[YS Learn] How can managers balance praise and criticism: key takeaways from Kim Scott’s 'Radical Candor'

As a manager, how do you balance building a relationship with your team and guiding them? What is the right way to give feedback, and what do teams look for? Kim Scott explains just that in her book, Radical Candor.

One of the biggest challenges that most new managers face is understanding the balance of praise and criticism. In her book, Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean, Kim Scott begins with two personal examples.

Kim is a well-known CEO coach in Silicon Valley and the Founder of Candor Inc, a company that helps companies build healthy feedback cultures, cohesive teams, and help achieve results collaboratively.

In the first case, she had a boss who thought humiliating people was a good way to motivate them. In the second case, in another in her own company, Juice, she failed to tell people clearly and directly when their work wasn’t good enough

In her book ’s introduction, she says: “Unfortunately, while I did succeed in avoiding the mistakes my boss had made - that was easy- I made a very different set of mistakes. In an effort to create a positive, stress-free environment, I side-stepped the difficult, the necessary part of being a boss: telling people clearly and directly when their work wasn’t good enough.” 

In her book, she points out ways to be a boss while creating a cohesive and peaceful environment. 

Break away from the ‘individual contributor’ mould 

It is tough to go from being an individual contributor to being a manager where you need to ensure your team contributes. It is a tough battle, with most first-time managers end up picking up the slack for the team and doing their job. This can be disastrous for startups as it doesn’t help them scale. 

However, ultimately bosses are responsible for results. They achieve these not by doing all the work, but by guiding teams. If you are doing the same work as an individual contributor, who is coaching your team, helping them, and mentoring them? But that means feedback, and people avoid feedback like the plague. 

Kim agrees. “It’s brutally hard to tell people when they are screwing up. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings; that’s because you’re not a sadist. You don’t want that person or the rest of the team to think you’re a jerk. Plus, you’ve been told since you learned to talk that ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’. Now all of a sudden it’s your job to say it. You’ve got to undo a lifetime of training. Management is hard.” 

However, the more you put it off, the more cracks it creates within the team. 

“For every piece of subpar work you accept, for every missed deadline you let slip, you begin to feel resentment and then anger. You no longer just think the work is bad; you think the person is bad. This makes it harder to have an even-keeled conversation. You start to avoid talking to the person at all.” 

When you do it with one person, it moves to the team. They begin to wonder if you know the difference between great and mediocre.

It is all about relationships 

To be able to give feedback and be honest with people, you need to establish a relationship of trust with each person who reports directly to you. In a big organisation, you may not be able to get everyone to trust you, but you can with those who report to you. 

However, it is a difficult task. There are several factors at play: power dynamics, fear of conflict, worry about the boundaries of what’s appropriate or ‘professional’, fear of losing credibility, and time pressure. Yet this is the core of your job. 

As a manager, you need to be able to create a culture of guidance with equal amounts of praise and criticism to help people move in the right direction; understand what motivates each person on the team to avoid boredom and burnout; and drive results collaboratively. 

Kim says it all: “If you think you can do these without strong relationships, you are kidding yourself. I’m not saying that unchecked power, control, or authority can’t work. They work especially well in a baboon group or a totalitarian regime.” 

But most startups aren’t dealing with those. 

She explains there is a virtuous cycle between your responsibilities and relationships. You strengthen your relationships by learning the best ways to get, give, and encourage guidance, by putting the right people in the right roles on your team, and by achieving results collectively you couldn’t dream of individually. 

Be honest, free, and frank at work 

When Kim was a subordinate and realised her boss believed humiliation was the key to motivating people, she vowed to start a place that cared for people and build an environment where people loved their work and one another. But, in trying to do so, she missed out in creating a climate where people who weren’t getting the job done were told so in time to fix it. 

That is an important part of caring. When Kim joined Google in 2004, after her startup Juice failed, she saw one thing: an impressive display of productive but extremely direct feedback. 

She saw this immediately after joining Google in a meeting with Larry Page, Google’s Co-founder, and Matt Cutts, who led the team that fought web spam. The duo was discussing a proposal with Larry, who had come up with a plan that disapproved of. 

Kim recollects: “Matt, generally a very easy-going guy, disagreed, heatedly. When Larry wouldn’t back down, Matt started yelling at Larry. He said Larry’s idea would flood him with ‘so much crap’, he’d never keep up. I felt unnerved by Matt’s reaction. I liked him, and I was afraid he’d get fired for criticising Larry’s position so vehemently

“Then I saw the big grin on Larry’s face. I could see from the open, happy way he responded to the argument that he wanted not just Matt, but everyone at Google to feel comfortable criticising authority. Google mangers couldn’t just rely on ‘power’ or ‘authority’ to get things done. They had to figure out a different better way.” 

Teams need stability and growth to function properly 

When Kim moved to Apple University to design the class, Managing at Apple, she learnt where she had gone wrong. 

Kim says, “A conversation I had with one of Apple’s leaders helped me see a critical flaw in my approach to building teams earlier in my career. I’d always focused on the people most likely to be promoted. I assumed that was who it had to be at a growth company. Then a leader at Apple pointed out to me that all teams need stability and growth to function properly; nothing works well if everyone is gunning for the next promotion.” 

She explains it was a revelation as Apple was growing fast and bigger than Google, and yet the giant made room for people with all sorts of 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,” Kim explains. 

Like Steve Jobs said in an interview with Terry Gross: “At Apple, we hire people to tell us what to do, not the other way round.” 

 “At Apple, as at Google, a boss’s ability to achieve results had a lot more to do with listening and understanding than it did with telling people what to do; more to do with debating than directing; more to do with pushing people to decide than with being the decider; more to do with persuading than with giving orders; more to do with learning than with knowing,” Kim says.  

(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)


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