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Radical Candor on Radical Candor

Imagine trying to interview for a new job, trying to communicate in a meeting, or trying to make a great first impression while having a speech-language disorder. You’re acutely aware that you’ve  uttered “um” (like so many of us without a speech-language disorder do), repeatedly.

Kim Scott notes in “Radical Candor — The Surprising Secret of Being a Good Boss,” that she has a simple goal: “Creating bullshit-free zones where people love their work and working together.” Scott was a longtime director at Google, a faculty member at Apple University, and is now a coach for Twitter, Shyp, and others. In her words, she learned to “focus on guidance –  giving it, receiving it, and encouraging it. Guidance, which is fundamentally just praise and criticism, is usually called feedback, but feedback is screechy and makes us want to put our hands over our ears. Guidance is something most of us long for.” At First Round’s recent summit, she introduced a tool she calls “radical candor.”

To illustrate “radical candor,” Scott told an audience of a meeting she had with Sheryl Sandberg, at Google. Ms. Sandberg was attempting to provide feedback to Ms. Scott, specifically, about her presentation “…you said ‘um’ a lot.” Ms. Scott thought it was “…no big deal” and was resistant to the critique until Ms. Sandberg said, “when you say ‘um’ every third word, you sound stupid.”

It’s interesting to see how unconscious bias is displayed in this example.

Have You Ever Had Trouble Finding the Right Word?

Many people have speech-language disorders, and word retrieval is just one example of the many frustrating challenges they encounter. Retrieval is simply the process of getting something back from somewhere. You know the word, but you can’t retrieve it at the moment you need it.

I watched a family member being tested years ago to see how severe their word retrieval issues were. The task was to look at one picture at a time and to name the object. The first picture was of a bird, that happened to be a parrot, and the facilitator asked, “What is this?” The response was immediate “it sits on a pirate’s shoulder, it has colorful feathers, it can talk and says “Polly want a cracker,” it has claws and a beak.” The facilitator repeated, “But what is it?” He was unable to come up with the word “bird.”

At some point, the facilitator looked at his mother and said, “Who is she?” The response was similar “She’s the woman that lives in the house.” The facilitator asked “But who is she?” and again the response was immediate. “She cooks, cleans the dishes, she washes the clothes, she drives me places,” but he was unable to come up with the word “Mom,” until he was seven years old. I’m confident that when trying to find these words, undoubtedly, “um” was said many times, and I am equally convinced that he never sounded stupid.

The point is that it’s a form of unconscious bias to state that someone sounded stupid when the word “um” was used, even if they did not intentionally mean for it to be biased. The bigger issue is that Ms. Scott was not an active listener and did not hear the guidance she was being provided until it was said in a biased way.

A lot of things look stupid at first glance, but perhaps the point is to avoid unconscious bias. Would it look stupid for a visually impaired person to bump into something? Why do we think it looks stupid when someone speaks differently than we do?

This post originally ran on medium, and Kim Scott personally responded. Here is her comment:

Thank you for your radical candor 🙂

You raise a really good point — the way that people perceive others when they say um is unfair. I am sorry if I seemed insensitive to that. My mother was a speech pathologist so do know something about the pain here.

We’d love to hear your comments below.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on this blog in July of 2016 and has been completely revamped for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


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Jill Willcox
Jill Willcox has worked in various human resources positions over the past 16 years including as HR Manager, Benefits Consultant at Aon Hewitt and as a Health Service Representative, working with people who had catastrophic work injuries. She is the mother of two children who are talented and contribute to society in a very meaningful way.
Jill Willcox

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