I’ll admit it. I’ve been distracted and anxious over these last few weeks, thinking about all the people impacted by the recent hurricanes. Like many Americans, I was glued to the television and radio to monitor the intensity and pathway of the storms.
These storms were serious business. But why weren’t some of the people in their paths taking them seriously?
As the storms neared, officials clearly needed to send direct, decisive messages to the residents who were potentially in danger. One official sent a message to the residents in the mandatory evacuation zone and said, flat out, “We will not be able to save you during the hurricane.” Another official stated, “Evacuations are not meant to be convenient, they are meant to keep you safe.” Clear? Crystal. Honest? Definitely. Harsh? Possibly, it depends on the context. If the perception is that the officials care personally for the residents of that state, then these comments will be interpreted as appropriate, clear, and direct. However, if the perception was a lack of concern for the residents, these comments would appear harsh. But sometimes, it’s worth the risk of appearing harsh – and an approaching life-threatening storm is definitely one of those times.
In this context, the officials have the best interests of the residents in mind. They’re doing everything in their power to keep people safe from the natural disaster. As elected officials, it is their job to both keep people safe AND communicate the realities of this dangerous situation.
So, it was fortunate timing that this month’s In the Know session covered the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott. Just like those elected officials, leaders are expected to share the realities of the state of their organization or marketplace and provide direction on how to strategize and move forward. In her book, Scott addresses the idea that because of that mandate, leaders can’t always subscribe to the idea that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Scott calls this “Radical Candor.”
Radical Candor occurs when, as a leader or colleague, you care personally AND challenge directly.
This type of communication can show up in many ways, when providing difficult performance feedback, when acting against the norms of a group, when questioning another’s assumptions, or even positively challenging someone to reach their potential.
In the book, Scott shared a few stories from early on in her career where she erred more on the side of caring personally at the expense of being direct with others. She feared that if she addressed the performance issues head on, she would no longer be liked on the team. As you probably surmised, this approach backfired on her and morale began to decline as her team members worked harder to compensate for the lack of quality and productivity from one of their key members.
When Scott finally gained enough courage to talk to the employee with the performance issues, the employee was shocked and felt disrespected that no one shared their concerns with him earlier when he could have actually done something to change his behavior. This left a big impression on Kim and was one of many experiences that led to her developing the concept of Radical Candor.
Over the years, Scott learned to “challenge directly” and had to reframe what she previously thought as “harsh” was really being clear and direct. Her relationships strengthened and people appreciated her honesty in helping them see their own areas for growth. Scott makes a bold statement that if you can’t achieve Radical Candor (i.e. both caring and challenging), it’s better to be a challenger who doesn’t care personally than a person who cares personally but doesn’t challenge. In other words, if you’re going to err on one side or the other, it’s better to challenge than to care.
This was a strong statement (and one I wasn’t sure if I agreed with), so I did some research to see if there were studies that supported this notion. What I found were many studies on comparing the impact of ignoring someone vs. being extremely harsh to them.
Research from British Columbia stated that being ignored or ostracized socially has a stronger emotional negative impact than bullying. The reason being that if you’re being bullied, you’re at least worthy of being noticed. Researcher Kip Williams, a professor at Duke University, is well-known for his studies on ostracism. He and his colleagues were able to demonstrate that not only are there damaging psychological effects but the same area of the brain that detects pain is also stimulated when one feels ostracized. He explains the evolutionary reason being “social rejection and pain serve the same purpose—alerting an organism to a potentially life-threatening risk.”
Research conducted by Dan Airley, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, gave a TED talk about “What makes us feel good about our work?” One experiment involved a task where they would pay a person to read through gibberish on a sheet of paper and count the number of all like letters that were written together. Once they completed it, they handed it to a reviewer and the reviewer did one of three things:
So, going back to Scott’s bold statement that being too harsh is better than being too nice, I may now have to agree. If Scott was implying that people who over-focus on caring personally (to the neglect of challenging) tend to avoid difficult conversations or ignore poor performance, then this research does, in fact, support her point. In study after study, the results indicate that ignoring has either a similar or worse impact on an individual as receiving harsh treatment. However, it’s worth noting that neither being too harsh nor being too caring is sustainable for employees to bare over time.
So, what does all of this teach us about being direct and caring? First, the best-case scenario is to practice BOTH, caring for others and challenge directly. And, as Dan Airley revealed in his research, even the slightest ounce of positive acknowledgement that shows you care will increase engagement.
If, however, you’re like most people, you probably tend to over-emphasize one or the other. Here are a few tips and strategies based on my coaching experience that I have seen work with many clients.
If you over-focus on caring personally: