Out of the mouths of babes

Radical Candor author Kim Scott on how to nurture the constructive honesty we lose as adults

children at school

“I don’t really like that idea, can we try something else?”

If someone said that to you during a meeting, you might be taken aback by their bluntness. But when we interviewed a group of kids on the Slack Variety Pack podcast for pointers on how to handle the challenges of teamwork, those were the words one boy directed to his teammate.

Another kid, when asked if he liked working with other people, said, “A little. Sometimes they yap at each other and I’m just left out doing nothing.”

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We start out so direct and honest, but it gets a lot harder to speak our minds as we get older. Why does this happen? And what would happen if we brought our true voices into the workplace?

We’ve been following the work of Kim Scott, author of the forthcoming book Radical Candor, and wondered if she’d have any insights into these questions. Radical candor, a term Scott coined, is being direct in a way that shows someone that you care at the same time as you challenge them.

Or, as Scott puts it, “Radical candor is at the intersection of giving a damn about people and being willing to piss them off at the same time.”

 

“We stop saying what we really think because it feels too risky,” explains Scott. “All of a sudden you become a manager and it’s your job to say it. You’ve built up an instinct for repressing what you really think since you’ve learned to talk. Undoing your instincts is really hard.”

We’re socialized to hold back

In childhood, we all start out so honest, sometimes brutally so. We’re taught that our words can hurt people’s feelings. Hence the popular adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” This early lesson is reinforced in social settings later on when we experience offending someone when we didn’t mean to.

“We stop saying what we really think because it feels too risky,” explains Scott. “All of a sudden you become a manager and it’s your job to say it. You’ve built up an instinct for repressing what you really think since you’ve learned to talk. Undoing your instincts is really hard.”

An example of radical candor that Scott likes to share took place years back after she had given a presentation to the founders of Google. Scott had recently joined the company and her boss at the time, Sheryl Sandberg, pulled her aside afterwards and praised certain aspects of her presentation before pointing out that Scott said “um” a lot. At first Scott ignored this point, but then Sandberg was more direct and told her that the many “ums” made her sound stupid.

We can all imagine situations where something seemed too small to comment on, so you held back. In Scott’s case, Sandberg’s frank comments helped her see a minor detail—a common nervous tick for many presenters—that undermined her own intelligence. Scott worked hard to eliminate those pesky little “ums”, improving her public speaking style in a big way.

 

Radical candor goes both ways

Creating a culture of candid feedback is important in the workplace because it’s essential to team building and to establishing trust.

The best way for managers to begin creating this culture of guidance, as Scott calls it, is by soliciting feedback from their employees and demonstrating the kind of humility needed to hear it.

This sounds great in theory, but how can employees speak the truth to their bosses without worrying about losing their jobs?

When it comes to being radically candid with your boss, she advises, make sure you take a humble approach. Don’t jump to conclusions. Instead, ask for context rather than assume ill intent. “Remember that bosses are people too,” she says.

 

Shape, don’t squash, early honesty

As she wraps up her book, which will be published next year, Scott is facing a personal challenge of putting her learnings into practice. As the mother of 7-year-old twins who say direct and often harsh things, she thinks a lot about ways to teach them how to be sensitive to others’ feelings and still be true to themselves. “I spend a lot of time saying, ‘I hear what you think but can you think of a way that shows me you have some respect and care about me as a person,’” she says. Sometimes she gets eye rolls. And sometimes they get it. Ultimately, even if it stings sometimes, she wants to hear their honesty.

“I don’t want to break them out of it,” she says.

 

Emily Brady tells it like it is.

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