Radical Thinking About Leadership

At first glance, it almost seems perplexing that Kim Scott’s best-selling book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity has proved so popular. After all, it has a relatively simple premise: the key to becoming an exceptional boss and colleague is radical candour, which she equates with caring personally and courage to challenge people directly.

Then again, rather than serving up yet another superficial guide to effective communications, Scott uses her executive experience at companies such as Google and Apple to take a deep dive into that agonizing dilemma of being straight with people when the overwhelming urge is to keep quiet or soft-pedal the message.

Half-way through the second chapter, Scott finishes explaining her radical candour equation. But if you stop there and assume that candour is being super-nice when you say what’s bothering you, you’ll miss the chance to understand how to create the best conditions for communication in your work relationships and culture.

Digging into the underlying themes of the book, we discovered five key insights that clarify many misconceptions about open or frank communication.

Candour is commitment. Books and workshops on communication often rely on simple mantras such as “listen first,” “don’t blame,” and “be direct” to help people be authentic and avoid attribution errors. However, the common thread throughout Radical Candor is that you must know your people and what’s going on around them before you can speak effectively. This principle is about creating the conditions for enlightening conversations to take place even before it becomes necessary to pull your subordinate aside and share your thoughts. While there is plenty of advice in the book on smart communication and common miscues, candour is not just a series of steps. It’s a profound personal commitment to your employees.

Candour is relationships. Scott recommends numerous ways to get to know your employees that may appear at first to be too close for comfort. Yet what comes out through her guidance is that people are so remarkably unique in their interests and hopes that it is foolhardy to think that talking just about the work—that is, how good or bad it is—is really going to get to the heart of what the person needs to hear. Scott illustrates how employees with different growth trajectories need to be treated differently without judging their ambitions or assuming they need promotions. Deeper relationship-building calls for leaders to take out one-on-one time, act consistently in good faith, and demonstrate open-mindedness. One gem was her advice on discovering your employee’s life story and big dreams. Says Scott, “This translation of current work to future dreams was far more inspiring for people than ‘Here’s how you climb the next rung on the ladder.’”

Candour is two-way. The extraordinary amount of discussion in the book on fostering dialogue seems odd unless you realize that candour cannot be ongoing unless it occurs in both directions. Although being “candid” is often associated with being sincere or honest, we would question whether most everyday expression that borders on complaining, venting, or insulting is really candour in the first place—Scott would rather call it “front-stabbing.” Scott suggests radical ways to encourage communication “up, down, and sideways.” For yourself, allow others to criticize you in public and encourage them not to back down. The real task for a leader is to work through organizational processes and policies. For the team, promotion and hiring decisions should not be made by the immediate manager. Through skip-level meetings, a manager should hear feedback directly from subordinates in the presence of the manager’s superior.

Candour is leadership. Scott recounts the legendary reputation that Apple founder Steve Jobs has about “always getting it right.” Getting it right is different than being right, which speaks to the drive that leaders must have to reach outcomes that would otherwise not be achievable without the best information from all corners of the organization. Leaders have the authority and resources to set this tone within the workplace culture. We’ve talked about relationships, but the deeper point is that relational skills are not something you add on to satisfy your agenda. As executive coach Susan Scott puts it in her book Fierce Conversations: “The conversation is the relationship.” If you want wider impact as a leader, you need to master relationship-building not just with communication tools but with all devices at your disposal to remove barriers to unhindered, unbiased connection across the organization.

Candour is everyday. With a vision of the possibilities, the temptation now is to strive for extraordinary outcomes using unusual strategies or tactics. Candour does not fall in this category, nor is it a single instance of clever talk. Some of the interesting everyday suggestions made in Radical Candour include putting just as much effort into praise as criticism; praising in public, but criticizing in private; and soliciting feedback on yourself before giving it.

At the Ivey Business School’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership—where our research is linking candour to the development of leadership character—we see candour as an emerging paradigm not only for enhancing managerial skills but also for strengthening personal virtue.

Kim Scott’s book could have benefited from delving deeper into how to be candid with superiors. After all, speaking truth to power has its own complexities and risks. Nevertheless, the transformational form of managing that Radical Candor advocates promotes the need for a higher level of interpersonal connection between leaders and followers. And that’s a nice step forward because this important prerequisite for good leadership is not well captured in most management books or academic research.

About the Author

Raymond B. Chiu is a postdoctoral associate at the Ivey Business School at Western University. He can be reached at rchiu@ivey.ca.

About the Author

Fernando Olivera is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Ivey Business School at Western University. He can be reached at folivera@ivey.ca.  

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