How To Be a Great Boss Without Losing Your Humanity
Both praise and criticism should show you care.
Posted Nov 06, 2017
Are you afraid telling your employees the hard truth will make you seem like a jerk? Both praise and criticism should show you care, says Kim Scott, the author of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. On this week’s podcast, learn how to make your critical feedback land, navigate the perilous boundary between honesty and obnoxious aggression, and embrace the power of radical candor. Listen here.
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host, and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. With us today is Kim Scott. Kim is the author most recently of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing Your Humanity. It’s been reviewed already by Sheryl Sandberg who Kim has worked for and knows. Kim is the co-founder and CEO of Candor Inc. She’s been an advisor at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter and many other companies. She worked at Apple University, she worked at Google, she has a really great perspective on communication and saying the hard stuff when you want it to be heard in a way that can have an impact on results and outcome and that represents your caring for people enough to tell them the truth and some ways of doing that.
I want to just say that for me, it was such a great time to read this book, because to me, for me and my own work, this is my year to really commit to saying what I feel like needs to be said, and I’m already pretty good at it, but what reading the book reminded me of is how much better I could become at it. I’m really not good enough. The reasons I don’t share things are as a recent guest of ours, Bernie was his first name, for some reason, I’m forgetting his last name. But he wrote a really great book called The Achievement Habit, and if you heard that podcast, what you’ll hear is the refrain which is reasons are bullshit.
So my reasons for not doing that are because I want to protect them or I want to make sure they can hear and really those reasons are bullshit. The reason I don’t share things when they’re hard to share is because I’m protecting myself because I want to come off looking good because I want them to like me because I don’t want them to reject me or what I have to say. Kim has written something here that can help us all show up more fully, more powerfully in the way that we need to to help people and to help outcomes.
Kim, that’s the longest introduction I’ve done on any podcast. I apologize for that.
But welcome. Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Kim: Thank you. It’s great to be here. I think you’re being hard on yourself. It’s not only bullshit. There’s a perilous boundary between ruinous empathy, which is what happens when we really are genuinely so worried about the other person’s feelings that we don’t say what we mean and manipulative insincerity, which is what we all want to be like. We’re social animals. It’s natural in humans, so don’t be so hard on yourself.
Peter: Well thank you. Thank you. I want to get better, but I’m going to try to get better without being hard on myself. Sometimes I feel like the two have to go hand in hand, but maybe not. You’re already...your process is already helping me. You start the book with a great story about your management of Bob. Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, because we’ve all been there?
Kim: Yeah, it was the most painful moment in my career. So we had hired this guy, we’ll call him Bob, Bob wasn’t actually his name. I really liked Bob a lot. He was smart. He was charming. He was funny. He would do stuff, like we were one time at a manager off-site, and we were playing one of those get to know you games, that everybody hates, but nobody there is saying this is a giant waste of time, and Bob was the one who was brave enough to say hey listen, I know we’re all in a hurry, and I’ve got a great idea that’s going to be really fast, so everybody’s down with fast. He said let’s just go around the table and confess what candy our parents used when potty training us. Weird, but fast.
Then for the next 10 months, every time there’s a tense moment in a meeting, Bob would whip out the right piece of candy for the right person at the right moment.
Peter: That’s classic.
Kim: I think it’s endearing. I loved Bob. Just one problem with Bob. He was doing terrible work, absolutely terrible work. He would hand stuff in to me, and there was shame in his eyes. He knew it wasn’t good. I was bewildered by this because he had this amazing resume. I learned later the problem was that Bob was smoking pot in the bathroom every day, but I didn’t know that, maybe that explained all that candy. I didn’t know any of that at the time. I was just perplexed, what was going on with Bob.
So I would say to him, when he would hand something in to me, I would say to him, Bob, you’re so smart, you’re so awesome, we all love working with you, maybe you could make it a little better. And of course, he never did. It’s worth understanding what was going on. Partly, I really did like Bob, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but also partly I was afraid....Bob was kind of a sensitive emotional guy. I was afraid that if I really let Bob know what I actually thought, he would start to cry or something in the office. Am I allowed to curse on your podcast?
Peter: I guess I already did, so you can too.
Kim: So everybody would think I was a big bitch. Nobody wants to feel that way. For those two reasons, in part, because I genuinely cared about Bob, but also in part because…
Peter: How you wanted to be seen.
Kim: Yeah, I wanted to be a popular leader. I didn’t tell Bob when his work wasn’t nearly good enough, and as a result, after 10 months of this, the inevitable happened, and because the whole team was having to pick up for Bob’s slack and redo his work, which takes longer than just doing it themselves, I realized that if I didn’t fire Bob, I was going to lose half my team.
So I sat down to have the conversation with Bob that I frankly should have begun 10 months previously, and when I was finished, Bob, pushed his chair back from the table, and he looked at me right in the eye, and he said why didn’t you tell me? As that question is going around in my head with no good answer, he looked at me again, and he said why didn’t anyone tell me? I thought you all cared about me. I realized in that moment that I had failed Bob in six really important ways.
I had failed to solicit feedback from him. Maybe I was doing something that was driving him so crazy that he was forced to get high in the bathroom. I don’t know. I didn’t ask. I didn’t solicit feedback. I also failed to give him real feedback, both praise and criticism. The praise I gave him was really just a head fake, and the criticism, I just failed. I totally didn’t tell him that his work wasn’t nearly good enough. Probably worst of all, I had failed to create an environment in which everyone would tell Bob what was genuinely good, and what they really appreciated, and when he was going off the rails. Because I had failed in all these different ways, Bob has now taken the fall. Bob is now getting fired.
I just wanted to be so nice to Bob all along, not so nice after all firing him. All I could do, at this point, even Bob realized it was too late, he should go. It was too late to save Bob. All I could do was make myself a really solemn promise that I would never make that mistake again. That was what prompted me frankly to write this book and come up with the framework and all the rest of it.
Peter: Yeah, you make this great critical point, I think, that the surprising thing or one of the surprising things about Radical Candor is that the results are often the opposite of what we fear. We’re worried someone’s going to become angry, but instead, they end up being grateful. We’re worried we might end up disconnected from them, but that truth actually leads us to be more connected. What guidance can you give people about how to take that leap? We’re going to talk about techniques in a second, but the hardest leap is to say I’m going to take that risk to say something that I think is true here that this person needs to hear. I’m worried about all this stuff.
Kim: So I think the most important advice that I ever heard any leader give around feedback was when I was at Apple, I was doing a class for a big chunk of the IOS team, and we were doing a role play, and it was just a role play. There was not any real consequences. People had just gone through this class about how to give feedback. We wrote this scenario in which participants had to play the role of the manager, and they had to tell an employee they were being really rude. We hired an actor to do this, and this actor was unbelievably rude to people, and still, people couldn’t say your rudeness is getting in the way of being effective here.
Finally, Kim jumped up, she clutched her head, and she said just say it, and for most people, for most people, that’s the best advice I can give you is just say it. Don’t worry so much. I think so much of training around feedback and so many of the books we read tie us into knots, they’re really aimed at people who are genuine jerks. Most of us are not jerks. Most of us are too nice. Most of us make the too nice problem.
If you feel like your problem may be the too nice problem, just say it. Just say it.
Peter: You also used the story, you mentioned several times in the book around Steve Jobs who says your work is shit. For some reason this is the podcast of cursing, but Steve Jobs said it. One line that I really like in the book is to remind people you are not Steve Jobs, to just recognize let’s not just take somebody and try to model. If you’re going to model everything, if you are Steve Jobs, then great, you can say that, but otherwise, be careful. But also, that he wasn’t talking about someone personally. He was talking about their work. Say a word or two about that.
Kim: So one of the things that’s really important to remember when talking about radical candor is to understand, what I call in the book, the perilous boundary between radical candor and obnoxious aggression. One of the biggest mistakes that people make with radical candor is to think you can just be a garden variety jerk, I’m going to be radically candid with you, and then you proceed to just behave like a jerk. That’s not radical candor. That’s obnoxious aggression.
Now radical candor gets measured not in my mouth, but at your ear. I think the important thing about the example of Steve Jobs saying your work is shit is to understand the context in which he was saying that. First of all, he was saying it to people who were incredibly confident that their work was great. This comes from an interview, in the lost interview, and the interviewer says, what did you mean when you would say such a thing, and Steve laughs, and he said, well usually, I mean your work is shit, what do you think I mean? The interviewer says, well, one of your employees thinks it means, I didn’t quite understand that, would you explain that again, and Steve laughs, and he goes no, that’s not usually what I mean.
So he’s like making himself look like a jerk. But then he gets thoughtful, and he kind of leans back. He says when you are a leader, it is your job to let people know when their work isn’t nearly good enough, and you have to do it in a way that reassures them that you have confidence in their abilities, but leaves no room for ambiguity that the work isn’t nearly good enough, and that’s a hard thing to do, he says. Amen to that. It is really hard. I think that Steve probably gets a lot of flack for being a jerk, but he probably had to say things in an extremely harsh way in order to get through to some of his employees.
I also tell a story in a book about a time that my boss told me that I sounded stupid, and some people would say that was mean, but if she hadn’t said it to me just that way, then I wouldn’t have heard her. So it was actually the kindest thing she could possibly have done for me in that moment.
Peter: I also think both of these people or certainly the way you described in the book, the story of your boss saying that you’re stupid, is solidly in the quadrant, and we could talk about these quadrants, of caring personally and challenging directly that you....Well, why don’t you actually describe those two? Because I think you’ve mentioned a few of the other terms outside of Radical Candor, and I think they play around with this two by two model.
Kim: Sure. One of the most important lessons I ever learned in my career about how to give feedback came at a time when my boss criticized me. I had just started at Google, and I had to give a presentation to the founders and the CEO of Google, and I walked into the room, and there is Sergey Brin on a treadmill in the corner in toe shoes, and there is Eric Schmidt the CEO of the time, with his so deep in his email, it’s like his brain has been attached to the machine. It’s impossible to get anybody’s attention.
So like anybody in this situation, I felt a little bit nervous. Happily, though, the business that I was leading was on fire. When I said how many new customers we had added in the last two months, Eric’s head snaps up out of his computer, he says what did you say, and then he said do you need more engineers, do you need more marketing dollars, what do you need.
So I thought the meeting went pretty well. As I’m leaving, I pass by my boss who was Sheryl Sandberg. She said, why don’t you walk back to my office with me, so I go from feeling like a genius to thinking oh boy, I screwed something up. I’m sure I’m about to hear about it. Cheryl said, you said um a lot in there, were you are of it, and I made this brush off gesture with my hands, and I said you know, it’s a verbal tic, it’s no big deal really. And she said I know a really good speech coach, Google would pay for it, do you want an introduction. Again, I make this brush off gesture with my hands, and I said it’s no big deal. Didn’t you hear about all these customers, I’m busy. I don’t have time to go to a speech coach.
Now she stops, she looks right at me, and she says, when you say um every third word, it makes you sound stupid. Now she has my full attention. Again, if she hadn’t said it to me just that way, I wouldn’t have gone to see the speech coach, and when I did, I realized she really wasn’t exaggerating. I literally said um every third word. The thing that was interesting about this to me was that I have been giving presentations my entire career. I had raised millions of dollars for a startup giving presentations. I thought I was pretty good at it. Nobody had ever told me that I had this problem. It was as though I had been walking through my entire career with my fly down and nobody had had the courtesy to tell me.
So this was interesting to me, two things were interesting. One was what was it about Cheryl that made it easy for her or seemingly easy for her to tell me, but also very interestingly why had nobody else ever told me, and I realized it came down to two things as you mentioned, caring personally and challenging directly. I knew that Cheryl cared about me not just as an employee, but as a human being, and not just me, but all the people who worked directly for her. But she also never let her concern for our short-term feelings get in the way of telling us something we needed to hear. Those are the dimensions of radical candor. That is with made it easy or seemingly easy for Cheryl to tell me what I needed to hear in a way that I could in fact hear it.
So I spent a lot of time thinking about and trying to define what happened when you fail on one dimension or another because nobody starts their career out thinking I don’t care about other people, so I’m going to be a great boss. That’s not what moves us down on the care personally dimension. Of course, part of it is we get busy, we get preoccupied, but I think on a more fundamental level what moves us down on that care personally dimension of radical candor is getting told when we’re 18, 19, 20 years old, we have our first job, we’re right at that moment in our careers when our egos are quite fragile, but our personas are beginning to solidify. Right at that moment, somebody comes along and says be professional. For an awful lot of us, that gets translated to mean leave your emotions, leave who you really are, leave your humanity, leave your very best part of yourself at home, and come to work like some kind of robot.
You can’t care about other people at a personal level as a robot. So that’s the care personally dimension. Then challenge directly. What is it that makes it so hard for us as you said in the beginning to say what we really think needs saying? I think this begins not when we’re 18 years old, but when we’re 18 months old. It begins when a parent or somebody says to us if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all. And now all of a sudden, you’ve had this training since you learned to speak, and now it’s your job to say it. That’s hard. It’s really hard.
Peter: Right. I want to in some ways give the reverse case that you just gave because I know a number of people where they actually get the feedback in a sense. They’ve heard other people say it, but it’s a total blind spot. What they’ll say is I don’t have that problem, I’m not a micromanager. Like you say I’m a micromanager, but I’m not a micromanager. Do you have any advice to, with staying strong on the scale of both caring personally and challenging, what’s your advice for helping someone get past that blind spot place where you can say something and they’re just not really believing you?
Kim: I think often feedback fails when it’s too abstract. So if you say you’re a micromanager, I may be thinking about all these examples when I’m not a micromanager and also my intentions. Meanwhile, if you say Kim, when you told me that I had to move the picture in my room before we started the podcast, like you didn’t need to get into that level of detail. So the more specific you can make and the smaller example you can make the feedback, the easier for people it is to hear it.
Sometimes people also are....They have a blind spot, not because they’re in denial about the problem, but because they feel like it’s impossible to solve. So for example, there was somebody who I worked with, who people perceived as negative. He wasn’t a negative person actually. He was a lovely human being. But people were intimidated by him and often were discouraged after a conversation with him. At first, I started giving him all these specific examples of when he had been negative. Eventually, he looked at me, he clutched his head, he rocked back and forth, and he said ugh, my wife has been telling me this my whole life, it’s not something I can fix. I realized that I had myself, been negative. I had been acting the exact way I was telling him not to act.
So I said okay, we’re going to change this conversation. We’re going to talk about positive target identification. So if you’re skiing through the trees, you want to look at your path through the trees, you don’t want to look at the tree. You’re more likely to hit the tree if you focus too much on the tree. So I said I’m going to tell you very specifically about all the times you’ve got it right, and I’m going to do that for the next month when you aren’t negative. I’m going to point out all the times that you were positive so that we can begin to understand when you are and how you can build on that. That was really helpful.
That’s an example of how praise can actually help somebody change their performance more than criticism.
Peter: And appreciative inquiry approach, looking for the times where you’ve done things right and reinforcing those, letting the other things take care of themselves.
Kim: Yeah, just so he could see what success felt like because he felt like a failure, and that wasn’t going to help him.
Peter: As I was thinking about this approach, and I was thinking about people’s resistance or hesitance or concerns, one of the things that came up for me I realized is we’ve all had habits of how we acted. This for many of us will represent a change in the habit. You made this great point about it’s not what comes out of your mouth, it’s about what comes into their ears. I think about that as the distinction between intention and impact. I have a certain intention, it’s going to impact you in a certain way, and that the most skillful people when we are being skillful, we close the gap between intention and impact. So what I intend has that impact on you. But a lot of times, we say something with a certain intention, and it has a completely different impact.
Peter: When you’re expecting me to be nice, because for the last 30 conversations that we’ve had, I’ve only had praise for you, and then I turn around and I go you’re really great, but every time you say um, you sound really stupid, that’s a change in our dance, right? I’m shifting our relationship in a way where I haven’t necessarily signaled that, and it may land particularly harshly on you because that is so counter to the way we have interacted before, and not only that but because I’ve never done it before, I risk either doing it so softly that you don’t even know I’ve done it or so harshly that you lose the sense of caring and you think the last 30 conversations we’ve had have been inauthentic.
So there’s a lot of question in there, but I’d love for you to help us parse that out because I think that’s one of the challenges.
Kim: It’s a really great question. I think one of the things to reframe in your mind, we often think that praise is nice and criticism is mean and that’s just not the right way to think about it. Let’s go back to that Bob story. It was not nice of me not to tell Bob. It wasn’t nice at all. So I think that recognizing that you’re trying to be helpful with both your praise and your criticism because you care about the person and you care about the person’s growth. You don’t want to pretend that there’s not going to be a negative emotion when you give criticism because there will be. I think any time that people try to pretend there’s not a negative emotion, they’re making a mistake.
So you’ve got to be prepared to experience that negative emotion, but you’ve also got to realize that it’s an act of kindness to tell the person this thing despite the short-term negative emotions. It wouldn’t be very nice of a surgeon who needs to mend something in your body to refuse to cut you. That would not be nice of the surgeon. It wouldn’t be nice of your dentist to refuse to drill a cavity out of your tooth. That’s not nice.
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as emotional novocaine. You have to be present for the other person’s emotions.
Peter: The interesting thing about those two examples is when you walk into the surgeon’s office and the dentist’s office, you have given them explicit permission to drill and cut, and so it seems like there’s usefulness in getting permission in some way, even if it’s as simple as I’ve seen something I think can help you, can I share some feedback with you or asking for permission so that you have their permission to say go ahead and cut or go ahead and drill.
Kim: Yes. I think that is really important. One of the things that I have found at a lot of companies who are rolling out radical candor to be very helpful is when people just put a copy of the framework in their office, tape it to the wall, tape it to your cube, whatever. You ask for permission, I have something I want to tell you, I want to tell you because, in your shoes, I’d want to know, or I want to tell you this thing because I know you can fix it and I want to help you fix it, just somehow state your intention to be helpful, ask permission. Then ask how it landed.
Say how did that land for you, was I being radically candid, was I being obnoxiously aggressive, was I being manipulatively insincere, was I being ruinously empathetic. One of the things I found over and over again is that often when you have a shared vocabulary between people and the person you’re giving feedback to says I think you’re being ruinously empathetic here, it really helps you move out over on the challenge directly dimension of radical candor, maybe more than you’re entirely comfortable doing.
Peter: It’s great. It makes me think I should actually use this format when we run coach trainings, and it would be useful to use this because coaches absolutely need this skill. We have no value as coaches if we’re not able to be in that place of caring personally and also really powerfully challenging. So to challenge directly that that’s our strength and that’s our power. I almost imagine having people post that up in their offices with one of those little you are here arrow pointing in that place, just so that it becomes very clear. This is what we’re going for, we’re going for this box here and if I’m off a little bit, let me know, and I can give you a little more praise, or I can give you a little more direct criticism.
But we’re going here. I also, by the way, Kim, love what you say, and it’s just a small part of the book, but giving feedback in two to three minutes between meetings. I think the bigger deal we make of it, the harder it becomes. If every time I give you feedback I have to buy you dinner and then make a long conversation about it, etc, then I’m increasing the pressure that makes someone feel like oh there’s some really big problem as opposed to going no, you do this well, this is what you don’t do well. Let’s be really clear about it.
One last thing, and we’re running out of time, but I really wanted to ask you this question, because I’ve always been a proponent of separating out the positive from the negative feedback. It’s like an old style Ken Blanchard one minute manager, which says if you’re giving someone some critical feedback, you want them to feel it, and you want it to sink in, and you want them to really know it. When people give these feedback sandwiches, like you did this really well, here’s something you can improve, you did this really well, I think it’s more likely that someone leaves the conversation unclear about what the message was. I want them really clear about the message. So any quick advice for how people can avoid mixing messages when they are both caring and maybe sharing some things that you’re doing well or that’s supporting your success while also driving home the message that’s most important for you to hear around the thing you need to do better.
Kim: This is another reason why the frequent two-minute conversations are so powerful because you’re probably not going to get three different pieces of feedback in two minutes. You’re going to talk about one thing, and it’s either going to be praise or criticism. I think as you say separating it out for most of us is really helpful, and I also think it’s so important to remember that both praise and criticism show that you care. They both show you care. It’s very tempting to think that praise is the way you show you care, and criticism is the way you challenge directly. But both praise and criticism should both show you care and also challenge people in the case of praise to do more of what’s good and in the case of criticism to fix a problem.
Peter: I love it. What I appreciate is I’ve now heard you say this on the podcast maybe two or three times in the 30 minutes that we’ve been talking, and I think you have to keep saying it because I think there is such a strong habitual muscle that says praise shows I care, criticism shows I don’t like. I really appreciate that you’re willing to keep saying it, and I’m glad you said it this third time because it’s so easy to slip away from that feeling and to say I’m not being nice to somebody when I share with them some criticism, and in reality, that’s the most caring thing I could possibly do.
Kim: It’s really hard to tease that out in your brain. When I was editing the book, I myself kept finding times when I had to do that. It’s hard to break that habit.
Peter: Kim Scott is with us. Her book is Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing Your Humanity. Kim, I really adored the book. I adored this conversation. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Kim: Thank you. It’s my pleasure. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move that organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our big arrow process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com. Thank you, Clare Marshall for producing this episode and thank you for listening.