Radical Candor: Can It Work for Academics?
Kim Scott is a former Google and Apple alum whose book Radical Candor has been steadily climbing to a top spot in 2017’s business books. Scott has made the internet and talk show rounds after crushing the 20-minute Ted-talk style of presentation (see this one).
Radical Candor is smart, on point and has both helpful graphics and examples. You can easily finish this book in an evening but this is one you’ll want to pass around to friends when you are done.
Raised in the South, Scott immediately owns that being raised with ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ wasn’t going to work as a supervision strategy.
Scott describes Radical Candor as the ability to make communication personal and direct while demonstrating enough emotional intelligence to understand the what the members of your team need. Scott breaks down four interacting styles based on the degree of concern and openness that one demonstrates (see cute graph below).
On the ‘more personal’ spectrum, she also describes the Ruinous Empathy, where managers give nothing but leeway to struggling individuals. Manipulative Insincere individuals leans more to individuals who are trying to ingratiate themselves by false praise while the Obnoxious Aggressiveness….well, we are in academia. I’m fairly certain we have all seen what that looks like.*
Broken into two parts, one on Philosophy and the other on Tools/Techniques, Scott’s book shows remarkable depth in explaining how overly empathic individuals can be just as ineffective as those who are overtly obnoxious. Extrapolating to academia, it conjures up examples of trainees whose personal lives run amok. The empathic part of academics wants to tell them to ‘take all the time you need.’ But this gives trainees no guidance on norms. Is it acceptable to be out of the clinic, classroom or lab for a week when a distant relative dies? Probably not. Ruinous empathy or ‘take all the time you need’ not only sets your group up for failure because you aren’t getting things done, but it gives trainees the expectation that they can have the luxury of being out longer than is in keeping with the realities of a career in academia. The Radical Candor model promotes accountability with a very clear set of expectations for making up time upon return.
Manipulative Insincerity, another style Scott describes, may not immediately resonate stylistically with academics. It sounds a bit like it’s connected to sales jobs, but in truth, it’s a real thing we do all the time as mentors and group leaders. Did someone ask you how you liked their book chapter you never read? “It was great!” (i.e., Manipulative Insincerity) is going to come back and bite you in the tush when you turn over any real revisions. Giving false ‘feel good’ comments dilutes your real compliments and is an easy habit to fall into when you’re tired.
Scott’s examples of how the best of the ‘Radically Candid’ cohort can lapse into subtle slips of the tongue or efforts to be too generous will resonate with faculty who are busy and have many trainees eyes on them. A Radically Candid approach to not having read a colleague’s chapter would be “I know it’s important to you and I’m sorry I didn’t read it. Here’s my revised timeline for when you can expect it.” Or, “I’m just going to be too busy to get you the comments you want. Please proceed without me.”
If there is a fault of this otherwise exceptional and easy read, it would be that by the time you read this book, you have surely made a number of missteps landing you into any one, or all three of the less desirable communication styles. How one ‘walks back’ comments where you failed to appreciate the emotional needs of the individuals you were directing isn’t covered in this book and frankly needs to be included. (Because I’ve done all these things and I need help walking them back.)
Scott also ties effective communication and mindfulness to her fierce commitment to self-care. Outlining strategies to combine calendars of home and work, setting firm boundaries on travel and work time and other essential sanity savers, there is a lot to take in for this section of the book. Her advice is practical and empowering. Arguing that being at work requires you to be both emotionally and intellectually ready to be at work is likely an overly lofty goal, but certainly worthy of aspiring to.
A great read for both new faculty and those who are on hiring committees looking for how future colleagues will behave, Radical Candor is absolutely worthy of your summer must-read list. There are some great tools to help you unpack why what you are doing isn’t working and how to communicate in a clear way that will resonate with trainees and the other important folks in your life.
I’m giving this book four out of five acorns. 🌰🌰🌰🌰