The Nonprofit Bookshelf: 5 Takeaways from Radical Candor

Let’s face it: Managing people is tough. And it can seem even tougher in the nonprofit and social impact worlds when you’re managing a team of people who are trying to change the world (for good). The motives are pure, so what do you do when a project is late and sloppily done? Or when you know you need to tell your boss that their delays in feedback are setting your team back? Former Google and Apple team member Kim Scott examines a new way of managing in Radical Candor.

Radical Candor Matrix

The Radical Candor Matrix, via RadicalCandor.com

“Radical Candor” sits in the top-right quadrant of a matrix that Scott devised, and is the ideal place to act from as a manager. Working counter-clockwise, your other options are Ruinous Empathy (you care but don’t challenge), Manipulative Insincerity (you neither challenge nor care), and Obnoxious Aggression (you challenge but you don’t care). So how do you “do” Radical Candor? Read on for this and more in our latest installment of The Nonprofit Bookshelf.

How @kimballscott's #RadicalCandor can be a fundamental change for nonprofit management — 5 takeaways from @WholeWhale. #NonprofitBookshelf Click To Tweet

1. Care Personally, Challenge Directly

First things first, let’s define “Radical Candor.” This, according to Scott, starts with  caring professionally and personally about your colleagues. It’s not enough to focus all of your attention on work performance — take the time to know your employees as human beings. Going against the tide of separating work-life from personal-life, we live in an age where we realize we can’t help but bring our full selves to the office, and sometimes that means the goings-on of our home-lives will affect how we show up in our work lives.

We then combine caring personally with challenging directly. This is the fine art of knowing how to tell your employees when their work isn’t good enough. Delivering tough feedback is, well, tough. But by combining direct challenges with personal care, Scott believes you’re able to contextualize criticism within the sense that you care about their whole selves — both in and out of the office.

“Radical Candor builds trust and opens the door for the kind of communication that helps you achieve the results you’re aiming for,” she writes early on in her book. “And it directly addresses the fears that people express to me when asking questions about the management dilemmas they face. It turns out that when people trust you and believe you care about them, they are much more likely to 1) accept and act on your praise and criticism; 2) tell you what they really think about what you are doing well and, more importantly, not doing so well; 3) engage in the same behavior with [their peers] …; 4) embrace their role on the team; and 5) focus on getting results.


Kim Scott presents Radical Candor at First Round Review’s CEO Summit.

2. Criticize the Wins as Well as the Losses

Scott recalls a story of when she worked at Google under Sheryl Sandberg. After presenting in a meeting that she felt she had nailed, Sandberg asked Scott to walk back to her office with her. She was expecting a high-five; instead Sandberg noted that Scott was going to have an amazing career at Google and that she learned a lot in that meeting from how Scott handled some tough questions. She was specific with praise, and gave Scott a moment to enjoy the success before noting that Scott said “um” a lot in her presentation.

How to be Radically Candid: Criticize the wins as well as the losses. More from @kimballscott's #RadicalCandor on the #NonprofitBookshelf. Click To Tweet

She then asked if Scott was aware of this tic, and if it was due to nerves. She then offered to recommend a speech coach for Scott, covered by Google. When Scott brushed off the criticism with a flick of her hand and a few “I know”s, Sandberg became more direct: “You are one of the smartest people I know,” she said to Scott. “But saying ‘um’ so much makes you sound stupid.”

In retrospect, Scott pinpoints the success of this conversation as a result of  Sandberg not letting the wins of her direct report’s presentation get in the way of pointing out something that needed a fix. She did so immediately, but in private, and led with the positives that were abundant in the presentation. She tried some gentle suggestions at first before making her point more bluntly to Scott, however her word choice was deliberate: “You sound stupid” is much different, and far less personal, than “You’re stupid.” Consider such feedback less as nit-picking and more of focusing on tangible ways to always be optimizing performance — just as you would with A/B tests on your website content.

3. Know your rock stars, know your superstars, and know when they may change off

Every organization is going to have its share of rock stars and superstars. It’s your job as a manager to know who falls under which category. The rock stars of an organization are steady as the proverbial rock, and are those who, due to their stability, are on a gradual growth trajectory. These are the employees who are happy in their current role, either because they have ambitions outside of work or are simply content with their life (we have a few part-timers who fit this bill at Whole Whale).

Your superstars are those forces for change who have a steep growth trajectory within your organization, are ambitious at work, and are in search of new opportunities. Cater to both of these personalities: If you have a rock star who excels in their job as it is and wants to stay in that position, don’t force a promotion on them. It may seem counterintuitive — promotions are often considered the reward for hard work — but finding other ways to give them opportunities that keep them in the role they wish to maintain. It may be that they’re completing a degree outside of work hours or have a second life as a composer (hi, Greg!) and so being on a gradual trajectory is essential for them at this point in their lives.

It can also be that your rock star becomes a superstar, or vice versa. If you have, for example, a rock star who is completing their MBA, that’s the sort of temporary situation where they may want to beg off from promotions that upset their work-study balance. That said, once they graduate, they may want to put those new learnings to good use. Using quarterly check-ins as a way of assessing goals and where your employees are at in life — and where they want to go.

Each organization has its rock stars and superstars. Knowing which roles are filled by which people is key to management — especially in nonprofits. h/t @KimballScott's #RadicalCandor. #NonprofitBookshelf Click To Tweet

And speaking of quarterly reviews: Scott also cautions her readers, “It’s not only important to remember that nobody is always on a steep or growth trajectory; people’s performance changes over time, too. Be careful not to label people as ‘high performers.’ Everybody has an off quarter occasionally.” Instead, she suggests using Qualtrics cofounder Jared Smith’s classifications: “off quarter,” “solid quarter,” and “exceptional quarter.”  

4. Drive results collaboratively with the GSD Wheel

No one wants a boss who issues tasks like tablets of commandments for their team to execute without question. That’s why Scott came up with the “Get Stuff Done” (GSD) Wheel. This is a cycle that succeeds when each step is taken with time and care: Listen, Clarify, Debate, Decide, Persuade, Execute, Learn — and Listen again.

The “GSD” Wheel, via RadicalCandor.com

As a manager, Scott says the first step is listening to the ideas that people have and creating a culture where your team members listen to one another. You can then create the space to clarify ideas, and make sure they are heard and understood fully before they are debated and tested more rigorously.

Scott encourages teams to “decide — quickly, but not too quickly.” This is when a broader team is brought in to be persuaded of each idea, in order to execute the winning idea effectively. Learn from the results of that idea, and then start all over again.

This is a particularly rich section of Radical Candor and one worth earmarking for how Scott breaks down each individual component of the cycle, accounting for the myriad personalities that may be represented on your team.

5. Take as good as you give — the good, the bad, and the ugly

Scott writes in Radical Candor that “In order to build a culture of Radically Candid guidance, you need to get, give, and encourage both praise and criticism.” This means having a Radically Candid relationship with your boss as well as your employees, and soliciting guidance from both.

This can be an uncomfortable situation — who wants to give criticism to their boss? — but Scott says embracing it is key. Having a go-to question is helpful, too. Scott suggests a line from her coach at Google, Fred Kofman: “Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” This opens up your meetings with both your boss and your direct reports for feedback both positive and constructive.

When you’re listening to the feedback, “listen with the intent to understand, not to respond.” This will help with feeling defensive and also give your employees the sense that they are being heard. Don’t try to debate the criticism, but by all means ask questions that clarify and mirror what’s being said: “So what I’m hearing is that my weeklong delays in giving feedback on your reports can create a backlog that could in turn set our team back a by few weeks.”

Reward criticism as well to get more of it — no one should be punished for Radical Candor, even if you don’t agree with the criticism. “If you can’t make a change, giving the employee a thoughtful, respectful explanation of why not, is the best reward you can offer for their Radical Candor.”

One way to build trust around this framework, suggests Scott, is to adhere to the rule of criticizing in public — except when it comes to criticizing yourself. Acknowledging what you need to work on, whether it’s interrupting others, saying “um” too many times, or not responding to emails quickly enough, sets a safe space for others to voice their criticism (in private).

What book should we read next at Whole Whale? Send us the title @WholeWhale with the hashtag #NonprofitBookshelf!