Radical Candor

Why this book?

I am always looking for new coaching models and ways to apply coaching, as a helpful tool for leaders who want to make things better for themselves, their colleagues, and their bosses. In her quadrant model Kim Scott explains another template that may be helpful using Caring Personally and Challenging Directly as the two axes. The book contains many examples from her experience at Google, Apple, etc.  The integration of being human AND being able to challenge the work honestly can help create a culture that is trusting and productive.  Below are some of the meaningful nuggets to me, and I hope they are useful to you. As usual, direct quotes from the book appear in italics.

Scott, Kim. (2017). Radical Candor.  New York: St. Martin’s Press.

I heard the phrase from a former boss Dr. Jeff Ronneberg, Superintendent, “what we permit, we promote.”  That struck me as exactly how cultures work.  People look around and see what is accepted which clearly indicates acceptable behavior. If we permit it, we promote it. At the same time leaders, in order to build trust and demonstrate they are human, supervisors want to signal their humanity. Every time we let something go by, that we know is not up to the standards we profess, can lead to counterproductive behavior.  “You can draw a straight line from lack of guidance to a dysfunctional team that gets poor results.”   Most cultures want to fail fast, forward and learn from the experience in order to see better results.

As in most things, it is not about absolutes but both/and.  Cultures need stability and humanity to promote innovating thinking and results. Scott talks about ‘rock stars’ and ‘superstars.’  Rock Stars are people who get great results, love the work, and are on a gradual growth process to be better at their craft.  They are not necessarily looking for promotion but get satisfaction by being the best in class.  Super Stars generally are on a steep learning curve, looking toward moving to the next level in the organization or to another company.  They like rapid learning and growth.  No organization can sustain itself having only ‘rock stars’ or ‘super stars.’ Organizations need both.

Keep in mind each need different things from their leaders because their internal and professional motivations are different. How a leader relates to each of these growth patterns determines the relationship that exists with the work and the colleagues. “Relationships may not scale, but culture does.”  Does your culture and leadership have room for both rock stars and superstars while differentiating based on the direct reports goals and needs?  This is sometimes referred to as the Platinum Rule. Treating people based on how they want to be treated.  Of course, that is not a blank check but knowing your direct reports motivation helps gain insight into how and what leadership and coaching strategies will be most effective with the individual. “Your humanity is an asset to your effectiveness, not a liability.”

Building an organization that can have candid conversations and relationships while maintaining humanity is not easy.  Leaders are always trying to create and sustain great companies.  Scott quotes a former Microsoft manager, “This is not babysitting,” she said. “It’s called management, and it is your job!”  Yikes, I know she is correct but in my early leadership positions I wanted to be liked.  I had to learn how to deal with different employees, get over being only liked, and accepting that I have leadership responsibility. It is my job to listen, support, and take action if the work is productive or nonproductive in line with our values. Leaders really have to be concerned with team results.  We get team results through individual results and how they integrate.

Managers have three main areas of responsibility.

  1. Guidance – giving feedback.  How you give feedback goes a long way in determining whether or not it is positively accepted
  2. Team-building – nobody is successful by themselves. You can hire talent; the question is can you keep them? Understand what motivates your reports
  3. Results – whatever the goal, it is always harder than it looks at first. There are always obstacles that are unforeseen. What are the team results that everyone will feel good about?

Scott says relationships, not power, drive you forward.  A quote I remember from Michael Grinder is: “We have fallen in love with the influence of power.  We need to fall in love with power of influence.”  Good suggestion.

Much has been written about trust.  Trust takes time to develop and can be broken quickly.  I have stopped saying, ‘don’t take it personally.’  Don’t know about you but I don’t know how else to take feedback whether positive or negative.  So one dimension of Radical Candor is Care Personally.

Being a leader means building skills for individuals, teams, and the organization.  It is hard to give feedback, especially when it may be perceived as negative.  Setting the tone to be able to talk honestly without guilt and shame is important to people you lead.  The second dimension of Radical Candor is Challenge Directly.

The following quote is in this book. John Stuart Mill: “The source of everything respectable in man either as an intellectual or as a moral being [is] that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted.”     

Our job as leaders relies on believing we can have influence.  If we can’t or won’t have influence on people, I question whether you are a leader or not. Challenging and encouraging others is leadership and an important asset to the organization. You care about people and you care enough to help them grow.  One leadership skill I had to learn is how to deal with anger.  Scott writes about this too.  Colleagues always watch leaders under pressure and how they react.  I think it was Tom Peters, years ago said something like, the chance of people being honest and talking about mistakes is inversely proportional to the chance of getting shot.  Radical Candor works if people believe your efforts are a result of caring personally and are willing to challenge directly without guilt and shame.

The following graphic is adapted from the book identifying the four quadrants of Radical Candor

and three other possibilities. The question I ask myself is, ‘which quadrant am when I deal with the person in front of me? ‘


Kim tells the story about her dog.  When walking her dog they came to a stop light.  The dog tugged and wanted to go across the street while cars were going by.  The dog almost got hit.  A passerby told her if she didn’t teach the dog to obey, the dog would get killed.  Hmm.  There are times when we have to use caring and confrontation to get the best outcomes.

In the lower right quadrant is Obnoxious Aggression. Think about it, when you just confront, make judgments, and the person interprets the anger is about them as well as the work, trust is damaged.  Sometimes damaged beyond repair.   You may get the results on a short-term basis but lose the relationship and telegraph to others your leadership style.

Scott says, “Let me be clear. I refuse to work with people who can’t be bothered to show basic human decency. I want you to keep your humanity intact. But here’s a paradox of being a good boss. Most people prefer the challenging “jerk” to the boss whose niceness” gets in the way of candor. I once read an article that claimed most people would rather work for a “competent a##hole” than a “nice incompetent. “

If the culture becomes toxic, communication and cooperation suffer, and ultimately, the results.  Another quote from the book is. “I believe there’s a special place in hell for those who “kick down and kiss up.”

In the lower left quadrant is Manipulative Insincerity. This occurs when a leader doesn’t care enough about the person, team, or organization in either their relationships or the results.  It is what I call “putting whipped cream on horse dung.”  If the praise is fake, people know it. People have great ‘crap detectors.’ I have found that setting the culture of being able to challenge without hurting the relationship makes for a great LEARNING culture.

Ruinous Empathy is the top left quadrant. Scott tells a Russian story to illustrate a point of Ruinous Empathy. The anecdote is about a guy who has to amputate his dog’s tail but loves him so much that he cuts it off an inch each day, rather than all at once. His desire to spare the dog pain and suffering only leads to more pain and suffering. Don’t allow yourself to become that kind of boss!

Trying to give feedback with pillows can be worse. Pillows are to soften the blow can set people up for not hearing the feedback directly. Giving the feedback as a (expletive) sandwich, a good thing, bad thing, and a good thing is still manipulative.  People will always wait for the shoe to drop and not remember the good things or the valuable feedback you say.  Think about the pain of removing a band aid.  Grip it and Rip it to use a golf term for Chris.  This can create a more painful situation where we die of a thousand cuts. This may be the worst thing a leader can do because people start believing they never get the whole story. By trying to soften the message, we extend the pain.  This does not mean shaming.

One of the ways to move to the upper right, Radical Candor, is to model it.  Can you, as a leader, model receiving feedback and react how you want others to react. Start by asking for feedback, criticism, and even positives.  Direct reports always watch how you react to feedback, especially if it is less than positive responses.

Ask questions like, ‘is there anything I could do as a leader to make your job easier?’  If I could change one thing that would help our team be even more successful, what would it be? Don’t be surprised if you ask questions like this, and have not done so in the past, you will probably hear nothing.  Changing behavior goes through a cycle of, what workshop did the boss go to? Or, is this real or just another short-term change. Setting the tone for feedback might be slow AND it is worth it.             

Here is a quote from Steve Jobs – I don’t mind being wrong. And I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing.  In my experience, people who are more concerned with getting to the right answer than with being right make the best bosses.

Remembering the rock star and super star comparison mentioned earlier in this summary, the following table might be helpful.  Rock stars are solid as a rock, they are doing what they like, and they are not looking for the next promotion.  Superstars, on the other hand, want to move up quickly.  They love the next challenge and want opportunities to grow.

Steep Growth Trajectory- Superstar Gradual Growth Trajectory- Rock Star
Change agent Force for stability
Ambitious at work Ambitious outside of work or simply content in life
Want new opportunities Happy in the current role

The most important thing you can do for your team collectively is to understand what growth trajectory each person wants to be on at a given time and whether that matches the needs and opportunities of the team. Know what a person’s goals are, helps to provide direction, opportunities, and the conversations that are the most helpful professionally and I would argue personally. The leader’s job is to promote growth and put the person in the place of most potential. Catherine the Great said, ‘That which does not grow, rots,”

Rock Stars like to hear that they are go-to experts and are great contributors to their teams.  They are valuable as mentors and internal gurus.  They can have a huge effect on building expertise for the future.  There is an African Proverb I like.  “When an old person dies, a library burns.”  An experienced person doesn’t have to die but they do retire, illness can happen, and sometimes they move.  So, how does a company retain knowledge and skills while growing expertise that is sustainable for the future?

Super stars need continual challenges.  However, succession planning for the organization is critical because super stars want to move up leaving vacancies.  Develop a bench before you need one.  Keep new projects and learning in front of them enticing them to continue growing.

Sometimes a person and the position does not work out.  How do you know when it’s time to fire somebody? There’s no absolute answer to that question, but here are three questions to consider:

  1. Have you given Radically Candid guidance?
  2. How is this person’s poor performance affecting the rest of the team?
  3. Have you sought out a second opinion, spoken to someone whom you trust and with whom you can talk the problem through?

Scott has a process that she calls the Art of Getting Stuff Done (GSD).

Listen —> Clarify —> Debate —> Decide —> Persuade —> Execute—> Learn—> REPEAT

Each phase helps build consensus and input.  The leader still has the responsibility for implementation.  At Pixar the process is called “plussing.”  Instead of spending time trashing an idea or telling the person why it won’t work, the team is responsible for making it better.  In Improv, they call this “Yes, And.” What I like about that idea is….  And, we want… or here is a way to make that happen.

One part of the GSD is debate.  Kim uses a story from Steve Jobs called the Rock Tumbler.  When Jobs was young he was amazed at when you put rocks with rough edges into a tumbler, after a time the rocks would come out smooth and shiny.  Sounds like a nice metaphor for debating an issue to make the idea smoother and make shine.

Here is a quote that fits in this stage, “Keep the conversation focused on ideas not egos. – Nothing is a bigger time-sucker or blocker to getting it right than ego. put a prop like an “ego coat check” outside the door. “

In the Decide portion, most cultures tend to favor either the most senior people or the people with the kinds of personalities that insist on sitting around the table. The bad decisions that result, are among the biggest drivers of organizational mediocrity and employee dissatisfaction. That is why kick-ass bosses often do not decide themselves, but rather create a clear decision-making process that empowers people closest to facts to make as many decisions as possible.

I am currently substitute teaching in a charter Montessori High School. They start each class with centering.  Calming your mind before starting the lesson.  For 2-3 minutes it is quiet, makes a nice break from the last class, and there is a more relaxed culture as a result.  I have never seen this in any other school in my 35 years in education.  In Chapter 5, Kim Scott focuses on staying centered and keeping yourself, as a leader healthy. Her quote is, “You can’t give a damn about others if you don’t give a damn about yourself. What we bring to work depends on our own health and well-being.”

I like the idea she about work-life integration not balance.  As Parker Palmer posits you bring yourself to work.  Be divided no more.  Figure out your “recipe” to stay centered and stick to it – The world is full of advice here, and what is enormously meaningful for one person is pure crap for another. Do whatever works for you. The key, I’ve found, is to prioritize doing it (but not overdoing it) when times get tough. it’s even more important to focus on making time for whatever keeps you centered when you are stressed and busy than when things are relatively calm. A very successful entrepreneur I knew went to the gym both before and after work during crunch times.

Leaders and bosses are primarily for giving and receiving praise and criticism to direct reports but even more importantly for modeling that process.  Leaders lead more by example than anything else.  Every parent knows children learn from what they see quicker than what you say.  Imagine my surprise when my four-year-old daughter stomped around the kitchen and used the “F” word.  Everyone looked at me (Bill).  They were right.

Here is another quote that I thought was funny.  I don’t want to offend, but here it is:

Urban Dictionary: “Bosses are like diapers: Full of s##t and all over your ass.” OK, not all bosses.  One of my (Bill) favorite is:  BOSS spelled backwards is a double SOB.  I say that about myself when someone calls me the boss instead of a learner or colleague even though I do have positional authority.  Authority comes from merit not from the org chart.

Here is a list of attributes for leaders:

  • Be humble.
  • Be helpful
  • See people in person (if possible) you won’t really know if the other person understood what you were saying if you can’t see the reaction.
  • Praise in public, criticize in private
  • Don’t personalize

The phrase “don’t take it personally” is worse than useless. feedback is personal

Don’t wait too long There are four very good reasons to push yourself to identify underperformance early: 

  1. to be fair to the person who’s failing.
  2. to be fair to your company.
  3. to be fair to yourself.
  4. you want to address underperformance early to be fair to the people who are performing really well. Tolerating bad work is unfair to the people who are doing excellent work.

And a final statement. The ULTIMATE GOAL OF RADICAL Candor is to achieve results collaboratively that you could never achieve individually. You’ve created a culture of guidance.

I suggest you check out her website – www.radicalcandor.com.