For our final Scale Up fireside chat of the year, we had the privilege of welcoming author and management guru Kim Scott. Kim has authored several renowned guidebooks to modern management philosophy, including Just Work: How to Root Out Bias, Prejudice, and Bullying to Build a Kick-Ass Culture of Inclusivity and (one of our favorites at BenchSci) Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. 

Kim’s progressive approach to management is informed by her wide range of experience, from managing a pediatric clinic in Kosovo and starting a diamond-cutting factory in Moscow to leading AdSense, YouTube, and Double Click teams at Google, to coaching CEOs at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and other tech companies. Her work has so impacted our culture here at BenchSci that we include a copy of Radical Candor in the onboarding package of every new hire and actively promote its ideals. 

Here are five points from our discussion that I found resonated with the BenchSci team the most:

Radical candor isn’t obnoxious aggression or ruinous empathy

Kim describes radical candor as the ability to challenge directly while also caring personally. When you forget about the caring part, challenging directly takes on the form of obnoxious aggression instead. 

“People will often claim to be speaking in the spirit of radical candor and then proceed to act like a garden variety jerk,” said Kim. “That’s not the spirit of radical candor.”

But the most common mistake people make, as she explained to us, is when we actually do remember to care personally but fail to challenge directly, which she calls ruinous empathy.

“Most people actually do care about each other. Sometimes we're afraid to hurt someone's feelings, so we choose not to tell them something that would actually help them in the long run.” -Kim Scott

She described a two-by-two framework for visualizing the concept, with one axis for challenging directly and the other for caring personally. She cautioned, however, not to start using this as a tool to judge people against each other but to instead use it like a compass to guide specific conversations with specific people toward a better place of understanding. 

Practicing candor involves taking risks and should be rewarded

When someone offers you feedback, be it praise or criticism, they’re taking a risk. We’ve evolved to be risk averse in social situations because, for most of our history, being ostracized from our group often meant certain death. The reality, as Kim noted, is that nine out of ten times, people will graciously accept your feedback and thank you for pointing it out. But there’s always that fear that this time will be the one out of ten when someone blows up in your face, which often prevents us from being entirely candid. “If you don't reward that person richly for taking that risk,” said Kim. “They're never going to take it again.”

She also advised us to be specific when offering praise. She observed that most people spend far less time and effort on praise than they do on criticism.

“Rule of thumb with praise. If it's something you would say to your dog, it's not good praise. ‘Good job’ is not enough.” -Kim Scott

When working remotely, try shorter, more frequent check-ins

Since remote work has become much more common, Kim told us she noticed that shorter, more frequent check-ins can be beneficial for working relationships. Working in an office together provides frequent opportunities for check-ins as we pass each other in the hall. These interactions don’t naturally occur when working remotely, so we have to consciously create them.

Another piece of advice she shared with us regarding remote work was to consider picking up the phone to chat rather than jumping on a Zoom call, particularly for conversations that are more likely to become emotionally charged. One of the reasons for this, she explained, is that we are often prone to misinterpret the other person’s facial expressions on video, which can lead to misunderstandings. Another reason is that most of us aren’t as vigilant about turning off notifications as we should be, making it easy to get distracted while on a Zoom call. Stepping away from the computer can help us give the conversation the attention it deserves.

Be aware of how over- and under-representation can affect candor

Practicing radical candor across different levels of representation has its challenges regardless of where you land on that spectrum. Over-represented people, particularly in management positions, may be less likely to be radically candid with under-represented colleagues for fear it will be interpreted as prejudice. This generally comes from a place of caring but is ultimately a disservice. “It’s a form of ruinous empathy and this is a real problem because then you're disadvantaging the people who are under-represented,” said Kim.

On the other hand, she has found that members of an under-represented population practicing radical candor with over-represented colleagues may be more likely to be unjustly accused of obnoxious aggression. To avoid these pitfalls, It’s important for everyone to be conscious of the advantages and disadvantages impacting themselves and those around them. 

“Radical candor gets measured, not at the speaker's mouth, but at the listener's ear.” -Kim Scott

People need to feel safe to make mistakes as they learn

We all make mistakes sometimes. It makes us human. Rather than discouraging and punishing people for their mistakes, it’s much more productive to focus on learning opportunities. 

“When you give people critical feedback, it shouldn't be shutting down a mistake. It should actually make it safer to make mistakes.” -Kim Scott

Mistakes should even be celebrated. That doesn’t mean letting people make the same mistake over and over. It’s about affording them the peace of mind that they’re allowed to make mistakes so they can learn and grow.

BenchSci is scaling quickly. Our big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG) is to bring novel medicine to patients 50% faster by 2025. To do so, we're hiring over 200 new team members by the end of 2022. This kind of change can be difficult to manage, especially while maintaining our culture. That’s why talking with such a prominent authority on culture as Kim Scott was so amazing. I’m grateful she made time to share her thoughts and answer questions from the whole team.

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Written By:
Vanessa Ribreau (she/her)