Skip to content

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

How to get results while managing people with humanity.

Sean Johnson
Sean Johnson
5 min read

The big idea is that there are two dimensions to managing people: caring personally and challenging directly.

  • Care personally. Care about them as human beings.
  • Challenge directly. Tell people when their work isn’t good enough. And when it is.

Most managers are good about caring personally but struggle to challenge directly. Scott calls this "Ruinous empathy". It's bad, because people actually want feedback on how they're doing.

A second, smaller group is good at challenging directly but don't care about their team. Scott calls this Obnoxious Aggression. This is equally bad, and can cause a lot of turnover.

The key to getting results is to be able to do both.

Creating a culture of communication

Building a culture starts by asking for criticism, not giving it. “Is there anything I could do, or stop doing, that would make your lives better?” Get them used to the idea that they can be candid with you without you biting their heads off or otherwise having adverse consequences.

Candor doesn't always mean negative. You can give candid praise - specific praise. Contextualized, personal. The best praise lets people know when they are doing specific things well, and encourages them to keep improving. In a way it can also challenge directly.

There's a fine line between radical candor and obnoxious agression. You need to give feedback in a way that makes it clear something wasn't good enough, without calling into question your confidence in their abilities.

Make it clear to them that you're not concerned about being right, just about getting the right answer.

Learning What Motivates Your Team

One common misconception with managing teams is around ambition. There are some people who want a steep career trajectory - who crave new opportunities, etc. There are other people who want more stability, are fine with their current role, but are also great at what they do. Scott calls these people "superstars" and "rock stars" and both are important. We're generally better at encouraging the first group than we are the second.

The Growth Management model helps get the most out of everyone. You consider their past performance and their desired future trajectory.

A steep growth trajectory does not necessarily mean someone wants to become a manager. It's also not about promotions. It's about having increased impact over time. Also note that people can move from steep to gradual (or vice versa) over time.

Your job is to focus on what they need from you to continue doing great work.

For excellent performers, a common mistake is to become an absentee manager because they're doing well. But they still want a relationship. Think of yourself as their partner - help them overcome obstacles and do even better.

For excellent performers on a steep trajectory, it's important to keep them challenged. Make sure they're constantly learning. It's also important to have a plan for how you'll replace them, as they tend to move on more often. What you don't want to do is squash or block them. Lastly, keep in mind they don't always want to manage.

For excellent performers on a gradual trajectory, you can recognize and reward them without necessarily promoting them. Bonuses, or raises, or visible roles in the company (as "gurus" or SMEs) are all useful. Promotion might put them in roles they don't want.

For fair performers, it's important to keep in mind that everyone can be excellent at something. It's your job to find that for them. If they aren't doing exceptional work within 2 years, they probably won't at your organization, but might elsewhere. It's important to set and uphold a quality bar.

For poor performers, once they've received clear communication about the problem and still show no signs of improvement, you need to fire them.

How do you know when to fire them? Have you demonstrated to them that you care personally about them, and have you been crystal clear when you've challenged them to improve? Has your praise been specific and candid? Have you done all these things over time? Is their performance affecting the team?

Driving Results Collaboratively

Telling people what to do doesn't work. Instead, use the GSD wheel.

  • Listen: Idea submission. Team that hears every idea. Give the quiet ones a voice.
  • Clarify. Help people clarify thinking around ideas. Pixar does “plussing” - you don’t just shoot down an idea during brainstorming, you try to solve the objection you raise. Make your ideas drop dead simple.
  • Debate. Make people argue the other side. McKinsey has this idea of an "obligation to dissent". It's important to argue ideas, not people. Recognize when people are about to get burned out and pause. Try to make it fun. Realize not everyone likes to debate. So provide a clear explanation up front on the purpose. Make debate and decision seperate events.
  • Decide. The boss often should not be the decider. Should collect the facts needed to make a decision, and ensure the process gets followed.
  • Persuade. Not everyone will be involved in an efficient decision making process. So you have to persuade them. Scott recommends Aristotle’s elements of rhetoric - emotion, logic, and credibility. Emotion means focus on the listener, not the speaker. Credibility means demonstrate expertise and humility. Logic mean show your work.
  • Execution. Don’t waste people’s time. Expect them to come to 1 on 1s with list of problems we can help resolve. Keep the dirt under your fingernails by being willing to jump in. Block out time to execute.

Establishing Trust with Direct Reports

It's important to care for yourself in order to care for others. Figure out your self care routines. Schedule it.

Get them to bring the best of what they’ve got emotionally, physically, mentally. Make them feel free at work. Give them autonomy.

Spend more informal time with your team to build trust. Get to know them personally while respecting boundaries.

Have a career conversation once a year in addition to 1:1s. Live your values, don’t talk about them. Model them.

Don’t manage other people’s emotions. don’t say “let’s be professional.” Say “I can see you’re mad/frustrated/etc” Ask questions until you understand the real issue.

Don’t tell people how to feel “don’t be sad” “no offense but”.  Keep bottles of water in meeting room. Can be used to break tension.

How to get and give praise and criticism

To build a culture of guidance you need to get, give, and encourage both praise and criticism.

A great question is “is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?”

Consider a feedback slack bot or other feedback system. Consider a management bug tracking system, and have management fix it weeks.

When giving guidance, use the Situation / Behavior / Impact framework. “I’m going to describe a problem I see. I may be wrong, and if I am I hope you’ll tell me. If I’m not I hope my bringing it up will help you fix it.” Finding help is often better than offering it yourself.

Give feedback immediately. Don’t save it for the 1:1 or a performance review. In person in possible. But optimize for immediacy vs in person. Don’t personalize. Don’t say "don’t take it personally."

For performance reviews, don’t rely on unilateral judgment. Solicit feedback on yourself first. Write your notes down. Schedule st least 50 minutes in person. Half the time looking back, half looking forward. Regular check ins to assess the plan.

Three Career Conversations.

Having career conversations is incredibly helpful for  understand the motivations and ambitions of your team.

Start with the life story conversation, followed by the future dreams conversation, finishing with an 18 month plan conversation.

Figure out who needs what types of opportunities and how you’re going to provide them. 5 bullet point growth plan.

This is my archive of book notes. Join several thousand other folks to get notified whenever I publish new ones.