Radical candor: Speak the truth and build relationships

Radical Candor by Kim Scott sets high expectations. The book’s subtitle promises that it will teach you “How to Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.” A tall order. How does it stack up?

The book made quite a splash when it was first released in 2017, and its principles have been adopted and endorsed by several major figures and companies, including Amazon. This success is due, at least in part, to the author starting a consulting firm based on teaching the book’s ideas. In just a few years, the term “radical candor” has become popular enough to be parodied by both Dilbert and the HBO comedy Silicon Valley.

At the core of the book is a quadrant model of leadership. The two dimensions of this quadrant are “Care Personally” and “Challenge Directly.” If you only challenge your team without investing emotionally, that’s “Obnoxious Aggression.” Those who care too much to actually confront or challenge others fall prey to “Ruinous Empathy.” Leaders who neither care nor challenge exercise “Manipulative Insincerity.” Finally, Radical Candor is defined as the perfect balance of relationship building and fearless engagement.

Many of the concepts in the book are very straightforward, even obvious. It isn’t exactly a game-changing notion to propose that good leaders should care about their teams. Scott devotes a lot of time in the book to concepts of building relationships, the “Care Personally” dimension of her quadrant.

The book stands out more in its analysis of “Challenge Directly.” The negative example of ruinous empathy is particularly noteworthy. Scott has excellent insights into the ways that fear of confrontation and misplaced compassion can allow bad situations to become much worse.

Radical Candor shines by being thoroughly actionable and practical. The book is full of practical examples of its principles, different specific ways to foster conversation and quality relationships with your employees. Scott has a lot of great advice and models for how to handle difficult conversations with employees. This is the book at it’s best. The quadrant model is solid, if a little basic, but Radical Candor is useful to have in your toolbox, especially for those difficult talks and moments of interpersonal conflict.

The book does fail, somewhat, in distinguishing the concept of radical candor from just being an abrasive jerk. Of course, Scott goes out of her way to draw distinctions between the two, but it does fall flat. It’s not that the book’s ideas are wrong, but many of the concepts that are presented as revolutionary and novel can be boiled down to “Just be a good person.” Hardly a radical idea.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott is available for purchase here.

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