Thursday, September 15, 2022

Book review - Radical Candor: Be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity, by Kim Scott

Radical Candor is a book I got to after years of getting references to it from various places - blogs, other books, people. It means that I had high expectations *and* was pretty sure I wouldn't be surprised by the content. Not an easy place for a book to be. Despite those difficult starting conditions, it manages to live up to the reputation it has, and to pack the information in a useful, coherent way.

I've listened to an audiobook of the 2nd edition, and it starts with an attempt to defuse a common backlash of the 1st edition: Radical candor is not a permission to be an arsehole, nor is it an invitation to be cruel. The main reason of being truly candid with someone is because we care. It is this care that drives us to provide feedback even if it's painful, and to make sure the recipient is able to make use of it. The book cover is providing a neat summary of the main idea behind this book. Relevant behavior is measured on two axes: Caring personally and challenging directly. Caring personally is being interested in the well being of the person you are working with (in the book, the people you manage). Not offending them, providing them with opportunities to improve, etc. Challenging directly, on the other hand, is about getting things done - pointing out mistakes, being accurate and concise, regardless of how people feel about it. 

Those axes create four distinct categories:

  • Manipulative insincerity: Low caring, low challenging. This is where you show no care for the other person and for the mission - you avoid conflict by not giving someone difficult feedback, but having no problem backstabbing them when they are not around. You might want to be on that person's good side, to pat their ego or simply to get that person off your hands. If you see someone being sweet and enthusiastic with someone, only to sigh and roll their eyes the moment the other person leaves - that's it. 
  • Ruinous empathy: High caring, low challenging. The intentions behind this are kind - not making someone feel bad, giving them leeway since they are in a difficult time, or simply wanting to avoid conflict. The end result though is indistinguishable from manipulative insincerity, as in both cases you will keep silent or give underserved praise. The fact that you mean well doesn't really matter, as the road to hell is paved with good intentions and in this case,  hiding the mess under the carpet will come back to bite both of you in the rear.
  • Obnoxious aggression: Low caring, high challenging. Surprisingly, this is actually the second best place to be in. People getting the business end of this behavior might cry, stress out or feel attacked, but things actually get done and either improves or breaks completely. If people can grow the necessary thick skin to survive, they will get direct feedback and could build on it to improve. Don't expect employee retention to be high, though, as this assault on the employees ego and confidence will tire most of them enough to quit.
  • Radical candor: High caring, high challenging. This is the sweet spot between obnoxious aggression and ruinous empathy. You give employees actionable feedback and help them process it and improve from it. You take care not to say "This code is shit", but rather "This code isn't good enough, it should be broken to smaller functions, improve variable names and care more about log levels, you usually do better". 
It's important to notice that there isn't a recipe for being radically candid with someone, as what matters is not what was said but rather what was heard and understood.  One person will understand "this work is shit, take the time to do it well" as a personal judgement and will be discouraged, while another would see it as an honest evaluation of the work and an appreciation of their skills when not under pressure. The first might be at a loss about what is wrong and would require more direct guidance such as "it works, but will be hell to maintain unless we clean up the wording and build a better structure while the second might get annoyed with you explaining the obvious and micromanaging them. the difference could be rooted in personal preferences on getting feedback, but it can also be a result of how much the person trusts you, how confident they are in their current situation and skills or how they woke up this morning. Complicated? it sure is. You will make mistakes, and the only question is how many and how severe they will turn out to be. A strong relationship is a good buffer to absorb such mistakes, so it is worth investing in it from the onset. 

After the reader (listener, in my case) has understood both what is radical candor and why is it important, it's time to implement those ideas. The book goes on to discuss strategies of creating a radically candid culture around you, peppered with examples from the author's experience that helps understanding the theory as well as the need for anyone to devise their own strategies. I won't go into all of the details as the book does it way better than I could (plus, the author has put a lot of effort into it, go read her work, no mine) but all in all, it's definitely a book I'll listen to again, and  it helped me frame office (and personal) communication in a helpful manner.

At the end of the audiobook there was a preview of another book: "How to Root Out Bias, Prejudice, and Bullying to Build a Kick-ass Culture of Inclusivity". The text there is a little bit less polished and I'm not sure I got the the bottom of what was communicated to me, but even so it was very moving, which is what to be expected from an introduction section to a book (as I believe this text to be) I found myself wondering several times "What the F?? which decent human being would behave that way? there's bias, and there's straight out harassment". So, this is a solid  "maybe" with good potential. 

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