The Mursion team recently had the chance to host one our most popular and often-requested roundtables. The global phenomenon Radical Candor, based on the book by Kim Scott, is a compass for having candid conversations, guiding people to give feedback that is both kind and clear, specific, and sincere. In this dynamic virtual roundtable with Radical Candor CEO Jason Rosoff, we delved into the perils of “Obnoxious Aggression,” “Manipulative Insincerity,” and “Ruinous Empathy,” as well as how to be a kick-ass boss and colleague without losing your humanity.
What follows is an excerpt of Rosoff’s presentation. To see the full roundtable session, including a demo of Rosoff participating in a live Mursion demo, visit our YouTube channel. Join us for our upcoming Future of Work sessions by signing up here. And, to experience Mursion’s virtual reality simulations and see for yourself how this platform can support your own business to achieve its leadership development and other business goals, schedule a demo today.
“The two elements of Radical Candor are Care Personally and Challenge Directly, and I want to take each of these dimensions in turn. First, the Care Personally dimension. We like to call this the Give a Damn axis. Now, I’ve never met anyone who at any job that I’ve worked at who said, ‘I really don’t care about anybody that I work with, and that is going to make me an incredibly effective team member or boss.’
I don’t think it’s that we don’t know that caring about people matters, I think the question is why is it the case that sometimes, we find ourselves not demonstrating the care that we actually do have for people. I think that problem starts early on in our careers when someone comes along and says something along the lines of, ‘Be professional.’ For a lot of us, be professional gets translated into, leave your emotions, leave your humanity, leave all the best parts of yourself at home, and come to work like some sort of robot.
The Power of Being Radically Real
If we’re going to care about people at work, we need to be coming to work more than like some kind of robot, we need to be coming to work as a whole human being so that we can have real human relationships with the people who we work with. Now, that’s not all you need; the Beatles sort of got it wrong. Love is not all you need, you also need this other dimension, what we call the Challenge Directly dimension, or what we lovingly refer to as the Willing to Piss People Off dimension of Radical Candor.
We are very careful in our word choice here. I want you to know that first word is willing, it is not trying. We’re not saying your goal is to piss other people off, but we want to recognize the hesitancy that exists in all of us to rock the boat, to potentially say something that might upset somebody else. The question is, how can we share our perspectives in a way that is least likely to cause someone else to feel like we’re trying to piss them off but is still clear and direct.
Now, the problem with this starts much earlier than your career. For a lot of us, it starts as soon as we’re learning to talk. If you grew up in the US and in many Western countries, you may have actually literally heard this phrase before, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’ This is a mantra that is drilled into our heads from a very young age. There are cultural norms that we are trying to uphold when we don’t say something that might upset that balance. At the same time, that is insufficient because things do go wrong, and sometimes, we’re not aware of it.
Even someone telling us something, sharing an observation, that can sometimes be upsetting, but the goal of Radical Candor is, not never upset anybody else, but it is make sure that what you’re doing when you share your perspective is in service of the other person. That’s what Radical Candor is, and a little bit about what makes it hard. It can be hard to care personally because sometimes, it feels like being professional and caring personally are in tension with one another. It can be hard to challenge directly because it’s socially awkward to challenge other people’s perspectives.
Something that can help keep us motivated is to think about what happens when we’re not radically candid. What are we doing if we’re not being kind and clear? First, we have the quadrant where you challenge directly but you fail to show that you care personally. We lovingly refer to this quadrant as Obnoxious Aggression. When Kim was first writing the book, she actually called this the asshole quadrant, mostly because she thought that was more radically candid, I guess.
Now, I think none of us are jerks all the time, but we do, from time to time, behave like jerks. It’s important to be able to recognize that that happens. One thing to keep in mind is that often when we realize that we’ve landed in this quadrant of Obnoxious Aggression, instead of moving the right direction on Care Personally, we move the wrong direction on Challenge Directly and we wind up in the very worst quadrant of all which is Manipulative Insincerity, so low care and low challenge.
Then, last but not least, we have the quadrant where we make our most regrettable mistakes. That’s where we do care really deeply for the other person, but we fail to challenge them directly. We call that Ruinous Empathy.
The reason why all of this matters is because engagement, our ability to keep one another growing and engaged at work is dependent on our ability to have open, candid, and caring conversations about performance at work. How does this all work?
How Radical Candor Works in Real Life
What I want to say is that rolling out Radical Candor includes some non-intuitive steps. When I think about rolling out Radical Candor, it really is about three things. It starts somewhat counter-intuitively with soliciting feedback. Fundamentally, feedback requires both self-awareness and relational awareness. One of the best ways to build self-awareness is to start soliciting the input of the team members who you work with most frequently.
There’s also a little bit of an element here about proving you can take it before you start dishing it out. I think when we don’t seem open to feedback, other people are more likely to be defensive to feedback that we share with them. Next, it’s about giving it, but most people when they think of feedback at work, they think of bosses criticizing employees. That is not what Radical Candor is all about.
On top of that, what we like to say is that you need to focus on the good stuff. It’s not enough to identify the things that are going wrong. Think of criticism as your brake and praise as your accelerator. If you are hitting the brake more often than you’re hitting the gas, you’re probably not going to get very far, so you need to have a sense of how much of the time you are actually recognizing what’s working, and how much of the time you’re correcting what’s not working.
Think of criticism as your brake and praise as your accelerator.
I have never encountered an organization where someone says we get more praise, more developmentally useful praise than criticism on a regular basis. That’s problematic because when I ask the follow-up question which is what is the thing that you did last quarter or last year that is essential for you to continue doing in order to be successful? Very few people can answer that question.
When I ask them, what went wrong last quarter that you’re trying to stop from happening next quarter? They can answer that. The problem with that is in that situation, it’s really hard to build on your success, it’s hard to build on your strengths. Then, last but not least, it’s not enough to get or give feedback, you also need to gauge how it is landing with yourself and with other people.
From my perspective, this is about two things, this is about gauging how it’s landing and adjusting. We like to say that Radical Candor is not measured at your mouth, it’s measured at the other person’s ear, which means that while our intention may be Radical Candor, what’s equally important and more important in most cases is how the other person is actually hearing us.
We like to say that Radical Candor is not measured at your mouth, it’s measured at the other person’s ear.
We might think we’re being radically candid, but the other person might perceive us as ruinously empathetic, for example. How can we help ourselves? Most importantly, we want to respond to what’s actually happening in these conversations as opposed to what we wish was happening.
I want to recognize that whether it’s sadness or anger, a strong emotional reaction, what we really want to do in those moments is we want to move up on Care Personally. We want to tend to that emotion, to recognize that it is happening, and to let the other person know that we’re here to help them work through it.
Rethinking Human Hierarchies
That’s one of the reasons why we’ve partnered with Mursion, why we recommend Mursion to our clients, and why I’m excited to share this with you because I think one of the challenges that people have is that you learn a skill, you learn the intellectual parts of a skill, you maybe have an opportunity to practice in a workshop the day of or shortly thereafter. The question is how do we make sure that those skills don’t rot on the vine.
I do think that there are two versions of Manipulative Insincerity. One of them is active and one of them is passive. The passive one can be apathy, it can also be self-protection. I think we wind up in Manipulative Insincerity when we are exhausted, and we just feel like we have nothing left to give, we’re not addressing the issue, we’re not challenging anything, we’re also not showing that we care, but we’re retreating into our shell a bit like a turtle.
I do also think that there is real politicking that goes on in offices. Backstabbing behavior is a real thing. There’s an active version of Manipulative Insincerity that I think is real and is very, very damaging.
It’s sort of obvious that it’s damaging, and so we’re more likely to act on it, but I think in an environment where people are a combination of exhausted and feeling harried or bullied by some combination of Obnoxious Aggression and Manipulative Insincerity, it’s really easy for us to fall into that apathy trap.
In the past, what we had was brutality. The way things got done was people brutalizing other people, forcing them to do things that they didn’t want to do. We’ve shifted away from that toward bureaucracy, which is a step in the right direction for humanity. What you’re describing is that in bureaucracy, there’s a tendency to think that your level in that hierarchy, in the bureaucracy is somehow a value judgment. It somehow blesses you with more power and gives you the gift of being more valuable, more right more of the time than the people who are lower level in that bureaucracy.
That’s an inherent problem with human hierarchies is that we associate power with a value judgment and because we had not defined very well what it means to be a manager. If you ask a manager, ‘What is the job of being a manager?’ You’re going to get 100 different answers from 100 different people because we haven’t defined it as a job, people are falling into the trap of defaulting to that mistaken idea that hierarchy equals value in the organization.
That’s an inherent problem with human hierarchies is that we associate power with a value judgment.
That means that, on average, when someone who reports to you comes to you with a challenge, with a difference in perspective, there’s a way to see that as undermining your authority or ability as a leader. Now, in the last couple of decades, I think there’s been a lot of research on the combination like Angela Duckworth’s work on growth mindset combined with the research into psychological safety about how companies can actually innovate more quickly tells us that there’s a new mode of working, which is collaboration.
That’s after bureaucracy, we’ve now got highly collaborative working environments, and we’re in a transition between those two things. Radical Candor is really predicated on the idea that we want to move towards highly collaborative environments, which means de-emphasizing hierarchy and essentially removing the distinction between manager and employee as a hierarchical relationship and instead saying it’s a job relationship. We have two different jobs in this organization. A long way of saying that for a lot of managers, they receive feedback from people who report to them as a threat, as a challenge, and that is because of the way that we’ve been working for the better part of a century.
I think that is changing, but it is changing slowly. One of the things that we can do if we want to apply Radical Candor in those situations is to try applying that order of operations, and think about, ‘Have I solicited a feedback from this person? Do I know how they view me and view my performance? Have I demonstrated openness to their feedback?’ Number two, ‘Have I recognized the good things that are going on? When’s the last time I told my boss, This thing that you did, that was really helpful that was so great. I appreciate you doing that.’
Then try adding something like, ‘Hey, there’s something that I’ve noticed that would be way better if we did differently.’ I do think that there’s value in following that order of operations. What I’ve observed is that most of the time, when we take the time to demonstrate our openness to feedback, to show our willingness to recognize both the good things and the things that could be better, that most people will be open to feedback. It’s important to remember that managers are humans too.
That said, if you’re a manager and you’re listening to this now live or you’re watching this later, I want to say, ‘Suck it up.’ When someone comes to you and delivers unskillful feedback, part of your job as a manager is being willing to put your ego aside for a minute and hear what the other person is saying. The power dynamic in that relationship, the only way to make it more collaborative is to lay that power down in those situations.”
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