Radical Candor — The Surprising Secret to Being a Good Boss

Kim Scott, co-founder of Candor, Inc., has built her career around a simple goal: Creating bullshit-free zones where people love their work and working together. She first tried it at her own software startup. Then, as a long-time director at Google, she studied how the company’s leaders created an environment where the joy that people took in their work felt almost tangible. As a faculty member at Apple University, Scott learned how Apple takes a different path but is equally committed to creating the conditions where people can do the best work of their careers and love doing it. Along the way, she managed a lot of teams in various states of euphoria and panic. And while she did a lot right, she’d be the first to admit everything she did wrong.

The good news is that Scott, now an acclaimed advisor for companies like Twitter, Shyp, Rolltape, and Qualtrics, has spent years distilling her experiences into some simple ideas you can use to help the people who work for you love their jobs and do great work. “At Google, I was really curious — did creating such a great work environment require having the world's greatest business model? The answer is no. Luckily, there are some things that any of us can do, even before the profits start rolling in.”

The single most important thing a boss can do, Scott has learned, is focus on guidance: giving it, receiving it, and encouraging it. Guidance, which is fundamentally just praise and criticism, is usually called “feedback,” but feedback is screechy and makes us want to put our hands over our ears. Guidance is something most of us long for.

At First Round's recent CEO Summit, Scott shared a simple tool for ensuring that your team gets the right kind of guidance — a tool she calls 'radical candor.'

What Is Radical Candor?

To illustrate radical candor in action, Scott shared story about a time her boss criticized her. “I had just joined Google and gave a presentation to the founders and the CEO about how the AdSense business was doing. I walked in feeling a little nervous, but happily the business was on fire. When we told Larry, Sergey and Eric how many publishers we had added over the previous months, Eric almost fell off his chair and asked what resources they could give us to help continue this amazing success. So... I sort of felt like the meeting went okay.”

But after the meeting, Scott’s boss, Sheryl Sandberg, suggested they take a walk together. She talked about the things she’d liked about the presentation and how impressed she was with the success the team was having — yet Scott could feel a “but” coming. “Finally she said, ‘But you said um a lot.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, no big deal. I know, I do that. But who cared if I said um when I had the tiger by the tail?’”

Sandberg pushed forward, asking whether Scott’s ums were the result of nervousness. She even suggested that Google could hire a speaking coach to help. Still, Scott brushed off the concern; it didn’t seem like an important issue. “Finally, Sheryl said, ‘You know, Kim, I can tell I'm not really getting through to you. I'm going to have to be clearer here. When you say um every third word, it makes you sound stupid.’”

“Now, that got my attention!” Scott says.

For all of us raised in a culture that preaches, “If you can’t say something nice…", that criticism might not sound so nice. But Scott knows now that it was the kindest thing Sandberg could have done for her. “If she hadn't said it just that way, I would've kept blowing her off. I wouldn't have addressed the problem. And what a silly thing to let trip you up.” (Incidentally, she did work with that speaking coach, and kicked her um habit handily.) In the years since, Scott has worked to operationalize what it was that made Sandberg such a great boss.

It sounds so simple to say that bosses need to tell employees when they're screwing up. But it very rarely happens.

To help teach radical candor — this all-important but often neglected skill — to her own teams, Scott boiled it down to a simple framework: Picture a basic graph divided into four quadrants. If the vertical axis is caring personally and the horizontal axis is challenging directly, you want your feedback to fall in the upper right-hand quadrant. That’s where radical candor lies.

“The vertical axis is what I call the ‘give a damn’ axis,” Scott says. “Part of the reason Sheryl was able to say to me so bluntly, ‘You sounded stupid,’ was that I knew that she cared personally about me. She had done a thousand things that showed me that.” From inviting recent New York transplant Scott to join her book group, to encouraging her to take time off to care for a sick relative, Sandberg didn’t just invest in her professionally, but showed she truly cared about her. And she did that for everyone on her team. “Caring personally makes it much easier to do the next thing you have to do as a good boss, which is being willing to piss people off.”

That’s right, the horizontal axis is what Scott calls the “willing to piss people off” axis. Challenging others is difficult for many people; saying anything short of positive feels impolite. But once you become a boss, it’s your job to do be equally clear about what’s going wrong, and what’s going right.

I would argue that criticizing your employees when they screw up is not just your job, it's actually your moral obligation.

John Stuart Mill explains it very well. He said, ‘The source of everything respectable in man, either as an intellectual or as a moral being, is that his errors are corrigible.’ The whole strength and value of human judgment depends on the one property that it can be set right when it is wrong.’ You have to tell people when you think they're wrong or their work isn’t good enough,” Scott says.

Radical candor, then, results from a combination of caring personally and challenging directly. But what does it look like in practice? Scott has created an acronym to help people remember:

HHIPP: “Radical candor is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person — in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise — and it doesn’t personalize.” That last P makes a key distinction: “My boss didn’t say, ‘You're stupid.’ She said, ‘You sounded stupid when you said um.’ There's a big difference between the two.”

Consider Your Alternatives to Make the Best Choice

If you think this all sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. Radical candor requires you to undo the “if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all” training that’s been beaten into your head since you learned how to talk. This is hard.

But if you’re wondering whether it’s worth it, you need only consider the alternatives — the other three quadrants of that graph.

If you can't offer radical candor, the second best thing you can do is be an asshole.