What are the two dimensions to being a truly kickass boss?
Whether you’re in a new leadership position or you’ve been leading a team for years, giving feedback is always a difficult hurdle to overcome. Giving an employee criticism and praise is a delicate process, one that can be incredibly effective if done right, and painfully awkward if not correctly balanced. So how can you encourage and educate your team in a way that shows you care and improves their performance?
Kim Scott was a highly successful leader at Google. She also designed and taught a course called Managing At Apple for new managers at Apple University. She's coached the CEOs of Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and several other tech companies. She's the co-founder and CEO of Candor, Inc. Her new book is, Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity. I recently interviewed Kim for the LEADx Podcast and asked her about balancing honesty and empathy in the workplace. (The transcript below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: What is “Radical Candor”?
Kim Scott: “Radical Candor” is very simple on the surface. “Radical Candor” is the ability to challenge people directly, at the same time that you show them that you care personally. It's something that you can do when you're giving feedback, with both praise and criticism. You can do it even more importantly when you're building a team, because now you're not just impacting people's feelings, you're impacting their wallets and whether they get promoted, and so on and so forth. You can put this into practice in the way that you achieve results as a leader. Again “Radical Candor” is, on the surface of it, very simple. Show you care personally, at the same time that you're willing to challenge people directly.
Kruse: What's the right way to care personally as a leader these days?
Scott: Such an important question. The wrong way to do it is to schmooze all the time, right? You don't show that you care personally by taking up extra time from people by having work dinners that eat into family time, or into friend time, or whatever. The way you show that you care personally is actually in the way that you give feedback, the way that you build the team, and the way that you achieve results.
I once had a boss who walked into my office and he said, “You seem to have all these great relationships in the industry, but you have lunch all by yourself everyday working. How does this work?” I said, “The relationships are formed in the way that I work with people, not by taking up extra time.”
I think that often the way that you give feedback—when you give somebody praise—you're showing them that you care, and when you give them criticism you're also showing them that you care. Both praise and criticism are gifts that you offer people.
Another great way to show that you care in the workplace, especially as a manager, is to have career conversations with people. This is something that my co-founder Russ Laraway developed. These career conversations move beyond the terrible conversations that everybody hates to have about, “Why am I not getting promoted faster?”
Have career conversations in which you ask somebody about their life starting with kindergarten, “Tell me about your life.” Now, you need to be sensitive, as you point out. Sometimes people would rather die than talk about their childhood with their boss, and so if a person is uncomfortable, by all means, back off. Most people like talking about their life story, right? It doesn't have to be huge amounts of time, once a year in a one-on-one, dedicate 45 minutes to talking about the person's life.
When you take the time to really understand the pivots they've made in the course of their life, and what you can learn from those pivots about what motivates that person at work, you're going to do a much better job putting them on the right kinds of projects. I think just having conversations in the ordinary course of events, the way that you conduct your one-on-ones, is a great way to show that you care and that you're listening.
Kruse: Realizing that people want to hear criticism and praise made a lot of difference for me.
Scott: It makes a huge difference. One of the most common mistakes that new managers make is they know they're not supposed to micromanage people.
Instead of doing that, they just ignore them. They become this absentee manager and they often will say, “The way to be a great manager is to hire the right people and get out of their way.” It's kind of like saying, “The way to have a great marriage is to marry the right person and then never spend another minute with them.” It's not going to work.
Kruse: What's your advice for how we challenge directly and do you have a framework, or a model for doing that?
Scott: One of the most important things to think about when it comes time to challenge employees directly, is that almost all of us have been taught since we first learned to speak, “If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all.” Now, it is your job to say it. I don't mean to say that lightly, it's hard, it's really hard to undo training that has been beaten into your head since you learned to speak. One of the things that I've done to make it easier to show that you care personally and challenge directly, is to give a strong name to what happens when you fail. When you show that you care personally, but you fail to challenge directly, I call it “Ruinous Empathy.” Just sort of as you feel yourself backing off your challenge, because somebody is getting upset, or angry, or folding their arms and shutting down on you, it's really important to remember that you don't want to wind up being ruinously empathetic, right?
You want to move towards “Radical Candor” and I think sometimes just having a name for what goes wrong can really help you move in the right direction. The name for what goes wrong when you challenge directly but you fail to show that you care personally is “Obnoxious Aggression,” right? You obviously don't want to wind up there. The irony is that most people when they become managers tend to fear being called a jerk and so they retreat to “Ruinous Empathy,” or they retreat to the worst place of all, where they neither care nor challenge to “Manipulative Insincerity.” That's kind of like passive-aggressive behavior.
I think sometimes just coming up with a simple framework, and you can draw this on a piece of paper: Draw a vertical line, that's “Care Personally”. Draw a horizontal line, that's “Challenge Directly.” Then fill in the four boxes, “Radical Candor,” “Ruinous Empathy,” “Manipulative Insincerity,” and “Obnoxious Aggression.”
Sometimes just having that kind of simple mental framework can really help push you in the right direction.
Kruse: What do you think about one-on-ones? How often should you have them, are there certain questions or an agenda you should use?
Scott: I have a lot of thoughts about one-on-ones. Yes, you should have them. The most important rule of the one-on-one is if you're the boss, show up for the one-on-one. I also think that your employee needs to own the agenda, you don't own the agenda. Your main purpose in a one-on-one is to listen and to help nurture new ideas from that person. Again, ask your direct report to set the agenda for the one-on-one. It's really important not to save up feedback for the one-on-one. You don't want to save it up for the performance review, for sure, but don't give feedback in the one-on-one.
The time and place to give feedback is in two to three minute conversations usually just in between meetings, in the moment. The one-on-one, again, is your time to listen. Now, if you want to put one thing on the agenda of the one-on-one, it's to solicit feedback. You can ask, but do that at the end of the one-on-one. The main purpose of the one-on-one is to listen to your employee.
Now, one of the things that I've found as a manager, is that listening—really listening—is hard and draining, and I'm not that good at it. For me, it worked much better to have a one-on-one every day. Not all my one-on-ones in one day, I'd be too burnt out by the end of the day. I tried always to have only five direct reports, and the reason I wanted five direct reports was because I like to do the one-on-ones over lunch.
I found that one of the most important things about a successful one-on-one for me was to adjust my mindset towards it, to look forward to it like one of the more fun things I was going to do that day. I was going to have lunch with someone I liked and cared about. Or take a walk, sometimes I like to take a walk with people, instead of having lunch now that I'm pushing 50 and fighting the calories, right? I really find that that mindset of the one-on-one is so important.
Kruse: I like to challenge our audience to become 1% better every day. What's something our listeners can try as first-time mid-career managers?
Scott: I think that one of the most important things you can do as a leader of a team is to solicit feedback. Don't start by dishing it out, prove you can take it first, right? Exercise some leadership in how much you appreciate the feedback. I would suggest you do four things in soliciting feedback. The first is, and you can do this right now as you're listening. Come up with a question that you're going to ask. A question that feels natural for you. I'll share my question with you, but the thing that feels natural for me to ask is probably not the thing that feels natural for you, so you've got to come up with your own question.
The question I always used to ask, and still do ask, is: “Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” You don't want to ask that question every minute of everyday, because people will cross their eyes at you, but occasionally it's a really good question to ask.
Once you ask the question, you need to embrace the discomfort. That's paradoxical, because you think that people will tell you the truth when they're comfortable, but if you're the boss and you've asked someone who works for you to give you feedback, you've just put them in a really uncomfortable situation and it's tempting to let them off the hook. What they really want to do is tell you nothing, so the most likely response you're going to get is, “Oh, everything's fine.” Everything is never fine, there's always something that could be better and so you've got to actually make it more uncomfortable for that person to tell you nothing, than to tell you something.
The simplest way to do that is just to stop after you ask your question, shut your mouth, and listen. Count to six in your head if you have to. Almost nobody can endure that much silence. They’ll tell you something, right? If they don't, schedule a follow-up meeting.
Now, once you've pulled whatever it is they have to say out of them, you need to make sure you're listening with the intent to understand, not to respond. The tempting thing is to try to fix it, or to get defensive. All you want to do at first is to check for understanding. Then the last thing you need to do, it's not enough just to not get defensive, it's not enough to forbear from throwing a chair at somebody who gives you feedback, you've got to actually reward their candor.
You reward it in one of two important ways: the best way, if you agree with what they said, is to fix whatever problem they raised and to fix it visibly, right? If somebody tells you, “You have bad breath.” Buy Altoids, announce the fact that you bought Altoids, put them on your desk, ask if they're helping. If you disagree with the feedback, however, this is not a thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another kind of piece of advice. You're allowed to disagree with the feedback, but don't disagree right away.
In the moment, find the 5% of whatever they said that you can agree with and then say, “I need to think about this and I'll get back to you.” Then do get back to them about it. Sometimes the only reward you have to offer is a fuller explanation of how you see things.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.