Illustration by Marianne Skinkeape
Illustration by Skinkeape

Work Culture

Kim Scott on why most work communication fails and how to fix it


Published on April 24, 2019

One summer afternoon in 1995, Kim Scott was walking through Manhattan with her new puppy, Belvedere. While waiting at a crosswalk, Scott glanced up at a street sign, taking her eyes off Belvedere for a split second.

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In that moment of distraction, Belvedere took off into the road, running into the path of an oncoming car. Scott noticed the flash of fur in her peripheral vision and turned back to see a car careening towards her beloved puppy. She janked on the lead and pulled Belvedere out of the way right as the car flew past.

“I'm standing there on the corner with my heart in my throat,” recalls Scott during our interview. “Then this man, a perfect stranger, looks at me and says, 'I can see you really love that dog but you’re going to kill her if you don’t teach her to sit.' ”

Scott realized two things about this interaction. First, the stranger seemed to genuinely care about her and Belvedere. He could see how much the puppy meant to Scott and didn’t want to see her have her heart broken. But second, he was willing to challenge her on her behaviour. Scott tells me this interaction was the genesis point for her revolutionary communication method, radical candor, which asks managers to both care personally about their colleagues and challenge them directly on their behaviour.

Using radical candor, Scott has led some of the world’s most innovative and successful teams. Her resume reads like a Silicon Valley greatest hits record: she led the AdSense team during the early days of Google, developed a leadership seminar at Apple and coached CEOs at Twitter, Qualtrics, and Dropbox.

"When you care and challenge at the same time, that's radical candor."

On March 14, 2017, Scott published Radical Candor, a distillation of everything she had learned about communication from her time at these high-performance companies. It took the world by storm, spreading like wildfire across the technology sector before breaking out into the wider economy. Seemingly overnight, everyone was talking about overhauling their communication model and becoming more candid.

Dropbox caught up with Scott to ask for tips on building a culture of radical candor, how radical candor can help to re-engage employees, and how technology is undermining our ability to process feedback.

Hi Kim! So, for those readers who haven’t heard of it, what is radical candor? And how is it different to existing feedback models?

Kim Scott: I think the most common thing that happens is that people just don't give feedback because it's hard and it's scary. I tried to come up with a structured way to think about why it's hard and scary and more importantly, how to make it a little bit easier. To me "feedback" sounds sort of screechy and it makes me want to put my hands over my ears. I like to call it guidance, and by guidance, I mean both praise and criticism.

There's two important things for good guidance. One is that you demonstrate to the person that you care about them at a personal level. The other is that you're willing to challenge them directly. You're not going to talk badly about them to other people. You're going to talk to that person directly.

So why is that so hard? I spent two years in business school and learned one really important thing: all of life's hardest problems can be boiled down to a good two-by-two framework. For the radical candor framework, imagine a big plus on a page. When you care and challenge at the same time, that's radical candor.

But sometimes you're going to challenge someone very directly, but you're going to fail to show them that you care about them. That is what I call obnoxious aggression. I used to call that the asshole quadrant because it seems simpler, but I stopped doing it for a very important reason. As soon as I call it the asshole quadrant, what people would do is start writing names in boxes. I beg of you: don't use this framework that way. This is not another Myers Briggs personality test. These are a series of mistakes that we all make all the time. So, the bottom right hand box is obnoxious aggression. That's when you challenge, but you forgot to show you care.

Very often when we find ourselves having been a jerk, instead of moving the right way on care personally, we just moved the wrong way on challenge directly and we say something like, "Oh, I'm sorry. Yeah, I didn't really mean that. It's not important. Everything's okay." But it is important and it's not okay. And now we've found ourselves in the worst quadrant of all where we neither challenged nor shown that we care, and we're being manipulatively insincere. This is where toxic behavior, passive aggressive behavior, political behavior and all of the very worst kinds of stuff at work happens.

It's fun to tell stories about obnoxious aggression and manipulative insincerity because this is the stuff of drama. But the fact of the matter is that most of us make the vast majority of our mistakes in this last box. This is where you show that you care personally, but you are so reluctant to hurt someone's feelings that you don't tell them something they'd be better off knowing. That’s what I call ruinous empathy.

"She says, 'I see that I'm going to have to be a lot more direct with you. When you say Um every third word, it makes you sound stupid.' "

How did you land on the two axises for radical candor? Why is it important to care personally and challenge directly?

I had to give a presentation to the founders and the CEO of Google about how the AdSense business was doing. I walked into the room and there is Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders, on an elliptical trainer, wearing toe shoes and peddling away. And there is Eric Schmidt, who was the CEO at the time, in the other corner of the room doing his email and he's so intense. It's like his brain has been plugged into the machine.

Like any normal person in this situation, I felt nervous. How in the world was I supposed to get these people's attention? Luckily for me, the business was on fire and when I said how many new customers we had added, Eric almost fell off his chair. "What did you say? What do you need? Do you need more engineers? Do you need more marketing guys?" So, I feel like the meeting was going all right.

As I left the meeting, I passed by my boss, Sheryl Sandberg. I'm expecting a high five and a pat on the back but instead she says, "Why don't you walk back to my office with me?" I realized that I had done something wrong. All of a sudden I had gone from triumph to despair. She started by telling me about the things that had gone well in the conversation. But eventually, Sheryl said to me, "You said Um a lot in there. Were you aware of it?" I made a brush off gesture with my hand and said, "Yeah, it's a verbal tic. It's no big deal, really." Meanwhile, I'm thinking if that's all I did wrong, who really cares? Then Sheryl said, "I know a really good speech coach at Google and the company would pay for it. You want an introduction?"

Once again, I made this brush off gesture with my hand and I said, "No, I'm busy. I don't have time. Didn't you hear about all these new customers?" And then Sheryl stops and she looks me right in the eye and she says, "I see that I'm going to have to be a lot more direct with you. When you say Um every third word, it makes you sound stupid." Now she's got my full attention.

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. If she hadn't used those words, I wouldn't have gone to see the speech coach. When I went to see the speech coach, I realized Sheryl was not exaggerating. I literally said Um every third word and this was news to me. I'd been giving presentations for my whole career and it was almost like I had been walking through 20 years of career with a giant hunk of spinach between my teeth and nobody had the common courtesy to tell me.

This got me thinking, what was it about Sheryl that made it so seemingly easy for her to tell me? And more interestingly, why had no one else told me? It was really thinking about the things that made Sheryl a good boss that helped me come up with caring personally and challenging directly.

"Give more praise than criticism, but share the things that are bothering you so that you can resolve them with the person."

Radical candor is obviously much more effective than other feedback models so why are we still stuck with ineffective feedback tactics?

It's a big question and I have a lot of hypotheses. I can't say I've nailed the answer, but I think part of the problem is that we all have a negativity bias. Our negativity bias is especially strong when it comes to social situations because, for most of evolution, if we got thrown out of the tribe, we were dead. We couldn't survive on our own so we would do anything to make sure that we were accepted.

In my experience, nine times out of 10 when you try radical candor, you're pleasantly surprised by the results. But one time out of 10 you're going to have a radical candor train wreck. I think we're more focused on that one negative than the nine positives. One of the things that we do to help people is to teach them how to gauge the person's response. When they get a negative response, we help them choose the right vector on the framework and figure out when it's time to move out on the challenge directly dimension and when it's time to move up on the care personally dimension. This can be confusing and complicated because sometimes if somebody is upset, it's tempting to just back off your challenge, right?

When I was at Apple, we used to hire actors to do role-plays. The reason we hired actors is because actors have a talent: they can cry on command. You'd be working with these hot shit software engineers but as soon as the actor would start to cry, they would back off, they would wimp out.

In moments where there's emotion, part of it is learning how to attend to the emotion in the room and say, "Look, it seems like I've upset you and I'm sorry. It's not my intention to upset you. It's my intention to help you." I'm not talking about like long major therapy session. Just a sentence or two to remind the person that it's your intention to be helpful and that you care about them without backing off your challenge. 

A recent Gallup survey showed that two-thirds of workers are disengaged at work. How can we encourage more radical candor in a climate where so many people are disengaged? Could radical candor even be used as a way to get people engaged?

Radical candor can definitely be a great way to re-engage people. I think one of the things that people hate at work is feeling invisible, right? I think very often what we do is not saying anything when something’s bugging us. The other person can tell something is wrong but they don't know exactly what it is. It's a disaster for the relationship because both people feel invisible.

These are very human relationships—different from family relationships, different from romantic relationships, different from friendships—but they’re still relationships. And the thing that people really hate is being made to feel ignored or invisible in a relationship.

First of all, soliciting feedback from the people who seem disengaged. Maybe you're doing something that's driving that other person crazy. You need to figure out what it is you're doing and stop doing it or try to stop doing it. Or if you disagree with them, you know you need to find that five percent of what they said that they can agree with and then offer a fuller, more respectful explanation of why you disagree. Then at least the person doesn't feel ignored. So, step number one is to solicit feedback. Don't dish it out until you prove you can take it.

Step number two is to offer more praise than criticism. There's a lot of research that shows you need to offer three times as much praise or five times as much praise or seven times as much praise as criticism. You don't want to try to rule your relationships with a ratio because then you'll wind up saying stupid, insincere things. Make sure that you're offering praise that's meaningful, genuine, specific and sincere.

And you want to do it often. A lot of the times at work, we hesitate to praise people because when we criticize others, we naturally look smarter. But remember your job here is not to look smart. Your job here is to build a relationship. You want to offer praise often and sincerely. And again focus on the good stuff.

But at some point, you do want to say, "There's something that's bothering me and I'd like to tell you about it. Is now a good time?" You want to start out in a neutral place when you're starting with criticism, and you want to make sure you've chosen a good moment for the person because they're open to it.

Feedback is traditionally hierarchical but radical candor seems to encourage colleagues to provide feedback; is that correct?

I think it is so important for managers to get feedback from their employees. It's even more important for bosses to solicit feedback than to give it. Part of it is that nothing is more damaging to a relationship than hierarchy.

Being a boss is not like a value judgment like saying "I am better than you and therefore, I'm going to give you criticism and you're going to kiss my ass." That's not helpful. You want to make sure that you're trying to get on a level playing field at a basic human level so that you're showing common human decency to one another.

Radical candor is fundamentally about human communication. Whether you're talking to your boss, your peer or your employee, it's really important that you solicit feedback first and focus on the good stuff. You give more praise than criticism, but you share the things that are bothering you so that you can resolve them with the person.

And it’s important that you encourage it between people. One of the most common things that happens at work is somebody will come up to you and they'll start dishing about somebody else. They will start criticizing somebody else. They'll start complaining about something that someone did. It's tempting to feel like you're being an empathetic listener in those moments. But this is the one moment when listening is not the right response. This is your time to say, "Go talk to so and so about that. Talk to them directly. I'm not going to engage in office politics and gossip." When you have these conversations, all you're doing is stirring the political pot. Push them to go talk directly. If you're the boss of these two people, make sure that they resolve the problem. If they don't, make them come to you together so you're having a three way conversation.

A new Dropbox survey showed knowledge workers tend to trust workers "closest to the work" over the opinions of upper management. How can workers get the courage to challenge senior leaders directly?

I think one really important thing that senior leaders can do is they can roll out a simple, painless process, a ‘speak truth to power’ process. It's sometimes called skip level meetings. The way this works is if you're a manager of managers, once a year you meet with all of the people who work for each of your direct reports.

Let's say, Anne is on my team and so is Thomas. First, I go and I meet with Anne's team without Anne in the room and I say, "What could Anne do or stop doing that would make her a better boss or improve her leadership?" I'll explain to people that the goal is for them to be able to speak to Anne directly and not through me, but I understand that it's hard to speak truth to power. That's why we're doing this meeting. We're overcoming that fact of hierarchy.

I take notes during the meeting and I let people know that I'm going to tell Anne what was said in the meeting but not who said it. We're gonna identify two or three things that Anne can do to address to make her a better leader. Then I do the same thing with Thomas. It's gotta be seen as a process that I do for everyone. I'm not punishing Anne or Thomas because I've heard they're a bad leader. It's got to be a routine process.

Then it's really important for me to work with Anne and Thomas to identify what they are going to do and how they are going to communicate that they've done it. It’s important to say, "Look, one of the services I don't have to offer here is a personality transplant. Anne is still going to be Anne so let's really focus not on criticizing them as human beings, but on what are the things they can do to make it a little easier to work with them?”

You mentioned in an interview last year that it’s hard to systematize feedback; why is that? 

There's a big difference between developmental feedback, helping managers coach and develop their employees, and performance management. Most of what is written about in radical candor is around developmental feedback. It's around these quick two-minute conversations that you have on the spot, and it's really difficult to operationalize the impromptu two-minute conversation. Yet it's so important. It's like the difference between brushing your teeth and going to get a root canal. Mostly what I was talking about is brushing.

But there are times when we also need to do performance management. I think there's a big move in a lot of companies to just do away with performance management altogether with giving ratings and all of this. I think that is not always a bad thing if they instead focus on teaching people to have these developmental conversations. If you do performance management without the development conversations, it's like capping a rotten tooth. It's just going to rot faster.

I do think that most organizations that are doing away with performance management will wind up bringing it back after they've gotten the development conversations. I think you can design a performance management system that reinforces radical candor or you can design one that destroys it. In my opinion you want to obviously design one that will reinforce radical candor and make sure that performance management is not seen as a substitute for the development conversations because one of the things that happens in a lot of companies is that people decide, "Oh, I don't need to have this conversation right now because I am going to have a performance." And that's a disaster, a total disaster.

You want to make sure that you reiterate the importance of the development conversations in the performance management system.

Talking of actual conversations, is how you deliver them important? Is it better for them to be face-to-face or is email and Slack okay?

It's very important how you deliver guidance. Whenever possible it's much better to do it in person. Around 80 to 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. For example, in my Google presentation story, if Sheryl hadn't been talking to me in person, she wouldn't have seen me make this brush off gesture with my hand and she wouldn't have known she had to keep going out on the challenge directly axis. It's really important to have these conversations in person whenever possible.

There is a hierarchy of mediums. A video call is better than a phone call. That's why, even though this recording is audio, we're looking at each other right now. We'll have a better conversation if we can see color. Video is better than just audio. A phone call is way better than an email. I really think that you should never deliver feedback over text.

Do you think technology in general disrupts our ability to solicit, give, receive and process feedback?

I think it always feels like it's going to be faster to just send an email or send a text because picking up the phone and calling somebody means you have to listen to their response. But it almost never is. If you calculate all the emotional upset and miscommunications that happen over text and email, we're much more prone to just veer off into the wrong direction when we can't see how the other person is responding.

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