'Radical candor' management style resonates at Harvard tech event

How to be a better boss: At Tech Conference 24, leadership guru Kim Scott shared how a stern critique from Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg led to the concept of 'radical candor.'

Radical candor, a management technique touted by an eponymous best-selling book, podcast and consulting company, is at risk of becoming "just another B.S. buzzword," according to the executive who developed the concept.

Kim Scott, whose diverse resume includes time as a CEO coach at DropBox and manager of a pediatric clinic in Kosovo, took some of her own medicine and opened up about the shortfalls of her marketing approach before an audience who gathered Sunday for Tech Conference 24 at Harvard Business School.

"If I'm going to give myself a little radical candor on Radical Candor, I think one of the mistakes I made when I talked about the book is that I focused on where the energy is, which is the boss criticizing the employee. But the fact of the matter is radical candor always begins with soliciting feedback, not giving it, and it works the same way, up, down and sideways," Scott said, via a live video feed beamed into the conference hall. More candor was forthcoming:

"And the second mistake I think I made was I gave it a term that was very catchy, but there is a big risk that radical candor becomes just another B.S. buzzword that is synonymous with what I call obnoxious aggression, not radical candor," Scott confessed.

Indeed, according to its inventor, radical candor does not mean saying whatever pops into your head. 

Kim Scott, author, <i>Radical Candor</i>Kim Scott

Scott said her approach is designed to address people's shortcomings in a comfortable setting where the subjects of one's criticism are reassured that the straight-talk is for their own benefit and that those speaking blunt truths have their best intentions in mind.

When it is working as it is supposed to, radical candor can fix problems in a workplace before they become intractable and without bruising too many egos, according to Scott, who said she uses the approach in her personal life as well.

Compassionate candor

The hallmarks of Scott's approach are compassion and candor, and if the feedback environment fostered by a manager is lacking in either, the endeavor will go sideways, she said.

When subjects are not assured that those offering criticism care about them, then those honest appraisals will come across as "obnoxious aggression," according to Scott. Deficiency in candor can lead to other management pitfalls, including "manipulative insincerity" when people say whatever is expedient to avoid confrontation, and "ruinous empathy" when people avoid criticism to spare others' feelings.

Practicing radical candor requires "enormous emotional discipline," Scott said, but each instance of it doesn't need to last very long. Candid feedback can be parceled out in two-minute one-on-one conversations.

Striking the right note

Scott offered some pointers for managers to help ensure their messages are well received.

"'How can I help?' is a great question to ask," Scott said. She said managers can ask, "Tell me what you heard" to ensure the message was delivered correctly, or say, "I can tell I need to be more direct" if the message is not breaking through.

One phrase that is not helpful and should be stricken from managers' vocabulary is "Don't take it personally," said Scott, who said people do take their work personally.

Sheryl Sandberg, the kindest cut

Scott said the idea of radical candor stemmed from two incidents in her professional life. One exemplifies the management approach she hopes others will follow, and the other represents what can go wrong when a well-meaning boss is too focused on shielding an employee from harsh criticism.

If I'm going to give myself a little radical candor on Radical Candor, I think one of the mistakes I made when I talked about the book is that I focused on where the energy is, which is the boss criticizing the employee. But the fact of the matter is radical candor always begins with soliciting feedback, not giving it.
Kim Scottauthor, Radical Candor

When Scott was at Google, she gave a presentation to company leaders Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt, and afterward her boss, Sheryl Sandberg, gently nudged her to consider speech therapy.

"Sheryl said to me, 'You said "umm" a lot in there. Were you aware of it?' And I sort of made a brush off gesture with my hand, and I said, 'Yeah, I know. It's a verbal tic. It's no big deal, really,'" Scott said. "And then Sheryl said to me, 'I know this great speech coach. I'm sure Google would pay for it. Would you like an introduction?'"

Scott said she waved off the offer, complaining that she was too busy for that.

"Then Sheryl stopped. She looked right at me, and she said, 'I can see when you do that thing with your hand that I'm going to have to be a lot more direct with you. When you say "umm" every third word, it makes you sound stupid.' Now, she's got my full attention," Scott said.

"Some people might say it was mean of Sheryl to say I sounded stupid, but it was actually the kindest thing she could have done for me at that moment in my career. Because if she hadn't said it to me just that way, then I wouldn't have gone to see the speech coach and I wouldn't have learned that Sheryl was not exaggerating."

Scott, who has since cured her verbal tic, experienced firsthand the converse of Sandberg's caring but no-nonsense management style at another point in her career, when she was managing someone who was a friendly and well-liked but under-performing team member. Neither Scott nor the other team members leveled with their colleague about his poor work output until it was too late and Scott had decided to fire him.

"Why didn't anyone tell me?" the man said, when Scott finally delivered the bad news. "I thought you all cared about me."

That was a low point in Scott's career, she said, but one that helped inform her book, which was published in March 2017, and her personal life. Early in her relationship with her now-husband, Scott said she told him not to read the newspaper in the same room where she was doing yoga because it bothered her.

"My instinct was to remain silent. But I realized I'm just getting to know this guy. I think I really like him, and I better tell him that it's going to drive me crazy if he sits there reading the paper when I do my yoga. Otherwise I'm not going to want him here," Scott said. "[Practicing radical candor] has been the bedrock of our 11 years of happy marriage."

MBAs, up-and-coming technocrats react

The radical candor idea had adherents and new converts among the crowd of aspiring MBAs and technocrats in the auditorium on Sunday.

"Radical candor is a wonderful concept. I was a fan of it before I even came here," said Latoya Peterson, who founded the blog "Racialicious" and gave a keynote speech later in the day Sunday. "Radical candor is the hardest thing to achieve in a corporate environment because there are so many incentives not to do it, which is what makes it more important."

During her speech, Peterson talked about how failing to solicit feedback from a diverse array of testers could yield software and hardware that doesn't work as well for people with darker skin tones or facial features that differ from the developers. Candor is essential to getting that feedback.

"You have to test things -- algorithms, products in general -- on a diverse population," Peterson said. She said, "These things aren't tested. These kind of go to market as they are, and people discover these issues later."

Marwan Sallam, a student at Boston University's College of Engineering, said he plans to try the radical candor approach on a classmate who, while working on an engineering project, used much of the budget to purchase some processors without checking in with the others.

"I feel like radical candor is appropriate for dealing with these kinds of situations," Sallam said. He said, "Especially with younger students, people usually try to avoid conflict as much as they can, and people who do confront, usually don't have any experience in confronting so they're usually too assertive or too aggressive."

Scott's presentation offered some lessons for Giorgi Mariamidze in how to better finesse management decisions.

Mariamidze, who shared that he was CEO of a micro-finance firm in his home country of Georgia before studying at Harvard Business School, said that he "mostly erred on the side of taking action" to address problems and he is concerned that he may have sometimes veered into the category that Scott dubbed "obnoxious aggression."

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