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Four Ways to Candidly Improve Your Work Relationships

Kim Scott

It can’t be fun to be pulled aside by Sheryl Sandberg, after giving what you think was a successful presentation to Google’s Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt, and be told that when you say “um” every third word, it makes you sound ignorant and stupid and you really should see a speech coach.

But Kim Scott, author of New York Times best-selling book, Radical Candor, was  immensely grateful for the experience—because, after seeing that speech coach, she discovered she really did say “um” every third word; and after a career of giving talks, she felt like Sandberg was the first person to point out that she had a giant hunk of spinach between her teeth.

The incident also made her curious about the role of candor in workplace relationships.

“It got me to thinking: What was it about Sheryl that made it so seemingly easy for her to tell me? But, even more interestingly, why had no one else told me?” she asks.

What she realized was this: “When it came to Sheryl, it really boiled down to two things. Sheryl cared about me—not just as an employee, but as a human being. But she never let her concern for my short-term feelings get in the way of telling me something that I really needed to hear.”

Put another way: She cared for her personally, and she challenged her directly. These became the foundations of Scott’s work on radical candor.

Care personally: “Care personally is what I think of as the give-a-damn dimension of radical candor,” says Scott. “You want to build the kind of environment in which you can be more than just professional, and the people around you can, too—an environment in which you can build real human relationships at work.”

Challenge directly: “The challenge directly dimension is what I think of as the willing-to-piss-people-off dimension,” Scott adds. It is also the one where people are most likely to stumble.

“When we care about other people’s feelings, and we’re so concerned about not hurting their feelings that we fail to tell them something they’d be better off knowing, that is what I call ruinous empathy,” says Scott. In contrast, caring personally in combination with challenging directly can be doing someone a big favor.

So, how do you put these ideas into practice? Scott recommends several steps. Among them:

  1. Solicit feedback—specifically, criticism.
  2. Always give both praise and criticism to others.
  3. Adjust your candor to the person you are speaking to.

“Very often, people want me to give them these magic words that will automatically be crystal clear and will never hurt anyone’s feelings. And there are no such magic words,” says Scott. “Sometimes, you’re going to have a radical candor train wreck. Nine times out of 10, it’ll probably go better than you think.”

Kim Scott spoke about “Radical Candor: Better Relationships at Work” at the 2019 Watermark Conference for Women. Listen to the entire session here.

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