Sheryl knew, and she learned it herself the hard way. She’s very kind. It’s not like it was easy for her to tell me, “When you say ‘um’ every third, you sound stupid.” She’s a sensitive person, but she knew that it was in my long-term interests for her to do that. She knew she owed it to me as my boss.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Now I’m sure there’s people out there who are like me who are not afraid of confrontation, who are just going to adopt this and run with it, but maybe for some of our viewers out there who because of cultural differences or it might just be uncomfortable for their personalities to confront, what would you recommend, or how do you deal with that?
Kim Scott: Sure. A couple of things. I think the simplest advice I would give people, something that Kim Vorrath, who was a leader on the iOS team at Apple, said when I was helping her team learn how to be more radically candid. We were doing a role play and she was watching her…the team, these were iOS engineers. It’s not like they were shy, wilting lilies. These people were pretty confident in their abilities.
We had organized a role play where they had to tell somebody, an actor, that the behavior was unacceptable. The actor was told to be incredibly rude to these people. They just couldn’t tell the actor, and there was no consequences. They just couldn’t quite…finally, Kim called a timeout. She said, “Just say it.”
The short version is, “just say it.” Just realize that it is your job to say it. I think a lot of this comes from awareness, just being aware that withholding the information, even though it feels harsh in the short term, is actually an act of unkindness. It’s not nice at all. I think that’s the short version is, “just say it.”
A lot of people still aren’t comfortable. If that’s not enough for you, actually in the book, there are stories and tips, but the short version of the tips is that radical candor is HIP. It’s helpful, it’s humble.
Humble is really important. The reason why I call it candor and not honesty is that there’s not a lot of humility in the word “truth” or “honesty.” If I say, “I’m going to tell you the truth,” I’m assuming that I know something that you don’t know. Whereas if I say, “I want to be candid,” what I’m saying is I’m going to tell you what I think, you tell me whether I’m right or wrong. That’s the idea—humble.
Poornima Vijayashanker: There’s no judgment in it.
Kim Scott: Hopefully, there’s no judgment. At the very least, if there is a judgment, be humble about it. Be open to being wrong. Be excited about being proven wrong even.
I is for immediate. You want to do it right away. You don’t want to save it up for a one-on-one. The one-on-one is your employee’s meeting, it’s not your meeting. You certainly don’t want to save it up for a performance review or something like that. You want to do it immediately.
I say that criticism has a short half-life, so does praise. I would also say that criticism behaves like nuclear material in another way as well, is that it actually will go critical if you pile it up and it’ll blow up over a relationship like a dirty bomb. Anyway, don’t let it pile up. Give it right away, immediate.
Helpful, humble, immediate. You want to do it in person. Technology is actually not your friend, but radical candor. You want to have a real human conversation with a person. Ninety percent of the communication that you’re going to get is going to be body language. It’s not going to be what is said.
Poornima Vijayashanker: What about for remote teams? Is Facetime OK?
Kim Scott: Yes. If you can’t be there in person, video is better than email, and email, frankly, is better than text at the very least, and phone is better than email. It’s the hierarchy. Do it in person, if at all possible. If not, at least over video. If that’s impossible, you can learn a lot from just the tone of somebody’s voice. Use the phone instead of email. Email and texts are really your last resorts.
In general, not when you’re criticizing somebody’s idea, but when you’re criticizing a person, you want to do that in private. If you’re praising somebody, you generally…not 100% of the time, because some people are so shy, you just punish them by doing it in public, but generally criticize in private, praise in public. Again, if it’s criticism of a person. Obviously, around ideas, that has to happen in public.
Finally, the most important part of this is do not personalize. It is personal. Don’t expect that somebody’s not going to take it personally, but don’t personalize. The distinction I’m drawing there is that when Sheryl said…she never said to me, “You are stupid,” certainly. She didn’t even just say, “You sounded stupid,” she said, “When you said ‘um,’” she—
Poornima Vijayashanker: In the situation, in the particular instance.
Kim Scott: Right. I think that anytime you can make even a criticism of a person about a thing as opposed to a personality trait that I can’t change, then it’s going to be more helpful. Don’t unnecessarily personalize. At the same time, because you care personally and because people care personally about their work, you can’t expect it not to be personal. There’s a difference between being personal and personalizing.
Poornima Vijayashanker: We’ve got both these axes, we’ve got the give-a-damn and then express candidly. What happens if people decide to just choose one out of the two?
Kim Scott: Right. OK. Let’s walk through the quadrants. I spent a crazy amount of time thinking of these words. In fact, my husband, who’s an engineer, was going to build a program that would run all the combinations and permutations of the words. Anyway, in the end, I just figured it out.
Up here is radical candor in the upper right-hand quadrant. That’s where you want to be. That’s where you’re caring personally and challenging directly. If you’re challenging directly but not caring personally, you’re down here on the so-called “asshole” quadrant.
However, I don’t want to call it the “asshole” quadrant because I really want people to use these quadrants to judge, praise, and criticism, not to judge people. We’ll call it the “obnoxious aggression” quadrant. That criticism you just offered me was obnoxiously aggressive. It felt like it you’re punching below the belt, or whatever, if you want to go to some hitting metaphor. That’s that quadrant.
I will say that that’s the second-best quadrant. It’s not the worst place you can be. There’s something even worse than the bosshole, and those are the bosses who are up here in the upper left-hand quadrant. In the upper left-hand quadrant, where you do care personally, which is a good thing, but you’re not challenging directly, this is the “too nice” quadrant. This is—
Poornima Vijayashanker: One of your best friend.
Kim Scott: Yes. This is the “ruinous empathy” quadrant. This is where 85% of management mistakes that I’ve ever seen in my career, and certainly some of the most painful mistakes that I myself have made in my career, happened. Ruinous empathy is really dangerous.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Can you give us an example?
Kim Scott: Sure. One of the worst moments in my whole career came when I was doing this startup called Juice in New York. I had hired this guy, we’ll call him Bob, to the team. I really liked Bob. He was funny, he was quirky.
I remember one time we were having an off-site and we were playing some stupid get-to-know-you-better game. He called a timeout and he called it like he saw it, “This is ridiculous. We’re all bored here. Why don’t we instead go around the table and find out what piece of candy your parents used when potty training you.” This was a weird moment, but anyway it was even weirder; everybody remembered.
Then we began to understand why he had done this, because at every critically tense moment that we had in every meeting after that time, he would whip out just the right piece of candy for just the right person at just the right moment, and then totally break the tension.
I mean I found this funny anyway. He was quirky. I liked him. It was just one problem. The problem was Bob did terrible work, absolutely terrible work. I found out later the problem was that Bob was smoking pot in the bathroom. Not ideal.
Anyway, but I felt for Bob. I didn’t criticize him, I didn’t let him know that he was going off the rails. We all felt for Bob. Because we were trying to be nice, we didn’t tell Bob that he was screwing up. Eventually, it became clear to me that if I didn’t deal with the Bob situation, then what was going to happen is I was going to lose two or three of the very best people on a pretty small team, and we couldn’t afford to do that.
Eventually, I had the hard conversation with Bob to tell him that I was firing him. After I explained it to him, he pushed his chair back from the table and he looked at me and he said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” As that guilty bowling ball is rolling around in my mind, he said, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
I realized I had failed Bob in six important ways. I had failed to give Bob the criticism that he needed in order to get better at his job, I had failed to give Bob the praise that he needed to know what was good. The kind of praise I’d been giving him over the last 10 months was mostly just meant to reassure him; it wasn’t actually very specific. It was the, “Good job.”
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, a pat on the back.
Kim Scott: I had never asked Bob to criticize me, or I’ve never tried to understand from Bob what was going well from his perspective. I had never given praise or criticism, I had never gotten praise or criticism. I had also failed to create the environment in which everyone would give Bob and ask Bob that would encourage praise and criticism on the team broadly.
Here I failed to do my job in six really important ways, and I’m firing Bob because of it. It was an incredibly difficult moment for me in my career. I felt terrible about it. Really, at that moment, it was too late to salvage the situation. Even Bob agreed that he should go in that moment once I had explained the whole situation to him.
All I could really do was to promise myself I’d never make that mistake again. That was probably the moment when I began thinking about this framework and how to boil it down for myself and for others. That was probably the very first moment when I promised myself I was going to figure this out, because I didn’t want to do that again. It’s a bad feeling.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Something that you mentioned, we’re talking about radical candor, and primarily for bosses out there, but something that you just mentioned was to create an environment in which other people could criticize. My guess is that for this to really work, it’s not enough that just bosses and leaders practice it, but that your entire team and, hopefully, entire organization practice this as well. How do you get that going?
Kim Scott: Yes. It’s really important that it starts with the boss. I mean it can start with employees, but it’s a bit risky. The boss is in the best situation to start to build the environment.
I think that there are a number of things that great bosses can do that can really help to encourage radical candor on their team. One is just to explain the idea of radical candor to their team, to explain to them why they’re going to try to get better at giving really clear criticism and really clear, useful praise, and then to ask the team to gauge whether or not their criticism landed in one of the quadrants.
One thing that I saw happen at Apple that was really effective was that, Apple being Apple, it was a different version of this two-by-two, but similar ideas that we used to teach people on how to be better bosses. Apple printed it up on this beautiful card stock and gave it out to people. People would pin it up on their desks. Then their employees would point out if they criticized in a way that was excessively harsh, they would say, “I think you’re down here,” or if they were pulling their punches, they’d say, “I think you’re over there in that quadrant.”
The bosses found that really helpful in terms of just a…because this is a hard behavior to change. It’s hard to be radically candid. I make it seem easy because I blow it down to this two-by-two and it’s so obvious what’s wrong with the other quadrants. It still, even for me, is really hard. There are times when I’m reluctant to say what I think to people I care about.
One of the most important things that I think bosses can do is just ask their employees to gauge where the praise and criticism is landing. You can do this by just printing the two-by-two off and getting some stickers. That’s a little awkward. A few people really do that. One of the things that my company, Radical Candor, is doing is building an app for that.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Cool.
Kim Scott: That’ll make it really easy to understand where your feedback is landing. We’ll give you really simple quick tips every week. Then you can dig deeper into getting more detailed tips, to reading stories, to getting help from other people who are using the tool, or even getting some coaching. That’s one of the most important things I think you can do.
Another really important thing you can do is just to focus on your being HIP when you give that impromptu praise and criticism. Then Horowitz says that feedback…and I don’t really like the word “feedback,” but whatever. That’s the term of art. I call it guidance, but praise and criticism are the atomic building blocks of management, and that giving criticism is an unnatural act. We’ve been trained not to do it forever. Really focusing on learning how to perform this unnatural act in your day-to-day conversations with people is important.
If you as a boss can give that to your team, give that radical candor to your team, help them understand that you’re doing it not because you think they’re better than they are or that you know better, but because that’s your obligation to them. Then all of a sudden you can make it much easier for them to begin doing it with each other.
There’s a couple of really specific things you can do to help foster that environment between people. I think the most important one is what I call—it sounds terribly hierarchical—but requiring joint escalation. That means if two people on your team come and if they’re…like I had this situation at one place, we’ll call them, two employees; one Charlie, one Daniel. Charlie hated Daniel, Daniel hated Charlie.
Poornima Vijayashanker: This happens a lot.
Kim Scott: I just wanted everybody to get along. Charlie would come to me and talk to me about how much Daniel sucked, I would try to go to Daniel and smooth things out and say, “Could you just do this or this? Maybe it would help.” Then Daniel would tell me all the things that sucked about Charlie, and I would run to Charlie and say, “If you could just do this or this, maybe.”
Then pretty soon every time I was talking to Daniel, Charlie would think, “Oh, they’re talking about me,” and, of course, he was right, we were. Now they really hated each other. Now just trying to create peace, I had actually created a more toxic environment than would have existed if I had forced them to just talk to each other.
Get really precise about this. When somebody comes to you complaining about somebody else, say, “Did you go talk to that person?” If the answer is “No,” say, “Would you? Can you commit to me?” Push them hard to go have that conversation, because these are hard conversations to have.
Remind them about radical candor and say, “If you two can’t work it out, you can come to me together and I will help you.” Then you have to be genuinely, genuinely helpful. Don’t punish them for coming to you. I think that’s really important.
If you’re a manager of managers, another thing you can do to foster radical candor on your team is to have what I call manager guidance sessions. Again, you have to ritualize it a little bit to make sure it goes well, but what you’re basically doing in these meetings is making it easier for people to speak truth to power. It’s really hard for people to criticize their boss.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. I was actually going to ask that.
Kim Scott: It’s hard—
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, if you do have that bosshole.
Kim Scott: Yeah. If you’re a manager of managers, let’s talk about how you prevent the managers who work for you from becoming bossholes, and then I’ll talk a little bit about what you can do if you have the bosshole.
Basically, what you do is you go to all the people who work for you and you say, “I’m going to have these guidance sessions with your teams. I’m going to meet with your team without you. I’m going to ask them what you could do or stop doing that would make it easier for them to work for you that would make you a better boss. I’m going to take notes and, at the end of the meeting, I’m going to share the notes with you. The notes will be not for attribution. I’m not going to force people to put a name against a criticism of you, but I’m going to encourage them to learn how to do that. I’m also going to encourage you to create the environment in which it’ll be easier for people to tell you directly. These guidance sessions shouldn’t have to last forever; although, in my experience, they do, because it’s always going to be hard for people to speak truth to power.
“Then I’m going to work with you based on what was said in the meeting to identify a couple of things you can do to change, to show the team that you heard the criticism, you care about it, and you’re going to reward their candor. Those things in combination can really start to drive cultural change and to create a radically candid culture.” Now let’s talk for a minute…there’s two more questions you have, and I want to take—.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. What happens in the case where the employees…and sometimes if it’s a really small team then the boss will know, “Oh, I know it’s that person because that other person never says anything,” or they’re just very happy-go-lucky. What happens in the case where you do have that bosshole and you’re afraid to give criticism and you don’t know that you can actually go and speak to their manager? Because a lot of people don’t even know that, or it’s such a flat organization that it might not even exist.
Kim Scott: I think that if you’re the manager of the bosshole, and it’s clear that the team is afraid to speak up, you’ve got to tell that person they’re screwing up. You’ve got to work hard with that person to change that situation. They’re going to complain about it, but that’s your job.
If you are radically candid in a ruinously empathetic culture, for example, or radically candid in a manipulatively insincere culture, and you don’t have a lot of authority, it’s hard. Radical candor can be risky.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure, I agree.
Kim Scott: Somebody tweeted at me the other day, “I tried radical candor out on my boss, and I got fired.” I tweeted back, “Is there anything I can do to help?” He’s like, “Ah, I’m better off. I really wanted out of that job anyway.”
I think a couple of things can really help. One is just finding the patience to put this into context for people, say, “I want to tell you something. I’m afraid you’re going to be mad at me,” just put it out there—
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, that’s fair.
Kim Scott: —”but I feel like I need to tell you this because it’s going to help you and it’s also going to help me.” Taking enough time to explain that you’re doing it because you care personally, to set the context for people, can help a lot. If they’re still not open to it, my recommendation is go find a better cultural fit because it’s going to drive you crazy over time.
Poornima Vijayashanker: You just mentioned actually a fourth quadrant, which I don’t think we’ve covered. Talk about that.
Kim Scott: Yes, the fourth and most hideous quadrant of them all.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, let’s talk about that.
Kim Scott: That is the quadrant called manipulative insincerity. That is the quadrant where you neither care nor challenge. The problem, I think, with this quadrant, the way that people get pushed into it most often often starts out with somebody’s well-meaning who’s trying to be radically candid, but who falls into the obnoxious aggression quadrant for whatever reason.
Then they get called out on it. Instead of trying to continue to challenge, but to move up the “care personally” axis, they just scooch over, they quit challenging, and then they’re neither challenging nor caring. In that quadrant, that’s where the real toxic cultures get built. That’s the behavior that creates politics.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Are there patterns that you’ve seen in the beginnings, where you can hopefully cut them out, or anything you experienced?
Kim Scott: I’ll tell you a story about myself falling into manipulate, because we all spend some time in all those quadrants. Again, they’re not meant to be…it’s really tempting with this framework to label people with these terms. Don’t, because we’re all there all the time.
Anyway, shortly after I got to Google, I was having a disagreement with Larry Page, one of the co-founders, about an AdSense policy. I sent out this email to him and a bunch of other people that said, “Larry says he wants to organize all the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, but actually he’s just trying to create clutter sites that muddle the world.” This was my…somebody pointed out to me, “Kim, what were you thinking?”
It’s tempting to call that radical candor; it wasn’t. That was obnoxious aggression. It was not humble, it was not helpful. It was immediate, I’ll give myself that. It wasn’t in-person, and it personalized something that didn’t need to get personalized. It was accusing Larry of being greedy. Furthermore, I was just wrong. I didn’t really understand the whole situation.
When I realized that I had been a jerk, instead of thinking about Larry as a human being, instead of being the co-founder of Google, Larry had been somebody who worked for me, I never would have behaved that way towards him, because there’s this special place in hell for people who kiss up and kick down, but that doesn’t mean it’s better to do exactly the opposite.
Instead of seeing Larry as a person and realizing I had been a jerk, instead the next time I saw him, I basically lied. I said, “I realize you’re right.” I didn’t really realize that. It was a false apology. Apologizing a genuine apology would have been not crazy, but a false apology was…Larry has a good bullshit meter. He just looked at me like I was a seagull who had pooped on his shoulder or something, to the point that this friend of mine standing next to me patted me on the shoulder and said, “He likes it better when you disagree with him.”
That’s an example of getting shoved over to manipulative insincerity. I had good intentions, I’m not a bad person, but a lot of people get shoved into that quadrant unaware.
There was another guy I worked with who really had a reputation for being a jerk. Some advisers encouraged him to quit challenging people. That’s when it really got bad to work with him.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Be careful about the feedback you get from folks.
Kim Scott: Just make sure you go in the right direction, not the wrong direction. When somebody calls you a jerk or abrasive or whatever they’re going to call you, you’ve got to make sure that you get out of that…and it may be unfair, by the way, but you’ve got to make sure you get out of that quadrant, whether you’re genuinely there or just perceived to be in that obnoxious aggression quadrant, by showing that you care personally, not by stopping to challenge people or moving over to manipulative insincerity.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it. Great. This has been really helpful. Thank you so much for being with us today, Kim.
Kim Scott: Thank you. Thrilled to be here.
Poornima Vijayashanker: I’m sure our viewers are going to enjoy this as well.
Kim Scott: I hope so. Take care.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Thank you. Thanks for tuning in today. Special thanks to our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker, for their help in producing this episode of Femgineer TV. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it with your friends, your teammates, and your boss, and subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive the next episode of Femgineer TV. Until then, I’ll catch you later.
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