BUILD RADICALLY CANDID RELATIONSHIPS
Bringing your whole self to work
IT’S CALLED MANAGEMENT, AND IT’S YOUR JOB
I USUALLY FELT a little surge of pleasure as I stepped off the elevator into the cavernous former warehouse in the East Village we’d rented as the office of Juice Software, the start-up I’d cofounded in 2000. That day, I just felt stressed.
The engineers had worked nights and weekends on an early “beta” version of our product, which would be ready in a week. The sales team had gotten thirty big-name customers lined up for beta testing. If those customers were using our product, we’d be able to raise another round of funding. If not, we’d run out of money in six months.
There was one blocker: me. The night before, one of our angel investors, Dave Roux, had told me he thought our pricing was all wrong. “Think about the last time you bought a used car—one that cost less than $10,000. Now, think about the guy who sold it to you. That’s who your salespeople will be. That’s who’ll represent you in the market.” I knew in my gut Dave was right, but I couldn’t go to my sales team or my board and change everything just based on a gut feeling. I needed to sit down and do some analysis—fast. I’d cleared my calendar of meetings for the morning so I could do just that.
I’d gotten only a few steps into the office when a colleague suddenly ran up. He needed to talk right away. He had just learned that he might need a kidney transplant, and he was completely freaked out. After an hour and two cups of tea, he seemed calmer.
I walked toward my desk, past an engineer whose child was in the ICU. Must check in. “How’d your son do last night?” I asked. He hadn’t improved—and as he told me how the night had gone we both had tears in our eyes. I convinced him to leave the office and go and take care of himself for an hour before returning to the hospital.
I left his desk drained, passing by our quality assurance manager. His child had better news: she’d just received the highest score in the entire state on a standardized math test. He wanted to talk about it. I felt emotional whiplash as I jumped from sympathy to celebration.
By the time I got back to my desk, I had no time or emotional reserves to think about pricing. I cared about each of these people, but I also felt worn out—frustrated that I couldn’t get any “real” work done. Later that day, I called my CEO coach, Leslie Koch, to complain.
“Is my job to build a great company,” I asked, “or am I really just some sort of emotional babysitter?”
Leslie, a fiercely opinionated ex-Microsoft executive, could barely contain herself. “This is not babysitting,” she said. “It’s called management, and it is your job!”
Every time I feel I have something more “important” to do than listen to people, I remember Leslie’s words: “It is your job!” I’ve used Leslie’s line on dozens of new managers who’ve come to me after a few weeks in their new role, moaning that they feel like “babysitters” or “shrinks.”
We undervalue the “emotional labor” of being the boss. That term is usually reserved for people who work in the service or health industry: psychiatrists, nurses, doctors, waiters, flight attendants. But as I will show in the pages to come, this emotional labor is not just part of the job; it’s the key to being a good boss.
HOW TO BE A GOOD BOSS
GIVEN MY LINE of work, I get asked by almost everyone I meet how to be a better boss/manager/leader. I get questions from the people who worked for me, the CEOs I coached, the people who attended a class I taught or a talk I gave. I get questions from people who are using the management software system that Russ Laraway and I cofounded a company, Candor, Inc., to build. Others have submitted their management dilemmas to our Web site (radicalcandor.com). But questions also come from the harried parent sitting next to me at the school play who doesn’t know how to tell the babysitter not to feed the kids so much sugar; the contractor who is frustrated when his crew doesn’t show up on time; the nurse who’s just been promoted to supervisor and is telling me how bewildering it is—as she takes my blood pressure, I feel I should be taking hers; the business executive who’s speaking with exaggerated patience into his cell phone as we board a plane, snaps it shut, and asks nobody in particular, “Why did I hire that goddamn moron?”; the friend still haunted by the expression on the face of an employee whom she laid off years ago. Regardless of who asks the questions, they tend to reveal an underlying anxiety: many people feel they aren’t as good at management as they are at the “real” part of the job. Often, they fear they are failing the people who report to them.
While I hate to see this kind of stress, I find these conversations productive because I know I can help. By the end of these talks, people feel much more confident that they can be a great boss.
There’s often a funny preamble to the questions I get, because most people don’t like the words for their role: “boss” evokes injustice, “manager” sounds bureaucratic, “leader” sounds self-aggrandizing. I prefer the word “boss” because the distinctions between leadership and management tend to define leaders as BSers who don’t actually do anything and managers as petty executors. Also, there’s a problematic hierarchical difference implied in the two words, as if leaders no longer have to manage when they achieve a certain level of success, and brand-new managers don’t have to lead. Richard Tedlow’s biography of Andy Grove, Intel’s lengendary CEO, asserts that management and leadership are like forehand and backhand. You have to be good at both to win. I hope by the end of this book you’ll have a more positive association with all three words: boss, manager, leader.
Having dispensed with semantics, the next question is often very basic: what do bosses/managers/leaders do? Go to meetings? Send emails? Tell people what to do? Dream up strategies and expect other people to execute them? It’s tempting to suspect them of doing a whole lot of nothing.
Ultimately, though, bosses are responsible for results. They achieve these results not by doing all the work themselves but by guiding the people on their teams. Bosses guide a team to achieve results.
The questions I get asked next are clustered around each of these three areas of responsibility that managers do have: guidance, team-building, and results.
Guidance is often called “feedback.” People dread feedback—both the praise, which can feel patronizing, and especially the criticism. What if the person gets defensive? Starts to yell? Threatens to sue? Bursts into tears? What if the person refuses to understand the criticism, or can’t figure out what to do to fix the problem? What if there isn’t any simple way to fix the problem? What should a boss say then? But it’s no better when the problem is really simple and obvious. Why doesn’t the person already know it’s a problem? Do I actually have to say it? Am I too nice? Am I too mean? All these questions loom so large that people often forget they need to solicit guidance from others, and encourage it between them.
Building a cohesive team means figuring out the right people for the right roles: hiring, firing, promoting. But once you’ve got the right people in the right jobs, how do you keep them motivated? Particularly in Silicon Valley, the questions sound like this: why does everyone always want the next job when they haven’t even mastered the job they have yet? Why do millennials expect their career to come with instructions like a Lego set? Why do people leave the team as soon as they get up to speed? Why do the wheels keep coming off the bus? Why won’t everyone just do their job and let me do mine?
Many managers are perpetually frustrated that it seems harder than it should be to get things done. We just doubled the size of the team, but the results are not twice as good. In fact, they are worse. What happened? Sometimes things move too slowly: the people who work for me would debate forever if I let them. Why can’t they make a decision? But other times things move too fast: we missed our deadline because the team was totally unwilling to do a little planning—they insisted on just firing willy-nilly, no ready, no aim! Why can’t they think before they act? Or they seem to be on automatic pilot: they are doing exactly the same thing this quarter that they did last quarter, and they failed last quarter. Why do they expect the results to be different?
Guidance, team, and results: these are the responsibilities of any boss. This is equally true for anyone who manages people—CEOs, middle managers, and first-time leaders. CEOs may have broader problems to deal with, but they still have to work with other human beings, with all the quirks and skills and weaknesses just as apparent and relevant to their success in the C Suite as when they got their very first management role.
It’s natural that managers who wonder whether they are doing right by the people who report to them want to ask me about these three topics. I’ll address each fully over the course of this book.
RELATIONSHIPS, NOT POWER, DRIVE YOU FORWARD
BUT THE MOST important question, the question that goes to the heart of being a good boss, doesn’t usually get asked. An exception was Ryan Smith, the CEO of Qualtrics. I’d just started coaching him, and his first question to me was, “I have just hired several new leaders on my team. How can I build a relationship with each of them quickly, so that I can trust them and they can trust me?”
Very few people focus first on the central difficulty of management that Ryan hit on: establishing a trusting relationship with each person who reports directly to you. If you lead a big organization, you can’t have a relationship with everyone; but you can really get to know the people who report directly to you. Many things get in the way, though: power dynamics first and foremost, but also fear of conflict, worry about the boundaries of what’s appropriate or “professional,” fear of losing credibility, time pressure.
Nevertheless, these relationships are core to your job. They determine whether you can fulfill your three responsibilities as a manager: 1) to create a culture of guidance (praise and criticism) that will keep everyone moving in the right direction; 2) to understand what motivates each person on your team well enough to avoid burnout or boredom and keep the team cohesive; and 3) to drive results collaboratively. If you think that you can do these things without strong relationships, you are kidding yourself. I’m not saying that unchecked power, control, or authority can’t work. They work especially well in a baboon troop or a totalitarian regime. But if you’re reading this book, that’s not what you’re shooting for.
There is a virtuous cycle between your responsibilities and your relationships. You strengthen your relationships by learning the best ways to get, give, and encourage guidance; by putting the right people in the right roles on your team; and by achieving results collectively that you couldn’t dream of individually. Of course, there can be a vicious cycle between your responsibilities and your relationships, too. When you fail to give people the guidance they need to succeed in their work, or put people into roles they don’t want or aren’t well-suited for, or push people to achieve results they feel are unrealistic, you erode trust.
Your relationships and your responsibilities reinforce each other positively or negatively, and this dynamic is what drives you forward as a manager—or leaves you dead in the water. Your relationships with your direct reports affect the relationships they have with their direct reports, and your team’s culture. Your ability to build trusting, human connections with the people who report directly to you will determine the quality of everything that follows.
Defining those relationships is vital. They’re deeply personal, and they’re not like any other relationships in your life. But most of us are at a loss when we set about to build those relationships. Radical Candor, the fundamental concept of this book, can help guide you.
DEVELOPING TRUST IS not simply a matter of “do x, y, and z, and you have a good relationship.” Like all human bonds, the connections between bosses and the people who report to them are unpredictable and not subject to absolute rules. But I have identified two dimensions that, when paired, will help you move in a positive direction.
The first dimension is about being more than “just professional.” It’s about giving a damn, sharing more than just your work self, and encouraging everyone who reports to you to do the same. It’s not enough to care only about people’s ability to perform a job. To have a good relationship, you have to be your whole self and care about each of the people who work for you as a human being. It’s not just business; it is personal, and deeply personal. I call this dimension “Care Personally.”
The second dimension involves telling people when their work isn’t good enough—and when it is; when they are not going to get that new role they wanted, or when you’re going to hire a new boss “over” them; when the results don’t justify further investment in what they’re working on. Delivering hard feedback, making hard calls about who does what on a team, and holding a high bar for results—isn’t that obviously the job of any manager? But most people struggle with doing these things. Challenging people generally pisses them off, and at first that doesn’t seem like a good way to build a relationship or to show that you “care personally.” And yet challenging people is often the best way to show them that you care when you’re the boss. This dimension I call “Challenge Directly.”
“Radical Candor” is what happens when you put “Care Personally” and “Challenge Directly” together. Radical Candor builds trust and opens the door for the kind of communication that helps you achieve the results you’re aiming for. And it directly addresses the fears that people express to me when asking questions about the management dilemmas they face. It turns out that when people trust you and believe you care about them, they are much more likely to 1) accept and act on your praise and criticism; 2) tell you what they really think about what you are doing well and, more importantly, not doing so well; 3) engage in this same behavior with one another, meaning less pushing the rock up the hill again and again; 4) embrace their role on the team; and 5) focus on getting results.
Why “radical”? I chose this word because so many of us are conditioned to avoid saying what we really think. This is partially adaptive social behavior; it helps us avoid conflict or embarrassment. But in a boss, that kind of avoidance is disastrous.
Why “candor”? The key to getting everyone used to being direct when challenging each other (and you!) is emphasizing that it’s necessary to communicate clearly enough so that there’s no room for interpretation, but also humbly. I chose “candor” instead of “honesty” because there’s not much humility in believing that you know the truth. Implicit with candor is that you’re simply offering your view of what’s going on and that you expect people to offer theirs. If it turns out that in fact you’re the one who got it wrong, you want to know. At least I hope you want to know!
The most surprising thing about Radical Candor may be that its results are often the opposite of what you fear. You fear people will become angry or vindictive; instead they are usually grateful for the chance to talk it through. And even when you do get that initial anger, resentment, or sullenness, those emotions prove to be fleeting when the person knows you really care. As the people who report to you become more Radically Candid with each other, you spend less time mediating. When Radical Candor is encouraged and supported by the boss, communication flows, resentments that have festered come to the surface and get resolved, and people begin to love not just their work but whom they work with and where they work. When people love their job, the whole team is more successful. The resulting happiness is the success beyond success.
CARE PERSONALLY: THE FIRST DIMENSION OF RADICAL CANDOR
MY FIRST LESSON about why it’s important to care personally took place in Moscow on July 4, 1992, while I was standing under a tarp in the rain with ten of the world’s best diamond cutters, whom I was trying to hire. I was working for a New York diamond company. I‘d graduated from college two years earlier with a degree in Russian literature. My education had seemed irrelevant to my current situation. My assignment just required common sense, not a deep understanding of human nature. I had to convince these people to leave the state-owned Russian factory that paid them in rubles, which were almost worthless. I, on the other hand, could pay with U.S. dollars—a lot of them. And that was how you motivated people, right? You paid them.
Wrong. The diamond cutters wanted a picnic.
And so we stood under the tarp, eating shashlyk—grilled chunks of meat—and small, tart apples, passing a bottle of vodka around while the diamond cutters peppered me with questions. Their first assignment would be to cut a 100-carat diamond into a pair of one-of-a-kind earrings. “Who could buy such large jewels?” the diamond cutters wanted to know. I explained they were a gift from a Saudi sheikh to his wife, who was having twins. What did I know about using lasers to cut diamonds? I promised to take them to Israel to see the latest technology, which was still less efficient than the old copper disks they used. They wanted to learn English. I promised to teach them myself. “Would it also be possible to have lunch together every week or so?” Absolutely. As we drained the bottle of vodka, another question came. “If everything went to hell in Russia, would you get us and our families out of here?” I understood this was the only question that really mattered. By the end of our picnic, I finally realized that the most important thing I could do that the state could not do was to simply give a damn, personally.
The diamond cutters took the job. Suddenly all those late nights of reading long Russian novels became relevant to the business career I’d stumbled into. I had been deeply ambivalent about becoming a boss because I saw bosses as robotic dream-killers, Dilbert-like soul-crushers. Now I realized the question that led me to study Russian literature—why some people live productively and joyfully while others feel, as Marx put it, alienated from their labor—was central to a boss’s job. In fact, part of my job was to figure out how to create more joy and less misery. My humanity was an attribute, not a liability, to being effective.
Two years after this picnic, I’d arranged for these men’s first travel outside their homeland; helped them to come to grips with the dissonance they felt between the world they saw and what their Soviet education had led them to expect; improved their English; and hung out with their families. They had cut diamonds for our company that sold in excess of $100 million per year.
* * *
IT SEEMS OBVIOUS that good bosses must care personally about the people who report directly to them. Very few people start out their careers thinking, I don’t give a damn about people, so I think I’ll be a great boss. And yet, it happens all too often that employees feel they’re being treated as pawns on a chessboard, or as inferiors—not just in a corporate hierarchy but on a fundamental human level.
Part of the reason why people fail to “care personally” is the injunction to “keep it professional.” That phrase denies something essential. We are all human beings, with human feelings, and, even at work, we need to be seen as such. When that doesn’t happen, when we feel we must repress who we really are to earn a living, we become alienated. That makes us hate going to work. To most bosses, being professional means: show up at work on time, do your job, don’t show feelings (unless engaged in “motivation” or some such end-driven effort). The result is that nobody feels comfortable being who they really are at work.
Fred Kofman, my coach at Google, had a mantra that contradicted the “just professional” approach so destructive to so many managers: “Bring your whole self to work.” This saying has become a meme; Google it and you’ll get more than eight million results. Sheryl Sandberg referred to it in her 2012 commencement address at Harvard, author Mike Robbins devoted a TEDx talk to it in 2016, and Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s CEO, has made it a priority for his company. Bringing your whole self to work is one of those concepts that’s hard to define precisely, but you develop a feel for it when you start to open up to it. This often means modeling the behavior yourself by showing some vulnerability to the people who report to you—or just admitting when you’re having a bad day—and creating a safe space for others to do the same.
In addition to the obsessive devotion to “professionalism,” there’s another, less virtuous reason why people fail to “care personally.” When they become a boss, some people consciously or unconsciously begin to feel they’re better or smarter than the people who work for them. That attitude makes it impossible to be a kick-ass boss; it just makes people want to kick your ass. There are few things more damaging to human relationships than a sense of superiority. That’s why I detest the word “superior” as a synonym for “boss.” I also avoid the word “employee.” I once worked for a man who told me, “In every relationship there is a screwer and a screwee.” Needless to say, I didn’t work for him for long. Of course, if you are a boss, there is some hierarchy involved. There’s no use pretending otherwise. Just remember that being a boss is a job, not a value judgment.
Caring personally is the antidote to both robotic professionalism and managerial arrogance. Why do I say “caring personally” instead of just “caring”? Because it’s not enough to care about the person’s work or the person’s career. Only when you actually care about the whole person with your whole self can you build a relationship.
Caring personally is not about memorizing birthdays and names of family members. Nor is it about sharing the sordid details of one’s personal life, or forced chitchat at social events you’d rather not attend. Caring personally is about doing things you already know how to do. It’s about acknowledging that we are all people with lives and aspirations that extend beyond those related to our shared work. It’s about finding time for real conversations; about getting to know each other at a human level; about learning what’s important to people; about sharing with one another what makes us want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work—and what has the opposite effect.
It isn’t simply a matter of allowing your approach to your responsibilities to show that you care, however; you must also care deeply about people while being prepared to be hated in return. The movie Miracle, which is centered around the head coach of the 1980 U.S. men’s Olympic ice hockey team, depicts this really well. Head coach Herb Brooks unifies his team by pushing them so hard that he becomes the common enemy. It’s clear watching the movie how much he cares about each player, and it’s painful to watch how long it takes the players to see it. Being the boss can feel like a lonely one-way street at times—especially at first. That is OK. If you can absorb the blows, the members of your team are more likely to be good bosses to their employees, when they have them. Once people know what it feels like to have a good boss, it’s more natural for them to want to be a good boss. They may never repay you, but they are likely to pay it forward. The rewards of watching people you care about flourish and then help others flourish are enormous.
CHALLENGE DIRECTLY: THE SECOND DIMENSION OF RADICAL CANDOR
THE PHILOSOPHER JOSHUA Cohen, who taught executives at Twitter and Apple and students at Stanford and MIT, does a great job of explaining why challenging each other is essential not just to doing great work but to building great relationships. He often uses this quote from John Stuart Mill:
The source of everything respectable in man either as an intellectual or as a moral being [is] that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted.
Challenging others and encouraging them to challenge you helps build trusting relationships because it shows 1) you care enough to point out both the things that aren’t going well and those that are and that 2) you are willing to admit when you’re wrong and that you are committed to fixing mistakes that you or others have made. But because challenging often involves disagreeing or saying no, this approach embraces conflict rather than avoiding it.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell once remarked that being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.1 You have to accept that sometimes people on your team will be mad at you. In fact, if nobody is ever mad at you, you probably aren’t challenging your team enough. The key, as in any relationship, is how you handle the anger. When what you say hurts, acknowledge the other person’s pain. Don’t pretend it doesn’t hurt or say it “shouldn’t” hurt—just show that you care. Eliminate the phrase “don’t take it personally” from your vocabulary—it’s insulting. Instead, offer to help fix the problem. But don’t pretend it isn’t a problem just to try to make somebody feel better. In the end, caring personally about people even as you challenge them will build the best relationships of your career.
The “challenge directly” part of this program can be particularly difficult, especially at the outset. You may have to criticize somebody’s work or change their role while you are still in the process of establishing that trust. I’ll dedicate a good deal of time to showing you how to do this throughout the book. But that’s not the hardest part. The hardest part of building this trust is inviting people to challenge you, just as directly as you are challenging them. You have to encourage them to challenge you directly enough that you may be the one who feels upset or angry. This takes some getting used to—particularly for more “authoritarian” leaders. But if you stick to it, you’ll find that you learn a great deal about yourself and how people perceive you. This knowledge will unfailingly allow you and your team to achieve better results.
* * *
MY COFOUNDER RUSS recently hired Elisse Lockhart to lead Candor, Inc.’s content marketing efforts. Russ is pretty opinionated about the way we describe Radical Candor. Elisse was new to the team and so was holding back her opinions. Russ, sensitive to not only this dynamic but also to the fact he was her boss, was careful to make sure that he encouraged Elisse to challenge both of us just as hard as we challenged her.
Building enough trust between people to enable reciprocal challenge irrespective of reporting relationship takes time and attention. I saw a winning moment in building that trust when Russ and Elisse were collaborating on a blog post for our website. Elisse disagreed with some of Russ’s suggested wording, and she said so. They went back and forth a few times, and it seemed as if Elisse was going to back down. Sensing this, Russ said, “If we have the data about what works, let’s look at the data, but if all we have are opinions, let’s use yours,” borrowing from Jim Barksdale of Netscape, but offering the opposite prescription. Russ agreed to Elisse’s changes, and the data on reception to Elisse’s wording proved her right.
Emboldened, the next time she argued her perspective she did so even more forcefully—so much so that she worried maybe she’d stepped over a line with her boss. She hadn’t, and to make that clear Russ sent across the “Help me, help you” Jerry Maguire clip. In the movie, Jerry and his client Rod get in a big argument, and the punch line features Rod telling Jerry, “See, that’s the difference between us—you think we’re fightin’, and I think we’re finally talkin’!”
WHAT RADICAL CANDOR IS NOT
WE TALKED ABOUT the importance of humility. Radical Candor is not a license to be gratuitously harsh or to “front-stab.” It’s not Radical Candor just because you begin with the words, “Let me be Radically Candid with you.” If you follow that phrase with words like, “You are a liar and I don’t trust you,” or “You’re a dipshit,” you’ve just acted like a garden-variety jerk. It’s not Radical Candor if you don’t show that you care personally.
Radical Candor is also not an invitation to nitpick. Challenging people directly takes real energy—not only from the people you’re challenging but from you as well. So do it only for things that really matter. A good rule of thumb for any relationship is to leave three unimportant things unsaid each day.
Radical Candor is not a hierarchical thing. To be Radically Candid, you need to practice it “up,” “down,” and “sideways.” Even if your boss and peers have not bought in to this method, you CAN create a Radically Candid microcosm for yourself and the people on your team. You are entitled to proceed with a little more caution with your boss and your peers. But ultimately, if it’s not possible to be Radically Candid with your boss and your peers, I’d recommend finding a different kind of work environment if at all possible.
Radical Candor is not about schmoozing, nor is it about endless extroversion that exhausts the introverts on your team or wears you out if you happen to be the introvert. It’s not about getting drunk or driving go-carts or playing laser tag or having endless dinners with colleagues. Those might be good ways to blow off steam, but activities like that take up a lot of time and are not the most efficient way to help you get to know the people you work with, or show them you care personally.
Radical Candor is not unique to the culture in Silicon Valley, nor is it uniquely American. It’s human. In fact, it was while working for an Israeli company that I began to develop my thinking about Radical Candor.
RADICAL CANDOR IS UNIVERSALLY HUMAN, BUT INTERPERSONALLY AND CULTURALLY RELATIVE
BOTH DIMENSIONS OF Radical Candor are sensitive to context. They get measured at the listener’s ear, not at the speaker’s mouth. Radical Candor is not a personality type or a talent or a cultural judgment. Radical Candor works only if the other person understands that your efforts at caring personally and challenging directly are delivered in good faith.
We have to be constantly aware of the fact that what seemed Radically Candid to one person or team may feel too obnoxious (or too touchy-feely) to another. Radical Candor requires even more adjustment when we go from one company to another, and more yet when we go from one country to another. What worked in one culture won’t translate directly to another.
* * *
NOW LET’S MOVE on to Radical Candor, Israeli-style. Shortly after I graduated from business school, I took a job with Deltathree, a voice-over IP start-up based in Jerusalem. I was raised in the American South, where people will do almost anything to avoid conflict or argument. In Israel, the opposite was true. Conversations seemed to take on a particularly brutal directness. I’ll never forget overhearing Noam Bardin, Deltathree’s COO, yelling at an engineer, “That design could be fifteen times more efficient. You know you could have built it better. Now we’re going to have to rip what you did out and start over. We’ve lost a month, and for what? What were you thinking?”
That seemed harsh. Rude, even …
I began to understand the Israeli culture better when Jacob Ner-David, one of Deltathree’s investors, invited me over to his home in Jerusalem for Shabbat dinner. His wife, Haviva Ner-David, was studying to be a rabbi, something rare in the Orthodox community. She had come under attack from a number of people in their synagogue. Jacob was enormously supportive of her, and together the two of them explained how they approached traditional doctrine. The way Jacob and his wife questioned ancient interpretations of scripture somehow reminded me of how Noam challenged his engineer. If it was OK to challenge and reinterpret God’s doctrine, of course it was not a sign of disrespect to argue vehemently with each other. I’d been raised in a very different culture. Where I grew up it wasn’t uncommon to believe that God created the world in precisely seven days and consider any mention of evolution heresy. I wasn’t a Creationist any more than Noam was an Orthodox Jew, but somehow the religious cultures of our youth had an impact on our willingness to challenge each other at work. I realized I should take Noam’s challenges as a sign of respect rather than rudeness.
I had a very different experience when I managed a team in Tokyo a few years later. The team was enormously frustrated with how the Product team at Google’s U.S. headquarters was approaching ads in mobile applications. Yahoo! was growing its business quickly, and there were a number of Japanese competitors not far behind. But the Japanese team was too polite to make the problems clear to the team responsible for product management, so they weren’t getting fixed. When I pushed them to challenge the approach to mobile applications at Google headquarters, the team just stared at me as though I were crazy.
Trying to get the team in Tokyo to challenge authority the way Noam Bardin did in Jerusalem wouldn’t have worked. The kind of argument that would be taken as a sign of respect in Tel Aviv would have been offensive in Tokyo. Even the term “Radical Candor” would’ve felt too aggressive. I found my own Southern upbringing helpful in understanding the Japanese perspective: both cultures placed a great emphasis on manners and on not contradicting people in public. So I encouraged that team in Tokyo to be “politely persistent.” Being polite was their preferred way of showing they cared personally. Being persistent was the way they were most comfortable challenging Google’s product direction.
I was gratified to see the results. The team in Tokyo became not just persistent but relentless in their campaign to be heard. Thanks in part to their polite persistence, a new product, AdSense for Mobile Applications, was born.
Another of my favorite Radical Candor stories is that of Roy Zhou, who worked for Russ and led the AdSense team in China. At first he was extremely deferential to Russ and me, but once we convinced him we really wanted to be challenged, he let it rip. He was a real pleasure to work with—and one of the most Radically Candid managers at Google. A few years ago, he got the opportunity to become president of Yoyi Digital, a five-hundred-person online advertising platform in Beijing. After a few months, he discovered some significant problems with the business. He came clean about them to his board and to all employees. Roy went to extraordinary lengths to show his team that he cared personally and was going to do everything he could to help them be successful. Not only did he make sure they got significant equity, he mortgaged his home before a new round of financing so they could be paid on time. Now Roy is running one of the most successful businesses in China.
I’ve led teams all over the world. The most surprising thing I’ve learned is that Brits, despite all their politeness, tend to be even more candid than New Yorkers. This is thanks to an education system that stresses oral argument as much as written. But, I’ve seen firsthand that it’s possible to adapt Radical Candor equally well for Tel Aviv and Tokyo, for Beijing and Berlin.
Copyright © 2017 by Kim Scott