Radical Candor, Meaningful Conversations

Radical Candor a la Bi-Jingo, LTD

Radical Candor is an overlooked asset in creating high-performance teams when that candor is built upon a foundation of trust. The Harvard Business Review artcile One Out of Every Two Managers Is Terrible at Accountability starts with:

Out of all the things we expect of leaders — taking charge, setting strategy, empowering people, driving execution, you name it — what one single behavior would you guess is most often neglected or avoided among executives? Seeing the big picture? No. Delegating? Not either. Mapping out detailed project plans? No again. Although many upper-level managers don’t do these things enough, by far and away the single-most shirked responsibility of executives is holding people accountable.

While we often think of having tough conversations with low performers, these conversations may be equally valid with top performers. When someone isn’t “meeting expectations” one should ask what expectations does one have? It seems perfectly reasonable to have very high expectations for your top performers and to try to help them step up to meet their potential.  There has been a fair amount of talk about how effective leaders should use “Radical Candor” in feedback conversations since Kin Scott published Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.

Radical Candor – Four foundational elements

  1. Establish a relationship of trust
    In order to have any successful candid conversation, there must be mutual trust. The journey should begin in all cases by establishing trust.
  2. Have the employee’s best interest at heart
    Note, if you don’t start with believing it yourself, you’ll not be able to convince them. Once you are sure you have their best interest at heart, you can start to ensure they also recognize that.
  3. Believe in them
    As John Maxwell put it “When you believe in someone and demonstrate that belief, they begin believing in themselves too.” Note, they also then start believing in you
  4. Differentiate between Intent and Impact
    If you don’t establish that you believe they have good intent, they will be on the defensive and not able to absorb constructive feedback.

These things are relatively easy to do for our top performers; why should they not apply to others? As part of our leadership talent development program at Pure Storage, Laura from Bi-Jingo, LTD gave us a few Performance Based Training sessions on Meaningful Check-ins and Feedback Conversations (I can highly recommend these). To open the class, Laura asked the managers in the room to raise their hands if they cringe at the thought of having a feedback conversation with an employee that holds upward aspirations but is actually challenged in some areas. As all the hands went up, I reluctantly raised mine as well. I was actually lying by doing so. In truth, I actually enjoy those conversations tremendously.

Key take-away if we hope to be high-impact managers:

In the four scenarios we worked through in separate groups, there was an employee that showed promise, had high aspirations and expectations but was also faced with challenges that prevented them from operating at the level they saw themselves.
I later pondered, if, as managers, we cringe at the thought of telling an employee they have some challenges that are preventing them from actually performing at the level where they see themselves, then perhaps it is us that are not performing as the high-impact managers we’d like to believe we are. Should we not relish these opportunities?

I feel these tough conversations are one of many opportunities for us, as managers, to take on a challenge and have an impact and leave an employee empowered and excited to overcome and obstacle that’s preventing them from performing at the next level. When we approach these conversations from the perspective of having discovered an opportunity to help our employee, we can enter the conversation with an optimistic mindset that may help the recipient be less defensive and more receptive to feedback delivered more graciously.

Radical Candor – Leaving the Comfort Zone in Interviews

When interviewing engineers, strive to get them out of their comfort zone by presenting them with problems they haven’t seen before by going on variations until we find something that they’re entirely unfamiliar with. Why, because we solve hard problems and we want to hire engineers who love the challenge of solving really hard problems in innovative ways. If they are exhausted at the end of a day of really tough questions, then this is probably not the right place for them. On the other hand, if they’re fired up and excited at the opportunity to stretch the limits of their problem solving skills to come up with the best possible solutions for our customers, then they’ve come to the right place.

Similarly for managers; we want managers that love challenges. I’m not saying we have incredibly difficult engineers that pose challenges unlike any manager has seen before 😉 No, I’m saying we want to hire and promote managers that are up to the challenge of taking talent that’s already top-notch and finding ways to inspire and challenge them to be even better at innovating, collaborating, solving tough problems and growing past limits that were only imagined.

As we continue to grow, this includes hiring trainers and bringing in teams like Laura’s to expand our manager tool-set for meeting such challenges. Managers are learning not only be able to use radical candor (an often necessary approach to getting the message across) but discovering a love and passion for working through challenges as we see the positive impact that can have when leveraged appropriately. Kim Scott, executive coach and author of Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity believes it’s about caring personally about the person you’re delivering feedback to.

Radical Candor – Where to Begin the Journey

I was asked if saying things positively just comes naturally in a recent coaching/mentoring conversation. It seems to come from a place of genuinely having good intent to help the person we’re delivering feedback to. Just as I described in Where to Begin the Journey, I believe that if you don’t have that intention, people will know it. It will help to genuinely state your intention to be helpful; this is a premise that both Scott and Grant underscore. Scott also advises us to be humble as we may be wrong in what we perceived as an issue. Ray Dalio also underscores the cornerstone values of “radical truth” and “radical transparency” in Principles – Life and Work.

In Eric Schmidt’s Trillion Dollar Coach – The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell Eric also underscores Bill’s caring with candor – Bill excelled at and modeled building close connections of trust but also providing very direct feedback that may have seemed harsh to an observer but always came from a place of caring. At Intuit, I had the privilege of experiencing how that approach permeating management – in particular in my time with Brad Smith. I highly recommend Eric’s book to gain further insight into Bill’s hugely successful approach to leadership.

Understand the Root Causes and Influencers

One other things to keep in mind if any employees performance has changed is that there may be other influences at work that can both affect their performance and any feedback conversations. Similarly, even what happened on the way to work for yourself and/or the other person can influence how a conversation starts out. As such it may also be of value to ask open-ended questions that could help you root cause what other vectors may be at play – see Vectors of Influence.

VP of Engineering, Rukmini Reddy describes the challenges she faced in Becoming a bad-ass engineering leader: 5 tried and true lessons from a woman of color. She makes a clear distinction: Candor is not criticism from her experience. “The difference between feedback that is meant to keep you in your place (criticism) and feedback that is meant to help you grow (candor).”

Learning to Love Criticism

As managers, we should strive to find opportunities to dish out constructive criticism in such a way that our employees not only internalize it as inspiration to do more but actually seek out and crave that kind of criticism. Much as employees have learned to love criticism at Bridgewater according to Adam Grant. Or love to foster creativity as it’s done on the Daily Show by not fearing criticism; we should strive for the same.

Naturally, not every approach works with everyone in every situation. We strive to build relationships of trust and understanding so that we have the context to customize the interactions to the best outcome. Likewise, we need to navigate each situation according what we discover works in that specific conversation for we may not be conscious of the impact of something that may have transpired at home before work that day for us or our employee that completely changes the frame of mind we each bring into the conversation. As Steven Covey described with the man on the subway in his 7 Habits book, we shouldn’t assume we are aware of all the factors influencing someone else’s behavior.

We strive to hire 10x engineers who love challenges and foster an environment to grow great engineers into phenomenal engineers to become and remain 10x engineers by being 10x managers that also love the challenges of working on various fronts to keep us being a 10x business. Positivity and productivity exist where transparency and challenges are sought out.

Radical Candor Aided by Curiosity

Sheila Heen in her course on Difficult Conversations, makes the point that we should enter a difficult conversation with a curiosity to understand the other person’s perspective (which typically differs from ours) rather than with the intent to convince them of our perspective. In my experience to be curious about how they feel, where they’re coming from, why their perspective differs from mine and not only be enlightening for me, but it can also reduce the defensive barriers that lets the other person also become more curious about where I’m coming from and why… Sheila further goes on to suggest from coming from a place of seeking blame (looking backwards) to Joint Contribution which assumes that in most situations everyone somehow contributed to a discord.

Intent vs Impact

In an ally training at work, we were asked some hypothetical questions. One of them was” “If someone were you approach you and say to your face: ‘You are a racist and a bigot!’ how would you feel?” The visceral reaction is of course one of defensiveness. The idea was for us to empathize with someone we might call out. I prefered a reframing: “I’d like to help you understand what you just said could be heard as racist.” This can shift from defensiveness to curiosity, It is a shift from head on confronting them by implying we know another person’s intent when they do or say things to standing next to them and considering the possible impact on others. Regardless of whatever the actual intent may be, this is more likely to allow for a constructive conversation.

The other kind of “Impact” that can be helpful here is helping the other person appreciate the positive impact a change can have on their effectiveness and career.

This can apply in many situations including the workplace. When addressing an issue at work, it can be very different to stand shoulder to shoulder with an employee when looking at a bad outcome from the perspective of together let’s figure out what went wrong to help avoid it in the future – seeing it as an opportunity. It’s more likely to initiate a productive conversation that a face-to-face, finger pointing confrontation a la “you messed up!”

Face-to-Face vs Shoulder-to-Shoulder

Radical Candor - Face to Face vs Should to Should

It is vital to success to first establish within ourselves that we believe in the other person having good intent at their core. Only then should we attempt a conversation with any hope of establishing trust or providing constructive feedback that you hope to be received in a positive manner. Holding this belief ourselves helps us convey our intent of being helpful; this is crucial in allowing others to receive. As humans, our egos have us shut down to feedback and go into defensive or denial mode when we feel attacked.

Recieving Radical Candor

In my post at Villains.blog, I speak to another way to deal with a confrontation...

Radical Candor - Redirecting Energy

In various marital arts, one learns to redirect the opponent’s energy. The harder they come at you, the more they’ll be off balance and the more energy you’ll have to work with. This technique is used in various martial arts including Tai Chi Chuan, Aikido, and Ju Jitsu. Using your opponents’ movements, momentum and focus to your advantage need not be limited to the physical realm. Josh Waitzkin, who include the use of this technique to win the Tai Chi Chuan world championships, would also in chess, on his path to winning nationals, find ways to take advantage of his opponents sense that they had made an effective attack to lure them into a false sense of security causing them to let their guard down and overlook his subtle redirection until it was too late.

In a verbal attack, taking the force head on is typically less effective than of you welcome and even agree with the attack. If someone accuses you of being unethical, the expected response is a defensive one. Instead, if you counter with, “thank you for pointing that out, I didn’t realize what I was saying could be unethical” you have begun to disarm them. You can follow with “that wasn’t my intent, but I’d love to hear your perspective…” you shift from a head-on confrontation to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them looking at what you said, how it could be interpreted or heard. I have found that often in agreeing with a verbal attack on you, that energy can often be shifted in your favor.

Difficult Conversations – What is Heard

What is heard carries more weight than what is said. Understanding how others hear your words can help you learn to adapt your language and approach. In the end, we may discover that what was heard was more inferred than implied. By agreeing with an attacker’s assault, you may find yourself standing shoulder to shoulder next to them and may have converted an adversary into an ally. You can allow your villains to weaken or strengthen you – it all depends on which wolf you feed.

In Difficult Conversations – How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen also speak to viewing any conflict from a perspective of “contribution” rather than blame – the assumption being that all parties involved typically contribute to some degree to any conflict. When we keep this in mind, it’s also easier to take a shoulder-to-shoulder perspective. Here too though, they focus on contributing factors directly related to the conflict between the two parties and don’t address the other potential Vectors of Influence that may be contributing.

There’s a great TED talk on delivering a receiving criticism as a good thing that challenges us to be better: Adam Grant – WorkLife: How to love criticism.

The Power of “Yet”

Imagine receiving feedback of “you’re not good at giving presentations”, “you’re no expert at running meetings”, “you’re not manager material”, … That phrasing is most likely deflating, taken as criticism, and taken personally. If, however, a slightly altered message it delivered: “you’re not good at giving presentations yet”, “you’re no expert at running meetings yet”, “you’re not manager material yet”, … It can evoke a curiosity. An eagerness to discover what’s missing may result. The impact is lessened and the intent can now be easily framed as helpful. Again, solving a problem or making an improvement is better done in shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration than in face-to-face confrontation. Including “yet” helps establish that you believe in them and their intent.

We’ve since invited Bi-Jingo back a few times to have more classes with actors acting out being the employee receiving feedback and not quite hearing it as exercises for our managers, and everyone has found it to be a very effective way to work through improving on such conversations.

Kim Scott’s Radical Candor

Radical Candor Quadrants

In her book Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, Kim Scott describes four quadrants for feedback. Scott explains how caring for someone and remaining silent in terms of providing constructive criticism is actually holding them back from improving. She refers to it as “Ruinous Empathy.” She also describes the opposite of that where you don’t care at all and provide feedback obnoxiously and aggressively. Scott further goes on to also speak to how we receive feedback.

Over the years in sports, business and private life, I’ve discovered that with a simple twist in perspective, I can receive feedback delivered as “Obnoxious Aggression” with the positive benefits of Radical Candor. I seek the value I can extract and recognize that every time someone points out a weakness or failing of mine, they are actually doing me a favor by showing me where I can work on being stronger and more successful. This also dis-empowers any aggressive intent to tear me down. Yes, it sounds easier than it is at first, but once you realize you can do it, it becomes a lot easier.

As Helen Reddy once put it

“You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul”

Pure Storage’s Founder’s Take

Pure Storage Message

“As we all go through our journey at Pure, remember that we are evolving and changing.
We will never reach perfection, but we should always be striving to do better.
This concept of evolution and change is something that we have incorporated into our company values in
everything you should be asking yourself:
Is there a better way? Can we improve this?
Great ideas for improvement come from all of us. Never be satisfied with the way everyone else has done it. Be satisfied with the right way, the best way and please drive that spirit into everything we do.”

– Coz – Founder and CTO, Pure Storage, Inc.

Radical Candor by the Numbers

P.S. Laura from Bi-Jingo in opening, also mentioned a study that showed managers could have a 39% impact on employee productivity through meaningful conversations. Searching finds the study Managing for High Performance and Retention An HR Toolkit for Supporting the Line Manager which pulled from Datasets with more than 90,000 employees from 135 organizations supported the analyses presented with that report. I do believe there can be very substantial impact on employee performance through good management. However, I’m skeptical the causality could be isolated and measured that precisely. It’s an interesting read nonetheless.

Radical Candor by the numbers

CD

See Also

On the need for holding people accountable and why leaders struggle with it:

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