Radical Candor: The Communication Shift That Can Transform Your Career
In this episode, Kim Scott shares the power of being both caring and challenging when giving feedback.
Moving forward in our careers often means giving and receiving feedback. But how candid can we be in communicating with others? For Kim Scott, anything less than radical just isn’t enough.
An executive, speaker, author, and coach, Scott is known for her concept of radical candor, which she defines as “caring personally and challenging directly at the same time.” By mapping communication onto the axes of caring and challenging, she derives four quadrants of feedback behavior: radical candor, obnoxious aggression, manipulative insincerity, and ruinous empathy.
In this episode of Think Fast Talk Smart, Scott shares how we can all move our communication into the radical candor quadrant, “to learn what we don’t know and to help other people learn what they don’t know.”
Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.
Matt Abrahams: Loved it, hated it. That sucked. Feedback is critical to improving our communication skills, but how do we do it right? So it’s meaningful. I’m Matt Abrahams. I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and welcome to Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast. Today I’m really excited to speak with Kim Scott. Kim is an executive, an author, and a speaker. She wrote The New York Times bestseller Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and Just Work: How to Root Out Bias, Prejudice and Bullying to Create a Kick-Ass Culture of Inclusivity. Kim also held important senior leadership and development roles at Google and Apple, and she’s also an executive coach. Welcome Kim. I’m super excited to talk to you and our former guest and friend Bob Sutton speaks super highly of your work. Shall we jump in?
Kim Scott: Do it. Thanks so much for having me.
Matt Abrahams: Awesome. To begin, can you share your definition of radical candor?
Kim Scott: Sure. Radical candor is just caring personally and challenging directly at the same time. And that caring and challenging don’t sound so radical. So why do I call them radical? They’re radical because they’re rare. And as an explanation of why they’re rare, I want to explain what happens when we fail on one dimension or another. So in order to do this, I love a good visual, so I’m going to draw in words a two by two framework On the vertical axis is care personally on the horizontal axis is challenged directly. So when you do both in the upper right-hand quadrant, that’s radical candor. When you challenge directly, but you fail to show that you care personally, that is obnoxious. Aggression and obnoxious aggression is a big problem. It’s a problem because it hurts other people. It’s a problem because it’s a waste of breath. If I am obnoxious to you, if I’m a jerk to you, you go into fight or flight mode and then you can’t hear what I’m saying.
But it’s also a problem because I don’t know about you, but for me at least when I realize I’ve acted like a jerk, when I realize I’ve landed in the obnoxious aggression quadrant, it is not my instinct to go the right way on the care personally, dimension. Instead, it’s my instinct to go the wrong way on challenge directly and then I wind up in the dreaded bottom left-hand quadrant. In the worst place of all manipulative insincerity, if obnoxious aggression is front, stabbing, manipulative, insincerity is backstabbing. It’s where manipulative insincerity is, is where political behavior, it’s where all of the worst passive-aggressive behavior, all of the worst kinds of behavior creep in. And it’s also where there’s a lot of drama. There’s drama in obnoxious aggression, there’s drama and manipulative insincerity. If you watch the office, you’re going to see a lot of episodes about both of those things, but it’s not where the most mistakes get made, it’s just where the drama is. The vast majority of us make the vast majority of our mistakes when we do remember to show we care personally. So we’re now in the upper left hand quadrant because we’re failing to challenge directly. So we’re caring, but we’re not challenging that I call ruinous empathy. And that is what happens when we don’t tell someone something they’d be better off knowing in the long run because we don’t want to hurt their feelings.
Matt Abrahams: That is perhaps the best definition of a concept we’ve had on this podcast. It’s very clear to me and I’m curious to learn where that came from because I think it had to do with filler words.
Kim Scott: I learned about all this shortly after I moved to California to take a job at Google and I had to give a presentation about how the AdSense business was doing to the founders and the c e o and I walked into the room and there in one corner of the room was one of the founders on an elliptical trainer wearing bright blue toe shoes stepping away and also wearing a bright blue matching super tight spandex unitard not what I was expecting or frankly wanting to see in the room. And there in the other corner of the room was the c e o doing his emails like his brain had been plugged into the machine. So probably like all of your listeners, in such a situation, I felt a little bit nervous. How was I supposed to get these people’s attention? Luckily for me, the AdSense business was on fire.
And when I said how many new customers we had added over the last couple of weeks, the c e O almost fell off his chair. What did you say? This is incredible. Do you need more marketing dollars? Do you need more engineers? So I’m thinking that the meeting’s going all right. In fact, I now believe that I am a genius. And I walked out of the room when the meeting was over, I walked past my boss and I’m expecting a high five a pat on the back, and instead she says to me, why don’t you walk back to my office with me? And I thought, oh wow, I screwed something up. I’m sure I’m about to hear about it. And I wasn’t totally dreading hearing about it because she had already multiple times solicited feedback from me and seemed to really appreciate it. So I knew that she thought of feedback as a gift, but of course that didn’t help that much.
I was still nervous. So we start off walking and she starts by telling me about the things that had gone well, not the things that had gone badly, but of course not really in the feedback sandwich, but really seeming to mean what she said. But of course all I wanted to know was what I had done wrong. Eventually she said to me, you said a lot in there, were you aware of it? And with this, I breathed a huge sigh of relief if that was all I had done wrong, who cared? And I kind of made a brush off gesture with my hand and she looked at me again and she said, I know this great speech coach. I bet Google would pay for it. Would you like an introduction? And once again, I made this brush off gesture with my hand. I said, I know I’m busy.
I don’t have time for a speech coach. Didn’t you hear about all those new customers? And then she stopped. She looked me right in the eye and she said, I can tell 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 every third word, it makes you sound stupid. Now she’s got my full attention. And some people might say it was mean of her to say that I sounded stupid, but in fact it was the kindest thing she could have done for me at that moment in my career. Because if she hadn’t used just those words with me, and by the way, this is a really important point, she never would’ve used those words with other people on her team who were perhaps a better listener than I was. But with me, she knew me well enough to know that if she didn’t use just those words, I never would’ve gone to see the speech coach and I wouldn’t have learned that she was not exaggerating.
I literally said every third word, and this was a big shock to me because I had been giving presentations my whole career. I had raised millions of dollars for two different startups giving presentations. I thought I was pretty good at it. This almost got me to thinking it was almost like I had gone through my whole career with a giant hung of spinach between my teeth and nobody had had the common courtesy to tell me it was there. And it got me to thinking why had no one told me. But also, what was it about my boss and her leadership style that made it so seemingly easy for her to tell me? And as I thought about her leadership style, I realized it boiled down to these two very simple things, care personally and challenge directly. How did I know that she cared about me, not just as an employee but as a human being? When I moved from New York to California to take the job, I was really lonely. I didn’t know anyone out here and she could tell that I was lonely. She introduced me to a book group and I’m still friends with a bunch of those people to this day.
About a couple of months after I took the job at Google, my father was diagnosed with late stage cancer. I was devastated. And she knew I was devastated. And she said, Kim, you need to get on a plane. Fly home to Memphis. You need to be with your family right now. Your team and I will sit down and write your coverage plan. That’s what great teams do for one another. We’ve got your back. And those were the kinds of things she didn’t do just for me. She did for everyone who worked closely with her, but of course she couldn’t do those kinds of things for all 5,000 people in her organization. No matter how talented a leadership a leader is, sort of relationships don’t scale, but culture does scale. When a leader treats their direct reports with that kind of care, it’s much more likely in turn that their direct reports are going to treat their direct reports with that kind of care. And that does create a culture of caring. But of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. I also knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that if I messed up, she was going to tell me in no uncertain terms so that I could fix it. And that really was all there was to it.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. So I love that you had a direct experience that was sort of your epiphany to look into that. And I have to comment and compliment you, no ums and uhs in that entire story. So I’m curious to get very tactical in how you give the feedback. You referred to the feedback sandwich where you say something positive, then the real crux to the feedback, and then you say something positive. What’s the structure or advice you give in radical candor for giving
Kim Scott: Feedback? Yeah, I think the first thing to remember is you should never start by giving it. You should start by soliciting it. There’s a real order of operations to radical candor. And that’s not to say this is some kind of six sigma process. This is something you can do in one conversation. It’s fast, it’s free. All it takes is enormous emotional discipline in short supply I think. But remember that you don’t want to dish it out before you prove you can take it. You always want to start by soliciting it and then you want to give it. But one of the mistakes I think that I’ve made in the way I talk about I’ll be self radically candid for a moment, is that I’ll often leave people with a sense that radical candor is all about the boss criticizing the employee, and it’s not. It should always start with soliciting.
And then the next step is to give praise, not criticism again, not in the feedback sandwich sense of the word, but in the gratitude sense of the word, in the generosity sense of the word. You want to make sure that you’re taking a beat to give voice to the things you appreciate about working with this person and not one beat, but a beat on a daily basis, a daily beat. You want to focus on the good stuff. And then when it comes time to offer the criticism, so now you’ve solicited it, you’ve given voice to what you appreciate, and this can happen in one conversations or multiple. But once you’ve done that, now it’s now you’ve kind of gotten yourself into the right frame of mind to give criticism that is helpful. You want to state your intention to be helpful. You want to make sure that you’re being humble.
You could be wrong. Omniscience is not a requirement for radical candor. Thank goodness you could be wrong. And that’s okay. The reason why I call it candor and not truth is that to me candor kind of implies a dialogue how I understand the situation. I also am curious to know how you understand the situation. We’re going to talk about it. And then you want to offer both praise and criticism sort of immediately. If the purpose of praise is to tell a person what to do more of the purpose of criticism is to tell them what to do less of. Why wait, it doesn’t do any good. And also I find in the case of criticism, if you wait, it kind of piles up. We’re in Silicon Valley, people talk a lot about technical debt here. I think sometimes we have feedback, debt and feedback debt.
What happens is it winds up exploding kind of in unpredictable ways. And before times, I used to say had these conversations in person. Now that’s often impossible, but I think you want to have these conversations synchronously. You don’t want to send a text. Slack is a feedback train wreck waiting to happen because slack is often public criticism in writing, asynchronous, it hits all the wrong notes. So you want to make sure that you’re having a conversation with a person and there’s increasingly, there’s evidence that it’s better to pick up the phone and just have a voice conversation and not do a video conversation. You also want to make sure that you’re praising in public, criticizing in private, and that you’re not giving somebody praise or criticism about their personality. Instead, you want to focus on having a growth mindset, giving people praise and criticism about things that they can either do more of or do less of.
So the best way I know of to do that is to think about your praise and your criticism in terms of context, observation, result next steps. So in the meeting when you said every third word, it made you sound stupid. Go visit the speech coach or in the meeting when you offered both sides of the argument, it earned you credibility. Do more of that. So those are some thoughts now, but you’re not done next step. So you solicited it, you gave praise, you gave criticism. Now you got to gauge how it lands because again, it’s a dialogue, not a monologue. Although I feel like I’m giving a monologue right now.
Matt Abrahams: You’re doing a great job. We’re learning a lot. I’m learning a ton. So there’s a process, and within the process there’s a structure. You start by soliciting feedback, asking for feedback about yourself. Praise is to be given often, and I assume you would agree, congruent with the level of criticism that you’re giving. You don’t say, oh, you look very nice today and by the way, you’re lousy at this
Kim Scott: Job, right? Yeah, that’s the problem with the feedback sandwiches. Oh, Kim, I like your glasses. Your book was terrible, but those are nice shoes. It’s not really going to make me feel better.
Matt Abrahams: So you give the praise. And then the part that I really liked that when you talked about candor, candor is not the truth. It is a perspective. And what I so appreciate about your model, there are many things is this notion of it’s an invitation for dialogue to discuss. And that’s where I think that candor is really important. And then you have a structure for how you give both praise as well as the constructive criticism. And then you have to check for how it lands. And I think that’s very useful and it can be very helpful to have a process to not only because it helps get you from A to B, but it helps you think about what needs to be said, and that’s really important. You mentioned emotions and an emotional deficit. Emotion often looms large, especially in constructive criticism. What advice and guidance do you have for handling our emotions? Like you’ve done something that frustrates me and I want to share that, but I know that can get in the way, or I don’t want to invoke emotions that are negative in you because I think that’ll get in the way. How do we deal with emotions?
Kim Scott: I think one of the things that has been really helpful to me is to think about when we communicate, we communicate on an emotional plane and a rational plane at the same time. And very often we tend to try to pretend like the emotional plane is somehow not fair game, especially at work. And the problem is if you ignore the emotional signals that your own body is sending you or that the other person is sending you, then you’re just not going to communicate very well. So I think part of it is to remember that emotion has to be a part of this equation. If you try to show up at work like some kind of robot, you’re never going to go very high on the care personally, dimension. Very often if the other person is sad or mad, that is your cue to go up on the care personally, dimension.
But if you’re like me, it’s probably not your instinct. If the other person seems sad, it is so tempting for me to zoom over to ruinous empathy and to say, it’s okay, it’s no big deal. It doesn’t really matter, but it’s not okay and it is a big deal and it does really matter. That’s why I just said it. And so if I do that, then I leave the person both sad and confused. And that’s not kinder, right? So the right thing to do in the face of someone else’s upset is to try to pause for a moment and to say, I don’t think I said that very well. How might I have said it better? Maybe back up and start soliciting some feedback.
But what do you do if the other person is not sad but they’re mad? Maybe they start yelling at you.
It’s pretty hard to care about someone who is yelling at you. If you’re like me, it’s your instinct either to start yelling back and wind up in obnoxious aggression or to creep over to a kind of self-protective, manipulative insincerity, and that’s normal. It doesn’t mean you’re a lesser mortal or incapable of feedback. It just means you’re human. And so first of all, extend some grace to yourself, but then try to move up on the care personally dimension. And one of the things that I try to tell myself in those moments is “when furious get curious.” Oh, I like that. So if someone’s mad, I’m getting mad back. I try to take a deep breath. If I have a bottle of water, I’ll unscrew the top, take a sip of water, and I try to figure out what has gone wrong here? Why is this person so upset?
And don’t blame yourself. One of the things that often happens, I’ll be coaching someone and helping them prepare for a conversation that they’re kind of dreading and they’ll call me up and say, “oh, I totally messed that one up. Either the person started crying or the person started yelling.” And that doesn’t mean the fact that the other person got emotional does not necessarily mean that you messed up. It means that they’re having an emotion. And your job is not to control that emotion. Your job is to remain present for that emotion and to remain caring about that person for that emotion. Now, there’s another thing that could happen other than the person gets sad or mad. Other times, and remember, it is your job to go north to choose the right vector on the radical candor, two by two and to move up on care personally.
But that’s not the only emotional response that the person may have. The person may do to you what I did to my boss in the story, they may brush you off. And when that happens, it’s your job to keep going out on the challenge directly dimension, probably more further, probably further than you’re comfortable going. And that is hard for a lot of us. In fact, when I was writing Radical Candor, I sent that story to my boss and she said, “gosh, did I really say you sounded stupid? I’m so sorry. That sounds so mean.” So even she wasn’t that comfortable with it, clear as kind as Brene Brown says, the kindest thing she could have done for me is to keep going on that challenge directly dimension. And as you notice, she tried three times. And that is often true, that you have to try more than once. And often it takes more than one conversation to get through to someone. And that doesn’t mean they’re shut down to feedback necessarily. It just means communication is really hard.
Matt Abrahams: So many rich ideas in there. When it comes to emotion, I heard you say, and I rightly believe this, that it’s normal and natural. We have to honor it. We don’t try to hide it or over project it. We need to take time to reflect in the flare up of an emotion that I personally feel, and I’m sure others feel the same way, when things get heated, I want to adjust and I’m agitated in that moment. And it sounds like being present, stepping back, I love your, “when people get furious, get curious.” So really introspect, but also ask.
Kim Scott: But not only when the other person is furious, when you yourself are furious. Because if you get mad at me and start yelling, I’m probably going to get mad back. Anger is very reflective.
Matt Abrahams: One of the challenges many people have, and part of that process you talked about, is actually asking for feedback. It can be hard. And when it comes to soliciting feedback from others, we’ve had two different guests bring this up on their own. I didn’t initiate it. Bob Cialdini and Jonah Berger both talked about research that looks at how you ask for feedback. Literally the words you use matters. And I know that something that’s important for you is that you ask for guidance. You don’t actually use the word feedback as much. Can you share a little bit about how we can best ask for that feedback?
Kim Scott: Yes. Because if you say, do you have any feedback for me? You are wasting your breath. I can already tell you the answer. “Oh no, everything’s fine.” Unless you have teenage children, nobody in your life wants to give you feedback. Your teenage kids are delighted to provide this service for you. True. If everyone actually listening can, unless you’re driving, don’t do this if you’re driving, but if you have a pen and paper handy, write down what your question is. And there’s a few elements to a good question. One is it’s got to sound like you not like me. So I’ll tell you my question, but don’t write my question down. If you sound like Kim Scott, people won’t believe you want to know the answer. So the question I like to ask is, “what could I do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?”
And the reason why I like that question is it’s pretty open. It allows, there may be things I’m not aware of that the person wants to tell me that I haven’t created a space for them to tell me. The other important thing about that question is that it can’t be answered with a yes or a no, right? It’s not enough when you’re soliciting feedback actually to have a good question because no matter how good your question is, the other person still is not going to want to answer it. So the next step, there’s four steps, I think just soliciting feedback. The next step is really to make sure that you’re embracing the discomfort that you sort of close your mouth and count to six. I only made it the three just there. Neither one of us could stand it anymore. We couldn’t stand it anymore. Six seconds is a really long time. The other person will probably tell you something if you can maybe remain silent for six seconds. And when they say whatever it is that they say, the next most important thing is to make sure that you’re listening with the intent to understand, not to respond. Because even though you just solicited feedback, when you get it, you’re probably going to feel a little bit defensive. It might sting a little bit. And the fact that you feel defensive does not mean you’re a lesser mortal or that you’ve shut down the feedback. It means you’re human. And that’s okay. That’s all part of this. So what you want to do is try to ask a couple of follow-up questions. So for example, my daughter said to me at breakfast one morning, “Mom, I wish you were not the radical candor lady.”
And immediately this wave of parental guilt washed over me. I thought I knew what the feedback was. I thought she was telling me I was spending too much time at work. She wanted more time with me. But then I thought, well, I should make sure I understand. So I said, “Well, who do you wish I were?” And she said, “I wish you were the lady who minded her own business.” So totally different kind of feedback. So you want to make sure you’re asking some follow-up questions and you’re really, again, getting curious.
You can also get curious when you feel defensive, it’s great emotion to try to find your way to.
And then last but not least, you got to reward the candor. So four steps. You had to come up with your question. You had to embrace the discomfort. You had to listen with the intent not to respond, but to understand.
And last but not least, you got to reward the candor because when someone offers you some radical candor, they are taking an interpersonal risk. And as with money, with interpersonal risk, we expect a high reward. And if we don’t get a high reward, we’re not going to do it again. And so you got to make sure if you agree with the feedback that you fix the problem. And if you disagree with the feedback that you are radically candid. I mean, first of all, look for that five or 10% of what they said that you can’t agree with, just to show that you were listening and to make sure that you’re proving that you’re not. Shut down the feedback and then say, ask for the rest of it. I want to think about if you’re feeling defensive, I want to think about it and get back to you. If you’re not feeling defensive, I want to explain to you why I disagree, but thank you for telling me, and let’s try to get onto the same page. You can’t argue endlessly. At some point you got to listen, challenge, commit. But if you just tell the person whose feedback you disagreed with, thank you for the feedback, what they hear is a giant F you. So make sure that you’re radically candid about the radical candor
Matt Abrahams: That reflectiveness. Yeah, that meta is important though. You talked about risk and there is a lot of risk in giving radically candid feedback. How as leaders, as managers, do we set up a culture and an environment that supports and rewards that kind of feedback? I’m sure modeling it is important, but what else do you do?
Kim Scott: I think one of the things you can do is to remind yourself that your number one priority as a leader is to solicit feedback and to make it to reward speaking truth to power, not to punish speaking truth to power. And this is hard because very often when people think about leadership and radical candor, they assume boss criticizing employee. And that’s again, not where it should start. It should always start with boss soliciting feedback. So go back to that order of operations.
There’s a couple of things you can do to make this sort of normal. One is you can prevent backstabbing. You want to create a norm on your team of what Fred Kofman calls “clean escalation.” And so clean escalation basically just means don’t talk badly about someone behind their back. This is not a complicated idea. And yet, so often if you’re frustrated with someone on your team, it’s tempting to go to your boss and talk to them.
And it’s tempting as the boss to listen because you feel like you’re being the empathetic leader. This is the one time when listening is counterproductive. As a leader, if you listen, all you’re doing is stirring the political pot. You want to say to that person, go talk. If you have James talking badly about Jane, you want to say, “James, go talk to Jane directly.” And there’s exceptions of course. If it’s a sexual harassment thing, don’t do that. But if it’s in the normal kind of conversation, you want to encourage people to talk to each other directly. And then if they can’t work it out, you want to offer them your conflict resolution services. In other words, ask them to come talk to you together. Together, right? You are not a shuttle diplomat as a manager, you’re more like a marriage counselor. And that means you can’t talk to one person about another person who’s not in the room.
Matt Abrahams: This has been wonderful, Kim. I really appreciate your insight and your feedback. Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everybody. Alright, here we go.
Question number one: If you were to capture the best communication advice you’ve ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?
Kim Scott: The words I don’t know.
Matt Abrahams: And the power of those words tell us more.
Kim Scott: So the reason why “I don’t know” is so important is that very foundational to all of this is to be humble. And the whole goal of radical candor is to learn and to learn what we don’t know and to help other people learn what they don’t know. And so being willing to say, I don’t know, it just takes all of the tension out of the room. Sometimes it’s something we don’t say nearly often enough.
Matt Abrahams: It feels very risky and it feels you make yourself vulnerable, but in that is a ton of possibility. And it also can level power and status. And I think that’s really important. Question number two: Who’s a communicator you admire and why?
Kim Scott: So, I love novels. To me, a novel teaches us empathy and compassion. Not ruinous empathy, but productive empathy and compassion. And I think that Toni Morrison is probably the communicator I admire most deeply. I was lucky enough to take a course with her in college. Wow. And I learned so much about language and how to use language for good, not for evil.
Matt Abrahams: It’s funny, as soon as you mentioned Toni, I thought of language. Yes. And you’re absolutely right. Question number three: What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
Kim Scott: There’s only two.
Matt Abrahams: Alright.
Kim Scott: Caring and challenging.
Matt Abrahams: Very good. And not surprising at all. Coming from you. I had one extra in there just in case. Kim, this has been fantastic. Thank you. I, I’ll give you praise. This was very helpful to really put feedback in its proper place as a critical skill. The specific process and steps are very helpful and really allowing us and giving us permission to open ourselves up to receive the feedback and do so in a way that can set examples for others. Thank you for your time and thank you for your input.
Kim Scott: Thank you. And can I end by walking the talk and soliciting a little criticism?
Matt Abrahams: Sure.
Kim Scott: Because I want some radical candor on radical candor. So easy to say, be radically candid, really hard to do it. What do you think is the one thing that gets in the way that we didn’t talk about today? Why don’t people do this more often?
Matt Abrahams: I think people are really worried about their relative status in the relationship that they have and that this is going to risk their position, status, and connection they have with people. And it can be very scary around this place as a teacher and in this valley, there are so many dynamics going on and everybody knows everybody in some way you’re afraid not only for the interaction I have with you, but what it might mean in the larger network.
Kim Scott: Alright, so let’s figure out how to take status and power out of the equation to make it safe.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. And nice paraphrasing.
Kim Scott: Thank you.
Matt Abrahams: You’ve been listening to another episode of Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This podcast was produced by Jenny Luna, Kevin Patel, and me Matt Abrahams. With special thanks to Podium Podcast Company. To find more episodes, visit our website at gsb.stanford.edu or find wherever you get your podcasts, including YouTube. For more business-related content, follow the business school on social media @Stanford.gsb. You can also find the podcast and follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram.
For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.