“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” WRONG!

By Jane Kincaid

Most of us remember this advice from Mom: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” These are wise words, indeed, but not always the right approach for leaders who want to foster effective teams and productive work environments, according to Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.

I attended last month’s PEAK Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., where Scott delivered the opening keynote address — which had a beautifully simple message: being frank and open with your team members can result in better relationships and a more productive workplace.

Google and Some Ums

The former Google executive opened her talk with a story about her then-boss, Sheryl Sandberg: Shortly after Scott began working at the company, she delivered what she thought was a very successful presentation to Sergey Brin, Erick Schmidt, and Sandberg, Google’s top brass at that time. After the presentation, Sandberg took Scott aside and suggested that she knew a good speaking coach, in case Scott was interested. Not to be deterred by her own confidence, Scott brushed Sandberg’s suggestion aside.

But Sandberg pressed further: “You said ‘um’ a lot in there. Are you sure you don’t want to do it because Google will pay for it?” But Scott once again put her off by saying that she was too busy for a speaking coach. Besides, she thought to herself, “I’ve been speaking for years. I don’t need something like that.”

Be Willing to Piss People Off

Finally, Sandberg stopped her, looked directly at her, and said, “Kim, when you say ‘um’ every third word it makes you sound stupid.” This got Scott’s attention, but not in a negative way. Scott contends that what Sandberg told her was not mean but in fact was the kindest thing she could have said to her.

It was this experience that planted the seed for Scott to develop her framework for leadership. She had realized in that moment that what Sandberg did for her was helpful and not hurtful in any manner. Which brings me back to Mom’s advice: “Let it go,” Scott says. “You must be willing to give critical feedback to your staff and get critical input from them as well. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable, and you have to be willing to piss people off.”

Despite being taught from a very young age not to say bad things to people, Scott implores us that it’s actually a very humane thing to do. On this basis, she has created what she calls a “very simple” framework. The vertical axis is labeled Care Personally or as she puts it, “the give a damn” axis, and the horizontal axis is labeled Challenge Directly, which is what Sandberg did to Scott.

I can think of a few examples in my own career where I could have both delivered radically candid feedback and where I needed it. The point is that creating an environment where it’s expected, it’s consistent, and it’s delivered from a place of caring leads to a better and more productive workplace for everyone.

Don’t Be Ruinously Empathetic

Thankfully, Scott held an informative workshop during the conference that offered some additional insight into her approach. Here are some quick takeaways:

  1. The four quadrants surrounding the framework/axis—Radical Candor, Ruinous Empathy, Manipulative Insincerity, and Obnoxious Aggression—are somewhat self-explanatory and they offer valuable guidance for you, your team (and maybe even your spouse and children) to learn more about managing and interacting with others in honest and candid ways.

  2. Scott cautions that while it’s very important for leaders to learn to give candid input, it’s equally important to get it. Therefore, it is critical to encourage those who work for you to implement the approach as well. When everyone is on board and everyone understands it, then it becomes much easier to practice radical candor.

  3. Being radically candid is not just your job, says Scott, “I would argue that it’s your moral obligation.” Indeed, she offers a number of excellent arguments for why this is valid, and the four quadrants played a role in each of the examples. Regarding Ruinous Empathy, one woman at my table, who is CEO of a large retirement community, noted that she’d had an executive who was not performing very well, but whom she was unable to deliver feedback about what she may have been doing wrong because she did not want to upset him. Unfortunately, when it came time for annual evaluations, this person had poor numbers, which had caused a reverberating effect on the entire community. This is an example of Ruinous Empathy that Scott says can impact not just the person who should have received the radically candid feedback but also many others in the organization.

  4. Deliver your candid feedback in person and do it humbly, helpfully, and immediately, Scott recommends. It will be remembered and make a better impression on your team member. Someone in the workshop had a shocking but positive experience in which a board member had told a new CEO that she hadn’t been acting like a CEO. The feedback was unexpected but it was delivered in a helpful and humble manner and was therefore effective.

Don’t get me wrong, there are obviously a number of challenges to implementing this concept, especially within a senior living environment where the stakes are high and turnover and retention are already challenging. Although, I’m sure Scott would say that this is where her framework is most needed.

In full disclosure, I have not read the book, but you can bet that I will get a copy and recommend it to my boss, as well as to other leaders I know—and love. I may even attempt to implement it within my own household.