Why 'Radical Candour' may be the key to being a successful leader

Kim Scott, a well-known CEO coach in Silicon Valley has written Radical Candour, a book that explains how managers can be direct without being too aggressive. Here, she outlines some key advice.

Kim Scott: author of Radical Candour
Kim Scott: author of Radical Candour

Radical candor is the ability to care personally at the same time that you challenge directly. It is a touchstone you can use to build good relationships at work.

If you’re the boss, it’s the human connection you have with each of your direct reports that allows you to fulfil your responsibilities as a leader. Responsibilities that include creating a culture of feedback, building a cohesive team, and achieving results collaboratively.

And it’s also the way that you approach feedback, team-building, and achieving results that will strengthen – or destroy – your relationships.

Create a culture of feedback

Start by asking for feedback, not by giving it. Don’t dish it out till you show that you can receive it like a gift, not a kick in the shins.

When you solicit feedback, it’s useful to prepare your question in advance, because it’s awkward to ask for feedback.

Ask a question that feels natural, such as "Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me." Or, "Tell me why I’m smoking crack here."

Once you’ve asked your question, you’re going to have to endure some awkward moments because nobody wants to tell you when you’re screwing up. The key here is simply to shut up. Try counting to six in your head.

Almost nobody can endure that much silence. Then, once they’ve responded, don’t get defensive. Listen with the intent to understand, not to reply. And reward the candor. Fix the issue addressed if you agree. If you disagree, find some grain of truth in what you’ve been told, and promise to think about the rest.

When you’ve had more time to think, get back to the person and explain why you disagree.

Now that you’ve asked for feedback you’re ready to give it. Start with praise, and remember to give more praise than criticism, but only if you sincerely mean what you say.

Remember, both praise and criticism show that you care personally, and challenge directly. Praise should be specific and sincere. Criticism should be kind and clear.

Encouraging feedback between the people on your team is how you’ll get the most leverage. You can offer leadership by soliciting and giving feedback. But all the burden of feedback shouldn’t fall on your shoulders.

If you can get everyone on your team giving and getting feedback, you’ll improve results and relationships on your team. The most important thing here is simply this – don’t talk badly about people behind their back, and don’t listen to back-stabbing.

Encourage people to talk directly. If they can’t work it out, you can help mediate, but make sure you’re always talking to both people at the same time.

Build a cohesive team

It’s important to show you care personally and to be willing to challenge directly with feedback, because people’s feelings are on the line. But when you’re building a team and it’s not just their feelings but their promotion or bonus on the line, it matters even more.

Taking the time to learn people’s life stories will help you understand what gives work meaning for them. Asking them about their dreams of the future will help you understand what they really want out of their careers.

Doing these things not only helps show you care and deepens your relationship. It also will help you know what projects and roles to assign to whom. You’ll make better promotion decisions when you know who wants growth and who wants stability.

Achieve results collaboratively

Telling people what to do doesn’t work. You want to get "it" done, but you can’t just start by doing stuff. How can you maximize the collaboration dividend, while minimizing the collaboration tax? How can you execute in a way that shows you care about the people as well as the results, but also challenges the team to deliver astounding performance?

Start by listening. Apple’s Jony Ive said a leader’s job is to "give the quiet ones a voice." It’s certainly not to be the most verbose tyrant.

When you’ve listened to people, help them clarify their ideas. New ideas are fragile, and you want to help your team nurture them. Having nurtured your team’s thinking, you then need to make sure to subject them to debate. This will polish your team’s work, but there will be some noise and some friction.

That’s ok but don’t let it go on too long. Your job is to make sure decisions get made, usually by others on your team, who are closer to the facts. The less often you are the decider, the more decision-making power you’ll build on your team.

Once a decision has been made, it’s your job to ensure others are brought along, are persuaded that it’s the right thing to do. You won’t get quality execution without buy-in.

Now, finally, it’s time to execute, to get "it" done. The key thing in all the steps leading up to this is not to skip any, but also not to get stuck at any. Having executed, you’re now ready for the hardest part – learning whether what you decided to do was in fact the right thing.

You’ve got to learn, and start listening all over again.

If you can approach feedback, team and results with Radical Candor, you and everyone on your team will do the best work of their lives and form the closest relationships of their career.

Kim Scott is the author of Radical Candor, published by Macmillan on 23 March.