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Home » How To Lead With Radical Candor: Kim Scott (Transcript)

How To Lead With Radical Candor: Kim Scott (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript and summary of Kim Scott’s talk titled “How To Lead With Radical Candor” at TEDxPortland conference.

In this TEDx talk, author Kim Scott discusses the concept of leading with radical candor, which involves caring for and challenging others at the same time. She shares how obnoxious aggression, a type of toxic behavior, is inefficient and leads to manipulative insincerity.

Listen to the audio version here:


How can you all say what you mean without being mean? I started thinking about this back in 1999. I had started a software company, and I came into the office one day. And about half the people in the company had sent me the same article about how everyone would rather have a boss who is really mean but competent, a total jerk but competent, than one who is really nice but incompetent.

And I thought, gosh, are they sending me this because they think I’m a jerk or because they think I’m incompetent? And surely those are not my only two choices.

Now, I went to business school, and there I learned exactly nothing about management. But I did learn one really important thing. All of life’s hardest problems can be solved with a good two-by-two framework.

So that is how I started thinking about this problem. I was unwilling to let go of my desire to show that I cared personally. That is what, for me, gave work meaning, but I also had to learn how to challenge directly. And I had to learn how to do both at the same time.

And over time, I came to think about caring and challenging at the same time as radical candor. Now, the easiest way to understand what radical candor is, is to think about what happens when we mess up on one dimension or another, as we are all bound to do from time to time. Sometimes we remember to challenge directly, but we forget to show that we care personally. And this I call obnoxious aggression.

Anybody ever seen any obnoxious aggression? And this is a problem. Obnoxious aggression is a problem, because it hurts people. Primarily, it’s a problem because it hurts people. But it’s also a problem because it’s inefficient. If I act like a total jerk to you, then you’re likely to go into fight-or-flight mode in your brain, and then you literally cannot hear what I’m saying. So I’m just wasting my breath.

And then there’s a third, more subtle problem with obnoxious aggression. I don’t know about you, but for me, when I realize I’ve acted like a jerk, it is not my instinct to go the right way on care personally. Instead, it’s my instinct to go the wrong way on challenge directly. Oh, it’s no big deal. It doesn’t really matter.

And then I wind up in the worst place of all, manipulative insincerity. If obnoxious aggression is front-stabbing, manipulative insincerity is back-stabbing. It’s passive-aggressive behavior. This is where all the most toxic kinds of workplace behavior, or frankly, behavior at home in any relationship that you have in any part of your life creep in.

And it is fun to tell stories about obnoxious aggression and manipulative insincerity, because this is where the drama is. However, the vast majority of us make the vast majority of our mistakes in this last quadrant, where we do remember to show that we care personally.

Because you know what? Most people are actually pretty nice people. So we do remember to show that we care personally. But we’re so worried about not hurting someone’s feelings or not offending someone that we fail to tell them something they’d be better off knowing in the long run. And this is what I call ruinous empathy.

Empathy is a good thing. Ruinous empathy is not. In order to explain to you what I mean by this, I want to tell you a story about possibly the most painful moment of my career.

I had just hired this person, Alex. We’ll call this person Alex. And I liked Alex a lot. Alex was smart. Alex was charming. Alex was funny. Alex would do stuff like we’re at a manager off-site playing one of those endless get-to-know-you games. And Alex was the person who had the courage to raise their hand and to say, I can tell that everyone is really stressed out. I’ve got an idea. It’ll help us get to know each other better, and it’ll be really fast.

Whatever Alex’s idea was, if it was fast, we were down with it. Alex says, let’s just go around the table and confess what candy our parents used when potty-training us. Really weird, but really fast.

Weirder yet, we all remembered Hershey Kisses right here. And then for the next 10 months, every time there was a tense moment in a meeting, Alex would whip out just the right piece of candy for the right person at the right moment. So Alex brought a little levity to the office. Everybody loved working with Alex.

One problem with Alex, Alex was doing terrible work. Absolutely. Sort of creative and unusual, but tons of sloppy mistakes. I was so puzzled, I couldn’t understand what was going on, because Alex had this incredible resume, this great history of accomplishments.

I learned much later that Alex was smoking pot in the bathroom three times a day, which maybe explained all that candy that he had. But I didn’t know any of that at the time. All I knew is that Alex would hand stuff in to me with shame in his eyes. He knew his work wasn’t nearly good enough.

And I would say something to him along the lines of, Oh, Alex, you’re so smart, you’re so awesome, everybody loves working with you, this is a great start. Maybe you can make it just a little bit better. Which, of course, he never did.

Okay, so let’s pause for a moment. What was going on there? Part of it was truly ruinous empathy. I really did like Alex, and I really did not want to hurt his feelings. But if I’m honest with myself, there was something more insidious going on as well, because Alex was popular, and Alex was sensitive.

And there was part of me that was afraid that if I told Alex, in no uncertain terms, that his work wasn’t nearly good enough, he would get upset, he might even start to cry. And then everyone would think I was a big you-know-what. So the part of me that was worried about my reputation as a leader, that was the manipulative insincerity part. The part of me that was worried about Alex’s feelings, that was the ruinous empathy part.

So this kind of toxic mixture goes on for about ten months, and eventually the inevitable happens. And I realized that if I don’t fire Alex, I’m going to lose all my best performers. Because not only have I been unfair to Alex, not to tell him so that he could fix things, I’ve been unfair to the whole team. Their deliverables were late because his deliverables were late.

They couldn’t spend as much time on their work as they needed to because they were constantly having to redo his work. And the people who were the best performers on my team, they were just going to quit. They wanted to be able to work at a place where they could do their best work. And so I sat down to have a conversation with Alex that I should have started, frankly, ten months previously.

And when I finished explaining to him where things stood, he kind of pushed his chair back from the table. He looked me right in the eye and he said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” And as that question was going around in my head with no good answer, he looked at me again and he said, “Why didn’t anyone tell me? I thought you all cared about me.”

And now I realize that by not telling Alex, thinking I was being so nice, sparing his feelings, he’s now getting fired as a result of it. Not so nice after all. It was a terrible moment in my career, but it was too late to save Alex. Even Alex at this point agreed he should go because his reputation on the team was just shot.

All I could do in that moment was make myself a very solemn promise that I would never make that mistake again, and that I would do everything in my power to help other people avoid making that mistake. And that is why I’m here talking to you all today.

Now, I want to talk to you not only about how this works, how ruinous empathy works in one-on-one relationships. It also works on team culture or doesn’t work. Often I’ll work with a team and they start out radically candid. Small group of people, they know each other really well. It’s kind of easy for them to show they care and challenge. And then because of that, they find some success and they grow.

And then they succumb to the gravitational pull of ruinous empathy. And then things start going wrong, but nobody wants to be mean. Nobody wants to talk to anybody else. Everybody’s getting really agitated.

And then finally somebody bursts out and says the thing. Anybody ever see that happen? Maybe not in the best way, but it works. And because it works, they do it again, but maybe they do it a little more.

And because everybody else is so determined to be nice, they say things like, oh, she didn’t mean any harm, or, oh, he’s a good guy. And then the next thing you know, this person is promoted now. Anybody ever see this happen? There comes a moment on every team’s history when the jerks begin to win. And that is when the culture begins to lose because what happens next?

Everybody moves down to manipulative insincerity. They’re talking badly about this person behind this person’s back, but they are not talking to the person. It does not have to be this way, folks. If you notice this happening, your team sort of drifting over to ruinous empathy, it’s possible to move over to radical candor. That’s not going to solve all problems.

People will still make a mistake, but you can tell them about that mistake in a way that allows them to make things better. Now, it’s not only the culture on teams where this happens. Sometimes it happens in a whole society.

Sometimes it turns out that a whole society is polarized. Anybody ever know such a society? We’re polarized, and we’re not talking to each other. We’re talking about each other, and we’re sticking with the people who agree with us. And I am no better than the rest of us on this.

I recently was invited to give a talk at a company whose policies I disagreed with pretty vehemently, and I was tempted not to go. And then I thought, that does not seem like it’s in the spirit of radical candor. In fact, I believe very deeply that unchallenged beliefs become prejudices.

So I needed to go to this place and talk to these people, not because I was going in prepared to change my mind. If I’m honest, I was not. But I also wasn’t going in trying to change their mind. I was going in thinking if I understand their point of view, it will help me deepen my thinking, and maybe I can find some common ground with these people.

You’re going to hear more about common ground. Maybe I can learn to like these people. And as I gave the talk, I got to the Q&A, and it was going really well. We were having a great conversation, and there was this voice inside my head, like screaming at me, saying, “Kim, these people are not your enemies. These are your fellow Americans.” And it really made me take a deep breath.

I was like, why would I not have come to speak with these people? After the conference was over, somebody came up to me and said, “Kim, do you believe this, do you believe that?”

I said, yes, I did. They kind of cocked their head, and they said, huh, you don’t seem like an evil person. And I would have thought that person was ridiculous, except that I had just had pretty much the same thought myself five minutes previously. So how does this work?

Some of the best relationships of my career have happened with people who I disagree with. And because I care about these people, it’s easier for me to challenge them. And because I challenge them, it’s easier to care. It’s a virtuous cycle, radical candor.

And the reason why it works is that we, both of us, believe that the floor on the care personally dimension of radical candor is respect. Respect is something we owe to everyone. And when we can show respect and common human decency, we actually wind up loving the people who we work with, not in the HR disaster sense of the word that we’ve read so much about today, but in the true sense of collegiality.

So to understand how to do this, I want to explain to you the radical candor order of operations, going back to this Alex story. I failed pretty much on all dimensions with Alex. I failed to solicit feedback. Radical candor, no matter who you are, should always start with soliciting feedback. Don’t dish it out before you prove you can take it.

But I didn’t do that with Alex. So let’s give me a report card. I failed to solicit praise, and I failed to ask Alex what I could do or stop doing that might make it easier for him to work with me. Maybe, just maybe, I was doing something that was frustrating Alex so much she was forced to choke up in the bathroom three times a day.

I don’t know, because I never asked him, right? So solicit feedback. You also need to give praise. The kind of praise I gave to Alex was really just a head fake, and you need to tell people when their work isn’t nearly good enough.

But because I failed to do that, I couldn’t possibly gauge how my feedback was landing. So I’m going to give myself an incomplete there. So what do I mean by gauge the feedback? This is where you can use this framework.

Remember, radical candor gets measured not at the speaker’s mouth, but at the listener’s ear. But how do you know what’s going on inside someone else’s ear? You can use this framework. If the other person seems sad, that is your cue to move up on the care-personally dimension.

If the other person seems mad, that is also your cue to move up on the care-personally dimension. But it’s pretty hard to care personally about someone who’s yelling at you. So what can you do? In these moments, you’re probably mad back.

When you’re furious, get curious, or get curious, not furious, if you’re batting above average. Try to move up on care. Why is this person so mad? Last but not least, there are times when you’ll say the thing.

You’ll work up your courage to say the thing, and then the person will just brush you off. This is your cue to move out further than you’re comfortable going on the challenge-directly dimension. So if you can all go forth and be radically candid, you will have better relationships, one-on-one relationships. You can help build a better culture at work, and you can help build confluence in society.

Thank you all so much.


Kim Scott’s talk “How to Lead with Radical Candor” revolves around the concept of balancing personal care with direct challenges in leadership. Here are the key takeaways from her presentation:

1. The Dilemma of Leadership Styles: Scott begins by reflecting on a dilemma she faced early in her career – whether to be a competent but mean boss or a nice but incompetent one. This led her to seek a middle ground.

2. The Two-by-Two Framework: Scott uses a two-by-two framework to approach management, focusing on two key dimensions: caring personally and challenging directly.

3. Radical Candor Concept: She introduces the concept of “Radical Candor,” which involves both caring personally and challenging directly. This approach aims to create meaningful, efficient, and respectful work environments.

4. Quadrants of Interaction Styles:

   – Obnoxious Aggression: When one challenges directly without showing personal care.

   – Manipulative Insincerity: Results from avoiding direct challenges and personal care, leading to passive-aggressive behavior.

   – Ruinous Empathy: Occurs when care is shown, but direct challenges are avoided. This is seen as the most common mistake, where leaders prioritize being nice over offering constructive criticism.

5. Personal Anecdote – The Story of Alex: Scott shares a story about an employee named Alex, whose poor performance was overlooked due to her ruinous empathy and fear of being perceived negatively. This led to a detrimental impact on the team and ultimately to Alex’s dismissal.

6. Ruinous Empathy in Team Culture: She observes how teams initially practicing radical candor can drift into ruinous empathy as they grow, leading to a culture where issues are not addressed directly.

7. The Impact of Radical Candor on Society: Scott extends the concept to societal interactions, emphasizing the importance of engaging with and understanding different viewpoints to avoid prejudices.

8. Radical Candor Order of Operations:

   – Solicit Feedback: Start with seeking feedback before giving it.

   – Give Praise and Criticism: Offer honest praise and criticism.

   – Gauge Feedback Reception: Adjust your approach based on how the feedback is received.

   – Address Brush-offs: Be more direct when feedback is ignored.

9. Concluding Message: Scott concludes by encouraging the adoption of radical candor for better personal relationships, workplace culture, and societal harmony.

The talk emphasizes the significance of maintaining a balance between empathy and straightforwardness in leadership, advocating for a culture of respect and open communication.


(BOOK) Radical Candor: Fully Revised & Updated Edition: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity

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