Our Moral Obligation to Criticize?

kindness

In a management article titled “Radical Candor – The Surprising Secret to Being a Good Boss“, I discovered a quote from the person at the center of the article’s focus, Kim Scott:

“I would argue that criticizing your employees when they screw up is not just your job, it’s actually your moral obligation.”

(If you’d like to take a moment to re-read this quote, or pause to recover from shock, I understand – please take as long as you need.)

Words are powerful things and semantics are worthy of our constant attention. Certainly quotes can be taken out of context, but in this case, I’m struggling to find a middle-ground where the explicit phrasing of this quote is anything other than what it appears to be.

Thus, using literal definitions, “being a good boss” is the upholding of a standard of right behavior such that we express disapproval of people and convey our judgement on them.

Wow.

With this said, the article contains a wealth of valuable information that is intelligent, very “next-generation” in thought, and creative. In describing her framework for effective leadership, Scott coins a mindset called “Radical Candor”: a response where the person has an amplified sense of “care personally” (about the individual being spoken to) and “challenge directly”.

The outcome of Radical Candor at these heightened behaviors is someone who is “willing to piss people off” and to tell people “when you think they are wrong.” (Have you ever thought someone wrong… only for you to be the one in err of judgement?) The idea here is that the alternatives, such as apathy or being an outright asshole, are markedly worse – with conducting yourself like an asshole being the next best thing.

“If you can’t offer radical candor, the second best thing you can do is be an asshole.”

To be sure, Scott is blunt in pointing out that conducting yourself like a jerk is an awful stance to take. If “being an asshole” is second-best, there’s a huge gap between management assholery and Radical Candor. And I don’t argue that a manager who falls into apathy for people can be, at times, even more damaging. Yet I’m unable to shake the feeling that, in her omission of the unseen underlying assumptions between two people (or a larger culture), the gap between Radical Candor and The Asshole is marginal when applied at face value – such as the respect and safety needed to “challenge directly” without causing overt defensiveness. Furthermore, and distressingly, Kim Scott appears to take for granted the most basic human component of “Be Kind”.

As a prime highlight of Radical Candor in action, the article illustrates a time where Sheryl Sandberg (while at Google) gave Scott feedback after a presentation, specifically about her frequency with the use of “um” while speaking. After some  passive and ineffective performance feedback which Scott unsurprisingly glossed over, Sandberg said: “When you say um every third word, it makes you sound stupid.”

The article mentions the effort Sandberg had taken prior to involve herself in Scott’s life; clear evidence that she cared deeply. It was this foundation that allowed the blunt exchange to be taken without offense. Further, Scott notes that she wasn’t “called stupid”… rather she “sounded stupid.” However, I assert that people are complex creations that cannot be framed by such a simplistic template. Where this worked for Kim Scott, for others — even with elements of “care deeply” in place — the conversation may easily be perceived from The Asshole spectrum. If I’m told I sound stupid, would I be crazy to assume the underlying message that I’m judged to be stupid?

What if Sheryl Sandberg instead offered impact feedback from her perspective, rather than casting judgement on Kim Scott? What might be different if the third principle of kindness was respected, while still challenging Scott?

Consider:

“When you say ‘um’ every third word, you sound stupid.”

-versus-

“When you said ‘um’ every third word, the impact on me was a feeling you came off less intelligent than I know you to be.”

Kim Scott is wonderfully intelligent and I admire her experience, discovery, and pursuit of knowledge. But the phrasing and presentation of Radical Candor is deeply unsettling to me.

There is a significant difference between challenging directly and making excuses to be rude. It is not your fault if I have been ineffective in providing feedback and guidance.

All relationships between people are unique, thus we may choose our words appropriately. Regardless, kindness is critical to being more than “a good boss”, but a good person, as well.

 

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