We call managers who have low, almost non-existent involvement in their team’s work absentee managers. Those with extremely (maybe excruciatingly) close involvement are micromanagers. And in between those are the thought partners, the ones who empower, enable and encourage their teams to do the best work of their lives. How can you determine where you fall on this spectrum so you can learn how to move in the right direction instead of being a micromanager or an absentee manager?
To help you figure out when you’re being a good partner rather than slipping into micromanagement or absentee management, I’ve developed a simple chart. I hope it will help you partner better with the people who report to you. One of the best ways to keep the people on your team engaged is by actively partnering with them.
No one wants to work for an absentee manager who makes it feel like there is no one in charge at all. In general, absentee managers don’t give guidance, aren’t open to receiving feedback and don’t assist their employees. They also tend to lack curiosity about what their employees are doing. Even worse, they might not want to know at all. A true absentee manager doesn’t want any details, which allows them to remain unaware of problems.
On the other hand, a micromanager gets in the weeds with everything their employees do. While they have no problem expressing their opinions, they’re not skilled at listening to others. This means they often create more problems than they solve. Micromanagers only see one way to do things — their way.
They lack curiosity, get lost in small details instead of seeing the big picture and often ask their employees to spend a lot of time updating them on their every move. A micromanager tells employees how to solve problems with no real knowledge of the actual issues, then watches from a safe distance to avoid being burned in the explosion.
While a lot of people are absentee or micro managers, no one thinks they are either of these things. However, if you’re not doing what’s necessary to be a real partner, you are one of the former whether you like it or not. In order to be a true thought partner with each of your employees you need to be involved, listen without speaking and ask relevant questions.
If you want to be a kick-ass boss instead of having team members who want to kick your ass, work with your employees to set goals that make sense, actively listen to problems and help brainstorm solutions. The bottom line: A true thought partnership is a team effort.
Everyone can be excellent at something. That’s very different from saying anyone can be good at anything—definitely not true. Sadly, lots of people never find work they are truly excellent at because they stay in the wrong job too long.
Bosses keep this kind of employee on for several reasons: they’re not sure they can find someone better; it takes time and effort to train new people; and they like the person and feel it would be unfair to encourage them to find a job they are better suited for.
This lack of courage and energy leads to a tremendous loss of human potential—to lives of quiet desperation. Assuming that people who are not thriving are therefore mediocre and can’t do any better is both unjust and unkind. Allowing them to continue down that path may be the worst case of ruinous empathy that managers regularly display and a great contribution to wasted possibility.
Of course, treating these people fairly requires that you know them well enough to understand why they aren’t thriving; if they are simply going through a rough period, it’s better to give them the time and space to recover than to push for more than they have to give just then.
That’s why the Radically Candid boss insists that people who had not done exceptional work for more than two years be given an opportunity to work on a project that would let them shine. The problem might be that this person is in the wrong job and their skills could be better used in a different role. If their work still continued to be mediocre, best to encourage these people to look for jobs elsewhere.
This policy is hard to enforce and creates a lot of stress. It forces managers to have a lot of challenging conversations with people who may or may not be in the wrong job. Of course, it’s also difficult for people who’re being pushed out of their comfort zone. But discomfort is better than being labeled permanently “B Players.”
Everyone can be exceptional somewhere and that it is a boss’s job to help them find that role. It’s also a boss’s job to strive to have 100 percent of the team doing exceptional work.”
If somebody hasn’t proven in the course of two years that they can fulfill that expectation, they almost certainly will never get there. It’s time to help them find a job where they can shine and time for the boss to start looking to replace them with somebody who could shine on their team.
In many ways, your job as the boss is to set and uphold a quality bar. That can feel harsh in the short term, but in the long run the only thing that is meaner is lowering the bar. Don’t get sucked into Ruinous Empathy when managing people who are doing OK but not great! And to build a great team that achieves exceptional results, everybody needs to be doing great work. Tolerating mediocrity isn’t good for anybody.
What makes Radical Candor radical is that it’s a deviation from the norm, which tends to fall somewhere between acting like a jerk and avoiding confrontation altogether. The purpose of Radical Candor is to create a new normal where guidance is both kind and clear, not to reinforce bad behavior. This means that if you don’t Care Personally about the person you’re delivering feedback to, you’re exhibiting Obnoxious Aggression, not Radical Candor.
Let’s get one thing clear, Radical Candor is not brutal honesty. It’s not an invitation to act like a jerk, and just because you preface something with “in the spirit of Radical Candor,” if you fail to Care Personally, then you’re actually being obnoxiously aggressive — not radically candid. You’re acting like a jerk.
Obnoxious Aggression Means You’re Acting Like A Jerk
In short, Radical Candor means saying what you think while also giving a damn about the person you’re saying it to. This means you have to Care Personally while also being willing to Challenge Directly.
If you don’t challenge directly, you’re displaying Ruinous Empathy, and neither Obnoxious Aggression nor Ruinous Empathyare Radical Candor. In order to practice Radical Candor, you need to do both. If you neither care nor challenge, you’re engaging in what we call Manipulative Insincerity.
Radical Candor Is Both Kind & Clear
As people toss around the phrase Radical Candor more and more, it’s important to remember that if you don’t care about the object of your candor, you’re doing it wrong. I’m not saying command and control can’t work, it works especially well in a totalitarian regime or a baboon troop.
But in a radically candid workplace common human decency is something we owe to everyone. We try to find the best people for the job, and we respect all the people and all the jobs. If you want to learn more about what is Radical Candor and what isn’t, this is required reading.
Our Candor Coaches, myself included, frequently field questions about how to apply the principles of Radical Candor beyond employee-manager relationships. Often we are asked how to practice Radical Candor with clients. Similar to the old adage that’s been instilled in us since kindergarten, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” many operate from the idea that “the client always knows best.” Unfortunately, this can sometimes be a straight line to Ruinous Empathy — when you care personally about someone, but don’t challenge them.
For example, you see your client making poor decisions that don’t align with their goals, but fear of damaging the relationship keeps you from speaking up. A new study, “The State of Client Understandings,” from Capital Preferences, T. Rowe Price and the Financial Planning Association, found that financial advisors who took the time to get to know their clients and actively challenged them, while also showing they cared, had significantly higher growth opportunities and better client relationships.
In short, these successful advisors were practicing Radical Candor — Caring Personally while Challenging Directly. And while this study focused on financial advisors, the data could be applicable to anyone who interacts with another person in an advisor or mentor role — teachers, lawyers, coaches, etc.
Actively showing that you care for someone helps facilitate a relationship based on trust and respect so that when you do offer guidance, the recipient knows you actually care about them and want them to succeed. The study found that high-performing advisors are much more successful than their counterparts because they are adept at balancing human emotions with the technical aspects of their roles with clients, and they aren’t afraid to Challenge Directly when they see a contradiction. The study found that the most successful advisors were:
Behavioralists, who excel at balancing the human and the technical, and are taking greater advantage of cutting-edge science and technology (e.g., data aggregation, planning software, revealed preferences tools) to get a more evidence-based, holistic picture of clients’ actual behaviors and underlying values and preferences.”
These planners are essentially skilled facilitators with unprecedented depth of insight into client behavior. Think of it like this. If you seek out an advisor, teacher, coach, attorney, etc., it’s because this person has expertise that you lack, and you need their guidance to meet a particular goal. If your advisor operates from the Ruinous Empathy quadrant, they will defer to you because they might fear that challenging your ideas will hurt the relationship.
In reality, the opposite is true. Maybe you’ve heard me talk about Bob, an employee I hired at one of my start-ups. Despite having a stellar resume, Bob was doing terrible work. Instead of letting Bob know that his work wasn’t up to par, I picked up his slack and failed to offer him the feedback and guidance he needed to improve.
Because I was operating from a place of Ruinous Empathy, I left a lot of important things unsaid. Just like financial debt, or technical debt, there’s also “feedback debt,” and that’s what I was creating with Bob. I ultimately had to fire Bob or risk losing the trust of my entire team. So, not so caring after all.
Bob’s first reaction was, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The short answer: I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. But by not seizing the opportunity to utilize “constructive tension” — taking on a difficult conversation when Bob wasn’t meeting his stated objectives — I created additional problems that might have been solvable had I offered guidance as soon as I noticed there was a problem.
Now consider you’ve put your financial security or the outcome of a legal battle in the hands of someone you assume has your best interests at heart. Perhaps you make suggestions, but of course you want the guidance of the expert you’ve hired to ensure you’re on the right track. If your expert is operating from a place of Ruinous Empathy, and isn’t challenging hair-brained ideas that won’t move you closer to your goals, you could lose a lot of money, your court case, etc.
The study encourages advisors/mentors to see tension as opportunity, and found that clients prefer those who point out contradictions between their goal statements and actual behavior. Basically, they want someone who will both Care Personally and Challenge Directly. Someone who operates from a place of Radical Candor.
When an advisor points out these inconsistencies, it takes the judgment out. You can hold it up to a client and say ‘this is what you say you want, but this is what you’re doing,’ and the client can answer it for themselves.” — Frank Paré, president of the Financial Planning Association, Financial Planning magazine
The study found that those who look to quickly resolve tension instead of using it as an opportunity to support their clients by offering guidance are less likely to be recommended to others. This is no surprise — would you recommend someone who allowed you to make a poor investment just because they didn’t want to challenge you?
While my book focuses on how to create a culture of Radical Candor at work, Radical Candor can be applied to most any relationship. This study backs up one of the most basic principles of Radical Candor — when you approach your relationships from a place of Ruinous Empathy, you’re not just unintentionally sabotaging the other person — you’re also hurting yourself.
While almost all the problems we’ve seen companies encounter are covered in the book, and in suggestions for Rolling Out Radical Candor, there are limitations to how much people can put the Radical Candor framework into practice from a book. Because, let’s face it, some things are still better explained by a real live human being. This is why we believe that the best way to spend our time is focusing on supporting people and teams who want to transform their work by developing a culture of Radical Candor.
To put this into practice, Jason Rosoff – former chief people officer and chief product officer at Khan Academy – joined me in 2017 to co-found Radical Candor, LLC., a training and development company based on the Radical Candor management principles.
Radical Candor CEO + Candor Coach Jason Rosoff
Previously, working in partnership with The Gates Foundation and Google, Jason helped Khan Academy improve educational outcomes for over 100 million students and teachers worldwide. Prior to that, Jason was a product leader at Fog Creek where he helped build the teams that created StackOverflow and Trello. Early in his career, Jason led engineering operations at a white-label producer of photo books for Apple.
Jason is the yin to my yang, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to have him as a partner on this journey.”
Because Jason and I want to help managers be kick-ass bosses instead of having employees who want to kick their asses, we began building a team. Working with our Candor Coaches – management and leadership experts who share our passion for bringing Radical Candor to life – we spend most of our time delivering talks and workshops to teams around the world, helping them develop a culture of Radical Candor.
As the Radical Candor, LLC., CEO, Jason’s ability to focus on growing our business allows me to do what I love most – write. I’m working on my next book, exploring how the principles of Radical Candor can be applied to gender dynamics in the workplace.
Radical Candor CMO + Candor Coach Amy Sandler
To help the spread the message of Radical Candor, Amy Sandler has joined the team as chief marketing officer and globetrotting Candor Coach. After business school, while most of us were getting jobs in something called “the internet,” Amy moved to Los Angeles and got an MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA while also continuing to deepen her practice of yoga and meditation.
As a speaker and coach, Amy helps leaders and teams align their purpose and optimize performance through mindfulness and resilience-training. As one of the first certified teachers of the Search Inside Yourself program developed at Google, she really knows her stuff. And after a career leading marketing teaming at organizations like YPO, Vistage and UCLA, Amy has now come full circle, bringing Radical Candor to companies like Facebook, Uber, and Google. I am so excited to have her on the team! And, of course I’m still in close touch with the fabulous Russ Laraway, former COO and co-founder of Candor, Inc., who is vice president of people at Qualtrics.
More than 20 years after Amy and I attended Harvard Business School together, we’ve reconnected to help rid the world of bad bosses.”
As Radical Candor continues to evolve, some of you may remember that we built three apps before it became clear that the reason they weren’t working is because when you’re trying to get people to put their phones away, look each other in the eye, and have a real human conversation, an app is counter intuitive. This is why we’ve pivoted to focus on the things that do work: working with companies to roll out Radical Candor.
By working with teams in person, we’re able to actively help people change their mindset and their behavior. As we continue to grow, we’re listening and learning, discovering what’s working and what’s not, and doing our best to help you put these ideas into practice. Have questions about Radical Candor? We’d love to hear from you!
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of being a guest on Jonathan Courtney’s podcast, The Product Breakfast Club to discuss my experiences as an author and CEO coach teaching Radical Candor in Silicon Valley and around the world. Below is a transcript of our conversation about the concepts of Radical Candor and how they can empower teams to do the best work of their lives. For those of you who’d prefer to listen than read, check out the podcast episode. I’ll let Jonathan take it from here.
Co-Founder of AJ&Smart, a Digital Product Design agency. Nerdy-looking Irish guy.
Jonathan Courtney: For anyone who doesn’t know, Kim Scott is the co-founder of Radical Candor, LLC, and is a well-known CEO coach in Silicon Valley. She was a member of the faculty of Apple University, where she did a lot of teaching. Before that, she worked at Google where she led AdSense, Youtube, and the DoubleClick teams. Earlier in her career, she was a co-founder and CEO of a software start-up, managed a pediatric clinic in war-torn Kosovo and built a diamond cutting factory in Russia. Kim: you need to chill, you’re making everyone else look bad!
Radical Candor was a book that just came into my life at the best possible time. It was when my agency, AJ&Smart was growing, and I was having a lot of struggles as a boss and CEO. New people were coming into the company and I was really struggling with delivering honest feedback and having hard and uncomfortable discussions that are often necessary when you’re running a company.
Somehow, and I really can’t even remember why or where it came from, I picked up Kim’s book, Radical Candor, How to be a Great Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, and it completely blew me away. It’s honestly the best management book I’ve ever read.
If you are a manager and you have to give feedback to other human beings, buy Radical Candor. I’ll wait.
I’ve got to be honest and say that I was a little bit nervous doing this interview because Kim is a total legend, but she was really, really great interviewee. I could have chatted with her for hours and hours, asking her endless questions about her career and getting her advice on my specific situation, however we only had 30 minutes and I was keen to GO DEEP into some of the stories she shares in the book and have her expand on them.
I wanted to pull out some key points from the conversation for this article, points which I feel that if any manager (or anyone, really) started to bring into their life then their career and working relationships would benefit massively. So here they are…
Management doesn’t come naturally to everyone
Kim Scott: You spend years becoming an engineer or even learning how to sell and yet for one of the most important jobs that any of us ever have, we get very little help.
Often if you’re hardworking and driven you’ll eventually fall into a management position, very often without training. I know for me personally there are a lot of things I wish I knew before I started managing people, and while reading Radical Candor I saw myself in so many of the situations.
It’s funny because I remember going through these things thinking it was only me experiencing this, and that the situation was unique to me and my company, but I got a huge sense of relief when reading Kim’s stories — this happens to the best of us.
One thing that I really got from speaking to Kim is that we should treat being a manager as we would any other career path — you need to train yourself and work on those skills, and it’s always a work in progress.
Care personally, Challenge Directly
One of the key messages in Kim’s book, and one of them that really stuck with me, and that I reference all the time, is the idea of caring personally and challenging directly. In the book, and when we spoke in our interview, Kim shared the story of how her manager at the time (SHERYL SANDBERG!?!) had to deliver very direct and feedback to Kim about her presentation style. The way she did it is something that had a huge impact on the rest of Kim’s career…
Kim: She never she let her concern for our short term feelings get in the way of telling us things that we really needed to know, that we really needed to hear about. It was simple. It was challenge directly and care personally at the same time. That was the essence of good guidance, both praise and criticism.
Kim continues and importantly empathises with the fact that regardless of how ‘harsh’ it may seem, delivering candid, clear feedback is in their best interest, because you care about them and their development…
Kim: Your job as a boss is to make things clear to people and very often we’ll actually say the thing, but we won’t be heard. It’s our job to make ourselves heard. Sometimes the key to making yourself heard is to take a moment and to address the emotions in the room. To reassure someone that the reason you’re telling them this thing is that you care about them and that you care about their professional growth. Very often the job of the boss is to move further out on the challenge directly dimension. Sometimes giving feedback feels like you’re having to pick up a 2” x 4″ and hit somebody over the head to get through to them…It’s unkind not to be clear.
Being nice isn’t always nice: Create an environment that evokes praise AND criticism
If you’ve read Radical Candor then you’ll be familiar with the Bob story. The heartbreaking tale of a loveable employee and teammate, who everyone has a soft spot for, but who just isn’t performing. To cut a long story short, at the risk of hurting Bob’s feelings and/or looking like a jerk in front of the rest of her team, Kim Scott avoided giving Bob honest feedback, but as time went on she realised that if she didn’t let Bob go, she’d lose some of her best performers who had become disgruntled by picking up Bob’s slack, so she fired him only to realise that he would have loved, and appreciated, to have heard this earlier so he could have changed.
Kim: I didn’t solicit guidance, praise and criticism, most importantly criticism, from Bob. I also failed to give him praise that was meaningful. The kind of praise I gave him was really just a head fake or an ego self. I failed to tell Bob when his work wasn’t nearly good enough. I failed to give Bob criticism. Probably worst of all I failed to create the kind of environment in which everyone would give Bob the kind of praise and the kind of criticism he needed to be successful in which everyone would tell Bob what was genuinely good about his work and also working with him but also would tell Bob when he was going off the rails. Because I had failed in all these different very important ways I’m now having to fire Bob because of it.
For me personally, being liked as a manager was always something I’d prioritise over most other things. Regardless of whether or not the person was underperforming, I’d prefer that they liked me rather than addressing the issue, which of course isn’t the best thing for them, the company, or their teammates.
Kim: It’s the most natural thing in the world to want to be liked. Don’t worry so much about whether or not people like you, but focus on whether or not you’re doing the kind thing for those other people. Are you putting their interests ahead of your own interests? That makes it much easier to do the things you need to do to be an effective leader because I think that very often we have this notion that we have to choose between being a total jerk and being really effective. That’s a false choice, we don’t have to make that choice.
Keep your star performers top of mind.
Something that very often happens at companies is that the managers spend most of their time dealing with troublemakers and underperformers, assuming that the stars in the company are fine to get on with things on their own. This makes sense, I get this rationale and have experienced this myself, but Kim makes a great point about why it’s important for the individual, and the company, that you don’t do this…
Kim: If you really focus on putting your time into helping the people who are doing the very best work, continue to improve on being a really good thought partner for those people, you will help not only those people, but the whole team. If you think about your time, pretend that it’s money, would it be fair to give equal bonuses to everybody regardless of performance? No, obviously, that wouldn’t be fair. The same thing is true of your time. Your time is really a valuable currency and you should invest it where you and the team are going to get the biggest returns.
Kim continues with a KILLER metaphor that I think nails this mindset perfectly…
Kim: Some people even will say, my approach to management is to hire right, and then give them full autonomy and basically ignore them. That’s like saying, the best way to have a good marriage is to marry the very right person, and then refuse to spend another moment with that person.
When I read this in Radical Candor it completely resonated with me. It inspires me a lot more as a manager to move something that is great to something who is stunningly great, rather than something that is bad to mediocre.
Kim: Management is not Marxism. You don’t need to give all your time to the people who are neediest.
Let your reports set the agenda for your 1-to-1s
A very practical (and super easily applicable) learning for me is having regular 1-to-1s with my direct reports, and letting them set the agenda for these meetings. I really like Kim’s thoughts on this…
Kim: I would remind people that anything was fair game, from strategy to furniture to stuff going on in your personal life. The one-on-one was the time I set aside for each direct report to talk to me about what was on their mind.
It’s easy as a busy manager to want to reduce meeting time and free-up space in your calendar, especially when you think the 1-to-1 might not be needed because the person is doing great, however I’m realising the importance of keeping these things going, because it’s a space where brainstorming and problem solving happens. A suggestion from Kim that I regularly use in my 1-to-1’s…
Kim: It shouldn’t feel like calendar clutter, or something like that. That’s why it’s useful to do it over lunch, or over a coffee or taking a walk or in some way that the human connection is more likely to be front and center, than the updates or the agenda or anything like that.
Remember to praise.
Kim: If you think about praise and criticism, praise helps people see what to do more of and criticism helps them see what to do less of.
Being totally honest, praise is something I’ve struggled with. We’ve tried a few different approaches at AJ&Smart, like bonus programmes where you can reward colleagues for doing something great, and I still haven’t found something that’s really stuck, because for me praise shouldn’t just be about making someone feel good — it should instead be about really directing people in the right direction and rewarding positive action. Kim’s advice really drove home to me the importance of praise and its impact…
Kim: Your job as a leader is to fundamentally show people what success looks like. Praise is a much more powerful tool for showing people what success looks like than criticism. Criticism just shows them what it doesn’t look like.
So to summarize…
Management doesn’t always come naturally to everyone. It’s your job as a manager to continually better yourself and seek out growth opportunities.
Care personally, challenge directly: it’s unkind not to be clear.
Being nice isn’t always nice: create an environment that evokes praise AND criticism.
Keep your star performers top of mind: focus on bringing things from great to amazing, rather than bad to mediocre.
Let your reports set the agenda for your 1-to-1s: anything is fair-game.
Remember to praise: show people what success looks like.
Managing people is hard, no doubt about it, and I think any managers reading this (if they’re honest) will admit that they too have fallen short at times and can relate with Kim’s stories, however by following guidance from seasoned pros like Kim and even implementing just 1 or 2 of the suggestions, you’ll be WAY further ahead than most, and your team will notice (and appreciate) your efforts.
I spend a lot of time these days showing people how to put the Radical Candor framework of “Care Personally + Challenge Directly” into practice by providing frequent feedback, and how to use the framework as a way to guide difficult conversations to avoid falling into Ruinous Empathy, Obnoxious Aggression, or Manipulative Insincerity. When it comes to difficult conversations, some of the most difficult are around gender. I have found that gender politics and fear of tears pushes men away from being as radically candid with women as they are with other men. This is bad for men, women, and the truth.
Gender bias also pushes women away from being radically candid, which is bad for women, men, and the truth. I have, unfortunately, all too much experience with sexual harassment in the workplace, and with gender bias in general. So much experience I’m writing my next book on it! I also have a lot of experience with cross-cultural communication challenges and how things can easily get “Lost in Translation.”
Bill Murray sings karaoke in Japan in the movie “Lost In Translation.”
A few decades ago I was working in Russia. My alarm clock didn’t go off, I overslept, and was a little late for an early morning meeting. I rushed in a few minutes after it had begun, and apologized.
“I’m sorry. I overslept,” I said. At least that is what I thought I had said. I was speaking in Russian, and I could see from the amused looks on everyone’s face that was not what I had said at all.
One man explained, “Prospat is how you say oversleep.”
“What did what I say actually mean?” I asked, curious.
“Well, it sort of implies…” the man coughed and was silent.
Somebody else helped him out, “You said you were late because you were having sex over and over again this morning.”
We all burst out laughing and moved on. I never made that mistake again. More awkward than telling someone they had spinach in your teeth, but really not that big a deal.
It’s hard to imagine this simple exchange happening today. And yet now more than ever it’s important we find a way to give each other this kind of feedback, even when it’s awkward.
So I recently got this note from “John”:
In the ‘small world’ category, I met a friend yesterday and they told me that they’d been in a meeting recently where you presented.
You’ll get an email soon from him to address a language culture difference in your presentation that is very rude in the UK, but not at all in North America.
He is modeling Radical Candor, as he is one of the most caring leaders I’ve ever known…so he will be sharing out of care!”
Naturally I was curious and more than a little nervous about what I had said. I wondered if it was my salty language. I sent the people who’d organized the talk a note asking if it had been a problem. No, they hadn’t heard any complaints. I wrote to “John” to ask what I’d said. He told me that the guy who wanted to give me feedback on my feedback presentation (very meta!) had to run the email through two layers of approval. What??? I now felt a sense of despair. How could this company build a culture of feedback if they had to run any feedback through several layers of approval before talking to someone? A few weeks later, I still hadn’t heard anything. Evidently compliance had put the kibosh on the idea of telling me what I’d done wrong in the presentation they’d paid me to give on how to tell people when they are making mistakes.
The irony was painful. And by now I was dying to know what I’d said wrong. So I scheduled a phone call with John to ask him. He said he couldn’t quite remember what it was I’d said. I told him I wouldn’t be able to rest until I knew. He promised to ask his friend, who was from the UK (not where the talk was held.)
A couple days later I got the answer:
Checked back with my friend. You used the phrase ‘blowing someone off.’
In UK English, that is ‘brushing someone off,’ roots being brushed off the shoulder of your jacket, etc.
DOH! I knew exactly when and how I’d used the term. I’d been describing the various reactions one gets when giving feedback. Sometimes, people will be grateful. Sometimes they’ll be sad, other times they’ll be mad — but most often they’ll “blow you off.” Er. Brush you off. Then you have to work more hard to be clear. I learned a couple of important things from this exchange. First, an important nuance about British English vs. American English. Especially since feedback is measured at the listener’s ears, not the speaker’s mouth, this was really helpful for me to learn! But I also learned how poorly feedback, the law, and sex mix these days. It became really clear to me why the person who had seen my presentation didn’t just come up to me afterwards and tell me what I’d done wrong. Even the layers of approval, which I’d been dismissing as ludicrous — dare I say, brushing them off — made a little more sense.
In today’s climate, the use of sexually-charged language at work (like what I said, unknowingly, in my presentation) feels dangerous. So both the man who saw my talk on Radical Candor and the company that paid me to give it preferred to be “Manipulatively Insincere” with me when I made an embarrassing mistake. They didn’t tell me, leaving me to repeat it with other audiences. On the Radical Candor scale, this behavior falls under Low “Care Personally,” low “Challenge Directly.” In this case, this behavior is also self-protective and totally understandable. Given the state of the law around these things, I’d call it a case of Mandated Manipulative Insincerity. Of course I would not sue them for discussing this topic with me. But how could they know that? This is all the more reason why it’s so important that we give Radically Candid feedback (instead of falling into Ruinous Empathy, Obnoxious Aggression, or Manipulative Insincerity) to help others avoid future mistakes, like the kind I made!
And this is why I’m writing this post, even though it feels risky. Because I think it’s a risk worth taking to make the point that we have to help each other out so we don’t continue saying, or doing, inappropriate things. Especially when we aren’t aware it’s inappropriate. How can we make it safer for people to have these conversations? I can imagine only too well the nightmare scenarios the people from HR compliance have not only imagined but actually lived through. So I don’t blame them for stopping feedback in its tracks. But if we let our worst experiences dictate how we communicate in ordinary circumstances and fall into Mandated Manipulative Insincerity, we will basically quit talking to each other. Let’s not let this happen …
It’s frustrating to work with somebody who expects to be rewarded for being more miserable than you are, who’s constantly trying to engage in a contest about who can work longer hours, who has masochism confused with commitment. These people are known as work martyrs. And if your boss is too blind to see what’s going on, it’s even harder. I used to try to compete with work martyrs.
But, truth be told, work martyrs aren’t always as bad as you think. I once worked with a group who worked all the time: 90-hour weeks were common. At first, I thought of them as work martyrs and that made me feel resentful. Over time though, I realized they just wanted to live differently than I did. For them, work was the safest, happiest place on earth. They actually liked being at the office all the time.
Rather than trying to compete with these people, continue striving to do your best. And when you feel like you’re getting sucked into work martyrdom, keep these tips in mind.
Do’s and Don’ts When You’re Tempted to Compete With Work Martyrs
Do prioritize your work. Identify all the things you’re doing that aren’t necessary and just quit doing them. Extra time in the office, for example, is rarely imperative. If you still have too much work to do, make sure you understand your team’s top priorities, and put low priority work on a “do not do” list. (One note: seek explicit agreement from your boss that you’ve gotten the priorities correct, and that it’s OK not to do the less important stuff so you can focus on what really matters.)
Don’t enter competitions you don’t want to win. That means not attempting to put in more hours than the people around you. You’ll probably lose if you try, and if you win, you lose in the end when you find yourself burned out and resentful.
Do set your own boundaries, and let others work the way that works for them. When I was in a similar position and relayed to my team how much I was realistically willing to work, they were absolutely fine with it. They didn’t care if I was there 40 hours or 70.
But they didn’t want to be kept to a maximum either. I knew not to insist they work less if they were genuinely eager to be there. So be clear with your colleagues where your boundaries are — and respect that theirs may be different.
Don’t become promotion-obsessed. We live in a culture fixated on external rather than internal validation. At work, this often plays out in an over-emphasis on promotions, title changes, and expanded responsibilities instead of the often more meaningful professional growth and stability.
Do focus on what’s most important to you, and to getting it. Working fewer hours does not have to translate to lower ambition. It does have to mean really clear thinking, greater efficiency, and more ruthless prioritization.
Don’t concede defeat if you do want to move up but you simply can’t put in the hours because of demands from your personal life. If you prioritize wisely, and don’t waste time at work, you’ll be amazed how much you can get done. When I asked Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, about balancing work and parenthood, she had a simple formula: “You work less.”
And there you go, a few guiding tips for when you’re worried about competing with people who are putting in more hours. Remember: Success isn’t measured by the hours you spent sitting in front of your computer. Success is measured by your results, and how fulfilled you feel achieving those results.
I recently learned that my great-grandfather Taylor Malone started a company with my husband’s great-great uncle, Joe Hyde, in Memphis, Tenn., my hometown. Oddly, it took us 11 years of marriage to learn this. We just found out thanks to a visit to a cemetery in Connecticut, but we’re happy to know now. It’s a great story about how we all need a balance of growth and stability to build great teams, to have successful careers, and to live the lives we imagine.
The whole story nicely illustrates something I learned about building cohesive teams from an executive at Apple. If I’d just been listening around the dinner table, maybe I could have learned it much sooner.
For much of my career, I tended to focus on hiring only the most hyper-ambitious people. I assumed that was the only way to succeed. Then a leader at Apple pointed out to me that all teams need stability as well as growth to function properly; nothing works well if everyone is gunning for the next promotion.
She called the people on her team who got exceptional results but who were on a more gradual growth trajectory “rock stars” because they were like the Rock of Gibraltar of her team.
These people loved their work and were world-class at it, but they didn’t want her job or her boss’s job or to be Steve Jobs. They were happy where they were.
The people who were on a steeper growth trajectory—the ones who’d go crazy if they were still doing the same job in a year—she called “superstars.” They were the source of growth on any team. She was explicit about needing a balance of both.
This was a revelation. Apple was big but still growing like crazy. And yet Apple made room for people with all sorts of different ambitions. You had to be great at what you did and you had to love your work, but you did not have to be promotion-obsessed to have a fulfilling career at Apple.
For most of my career I’d systematically undervalued the so-called “rock stars.” This mistake had caused a lot of unhappiness for people who contributed significantly. (To learn more about balancing superstar mode and rock star mode, read chapters three and seven of Radical Candor.)
Taylor Malone was the ultimate rock star, a man focused on stability. He started Malone and Hyde to support his family, not because he had a passion for business. His passion was fishing. He worked hard, and the company did well. He fished on the weekends.
Joe Hyde was the ultimate superstar, an ambitious man focused on growth. His passion was to build a big business. The company did well, and he wanted to take on debt to grow faster.
Taylor Malone was worried about what the stress of debt and growth would do to his fishing weekends. He decided he’d rather give control to Joe Hyde, let him build on the foundation they’d dug together, forego much of the financial upside, and spend the time taking his grandkids, including my father, fishing.
Lest we leave our female forebears out of the story: My great-grandmother was so loved by her children and grandchildren that nobody could talk about her after she died without bursting into tears. So all I know about her is that she was much loved. But that’s enough to know…
Both Joe Hyde and Taylor Malone got what they wanted. My great-grandfather now fished three times a week, and Andy’s great-great uncle built their little store into Malone and Hyde, one of the largest food distributors in the country.
Both Joe Hyde and Taylor Malone’s decisions have contributed to our family’s psychological freedom to do what we want. They also remind us of the courage and clarity it takes to figure out what we really want.
Joe Hyde reminds us we can take risks and build something big when that’s what we want. Taylor Malone reminds us that may not be what we want, and we can live life at a slower pace and still be productive .
If you can build a team that balances growth and stability, that allows everyone to take a step in direction of their dreams, the benefits to you, your business can be surprising and delightful for generations to come.
An even more essential question to ask is, what does an ideal manager-employee relationship look like? How is it different from a friendship?
The “boss-employee” relationship is relatively new. For most of human history, we accomplished our great collaborative feats through terrible brutality — forced labor.
During the Industrial Revolution, we replaced brutality with bureaucracy; a giant step in the right direction, but hardly inspiring. In today’s economy, companies like Google have shown there’s a more productive, more human way to work than command and control.
And at the center of a manager’s ability to fulfill their core responsibilities is a good relationship.
The relationship a manager has with an employee is definitely not a friendship, which may be described as a two-way street. As such, being a manager often feels like a lonely, one-way, pay-it-forward street.
While it’s not a friendship, you need to care personally about your employee. This doesn’t mean you need to go out to drinks with them every night (or know the exact date of their Golden Retriever’s birthday).
It does mean you need to give a damn about them, and understand what’s important to them (hiking with their Golden Retriever).
Caring personally means it’s your job to listen to people’s stories, to get to know them well enough to understand what motivates them, to encourage them to take a step in the direction of their dreams, and to help them do the best work of their lives.