Not So Radical Candor

When I took my first management job, I recognized that I was taking responsibility for the job performance of other people. It had became my job to achieve outcomes based on the work of other people. I had to figure out how to keep people motivated to do good work, motivate them to do better work in many cases, or move them out if they were unable or unwilling to do so. If I was a tyrant about the moving out part, then I probably wasn’t going to be very good at the motivating part, so I learned on the job how to manage myself in order to manage others. I learned on the job how to care about the people that I worked with because caring about them meant that I could see them as individuals and learn how to tailor my approach to their individual needs. I got training along the way, but that training built on my understanding and ownership of my role as a manager and the acceptance of increasing levels of responsibility for my own and others’ job performance. 

I’ve been reading lately about the idea of “radical candor”. It looks like this is being presented like a new idea, but it feels like it is just a re-packaging of common sense ideas for managing people. Of course, the book by this title was published in early 2017 so it’s still on the hot list and that’s why the idea is getting a lot of buzz right now.  

The premise of the book is that managers should “challenge directly” while also “caring personally”. Doing these things at the same time results in radical candor. Doing one without the other results in either “ruinous empathy” or “obnoxious aggression” and doing without either of them becomes “manipulative insincerity”. I’m sure we all recognize bosses from our past lives in one of these four phenotypes!

People who read a book and then say, “now I’m practicing radical candor” are most likely not doing that. I have observed people who said that they were bringing radical candor to their work (because they had just read the book and were inspired), but the observed experience was manipulative insincerity, because candor is hard. 

Managers have tough jobs. One of the hardest things managers have to do is give feedback and coach when they are trying to help improve performance or facing the need to move someone out of a role that they aren’t performing well in. It requires self-awareness, personal vulnerability, emotional intelligence, and the willingness to say difficult but honest things to people. It takes courage to say difficult things that are potentially going to impact a person’s livelihood, and it takes the ability to manage your own reaction and allow them to process what they are being told with devolving into “flight or fight” yourself. It requires practice and the acceptance that sometimes you are going to get it wrong.

Debbie was telling me recently about how she trained new managers. Relying on an adage that has stuck with her, she told them to ask themselves three things when they were considering feedback to their teams:  Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? If the answer was “yes” to two out of three, then it was OK to say it. In fact, as a manager, they were obligated to say it, both the kind things and the necessary things. I had seen numerous examples of how Debbie applied this to her work as a manager and leader, but I had never heard the thought process behind it. Turns out these are a distillation of some ancient wisdom, all fully in the public domain now.

I saw one of the people who worked for Debbie flower into an effective manager because she had been given the tools and support to actively manage her team into both high performance and high engagement. This person started from the point of caring about her team – she just needed some tools to channel that caring into productive management. If you start from caring and learn how to do candor well, the result may be radical candor. If you didn’t “care personally” before you read the book, you aren’t going to after you’ve read it either – you may be candid, but it won’t be radical and it won’t lead to magical management results.  

In full disclaimer, I have to admit that I haven’t read the book – now I’m going to have to. We need more good managers in public service and in LTSS – these are people who do care and who may just need some training, tools and support to turn that caring into effective management. The book is identified on the website as having “launched a management revolution…” Per my last post, investing in management skills is a good thing and there is value in candor – I just wish it wasn’t seen as something radical! 

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