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Radical Candor: read the fine print before use

September 14, 2022

Sanchari

A brief introduction for those of you who don't know the words “Radical Candor” in the title:  in 2017, Kim Scott, an erstwhile executive working with high-profile Silicon Valley tech companies like Google, Dropbox and Twitter, came up with a new way of giving feedback, aka Radical Candor. In a sentence, this philosophy is based on caring personally while challenging directly. She has a book, a dedicated website, and since 2017 a company called Radical Candor, so needless to say if you are looking for more information, you will not be looking for too long. But this article is not a homage to this author, nor is it a critique of the philosophy that is Radical Candor, instead it aims to explain how people by nature are flawed individuals and are well-known historically to “ruin a good thing”.  

My friend A once told me about an instance where her former boss decided to completely blame her for something that an entire team worked on and in general explain away unprofessional behaviour and basic rudeness with “Radical Candor”. This got me thinking, can we really trust professionals to learn the what’s and how to’s of such management philosophies before using them and not misinterpret them by just taking them literally?  

Among the literate population of the world, there is no concrete data around how many people above 15 years of age actually read a book for purposes other than academic. But let’s for fun apply the famous 80/20 rule, that is ​​20% of the people do about 80% of the reading. Add to that reading a dull drab management book such as this, the percentage of people will reduce even further. This means very few people in the world probably read Kim Scott’s famous book, so the chances are probably high that the people preaching this way of giving feedback haven't really invested the time or effort to read through what it actually means.

Since then, A has however invested her time finding out about what Radical Candor is and probably unlike her manager, read the book cover to cover.  

Call it plain curiosity or sisterly solidarity, so did I and here’s what I think :

Scott illustrates her moment of epiphany by detailing a conversation she had with Sheryl Sandberg, after Sandberg, then with Google, had watched Scott present something to Google’s founders. Although the presentation went well and Sandberg was full of praise for Scott’s knowledge, she suggested they take a walk. This is the conversation they had on the walk:

Finally, she said. “You said ‘um’ a lot. Were you aware of it?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I know I say that too much.” Surely she couldn’t be taking this little walk with me just to talk about the “um” thing. Who cared if I said “um” when I had a tiger by the tail?
“Was it because you were nervous? Would you like me to recommend a speech coach for you? Google will pay for it.”
“I didn’t feel nervous,” I said, making a brushing-off gesture with my hand as though I were shooing a bug away. “Just a verbal tic, I guess.”
“There’s no reason to let a small thing like a verbal tic trip you up.”
“I know.” I made another shoo-fly gesture with my hand.
Sheryl laughed. “When you do that thing with your hand, I feel like you’re ignoring what I’m telling you. I can see I am going to have to be really, really direct to get through to you. You are one of the smartest people I know, but saying ‘um’ so much makes you sound stupid.”
Now that got my attention.
Sheryl repeated her offer to help. “The good news is a speaking coach can really help with the ‘um’ thing. I know somebody who would be great. You can definitely fix this.”

She continues to say that, to someone else this might have sounded rude but to her this sounded like very good advice and she felt it came from a place of care and support. She ultimately took the offer of a speech coach and coined the term we are talking about today.

Trust between feedback giver and receiver is crucial and is not always present

Feedback requires a certain amount of trust between the giver and receiver. You need to trust your manager to have your success and betterment in mind and to truly understand you when they give you certain feedback. To do that you should also unequivocally trust that your manager is fair and empathetic towards you. If, as a manager, you give feedback to somebody without truly understanding that person or the situation, then your feedback is based entirely on your own judgment and therefore subjective. This is of vital importance when the feedback is given with “Radical Candor”, that is might come off as rude or mean when that trust is missing. And honestly it is great that there was so much trust between these two smart and successful leaders, namely Scott and Sandberg, but it is not often the case. A person in a leadership position often holds a lot of professional power over those they lead and we are not all fortunate to be blessed with great leaders or managers. More often than not they are flawed individuals who can get by with being plain mean and unpleasant and justifying it using catch phrases such as “Radical Candor”.

Not all leaders are white, male

Or if not presenting as male, have the so-called traits of an “alpha-male”, especially in a North American cultural context. Scott's book has a serious whiff of the Silicon Valley bro culture where leaders are assertive and self-confident and are always right with just a slight twist of the “caring personally” dimension. This is not surprising given that Scott has majorly worked in Silicon Valley companies famous for having white, male North American leaders. In fact, both Sandberg and Scott have had to navigate and excel in these predominantly “alpha-male” environments, which is nothing short of outstanding but the assumption that this hyper self-confident assertive role is the only way forward is simply not true.

We work with a diverse workforce including people who are neurologically diverse

This philosophy of giving feedback assumes that it will be received similarly by everyone. Which is just not the case. If supporting a neurodiverse workforce is an issue that companies are failing at in 2022, it’s not naive to assume that it was even more of an issue in 2017 when this philosophy came into being. Plenty of neurotypical managers are not equipped with the skills and nuances needed to understand and communicate effectively with their neurodiverse employees, so what happens when such a manager uses mass product philosophies with all neurotypes? Needless to say, this has a huge potential of creating anxiety and stress for neurodiverse employees.

Cultural/Geographical context is very important

Especially when selling a mass market “management mantra” such as this, internationally. While researching how feedback is handled across the globe, I came across this very interesting article in the Harvard Business Review outlining how feedback is even given differently across cultures. This is not surprising, especially if you’ve ever worked in multiple countries or with people from different cultural or geographical backgrounds than yours. Speaking from personal experience, the way I was given feedback in my country of origin, India, where I began my career is completely different from the way my feedback meetings go in my current country of residence and work, Germany. More casual and diplomatic in India to more direct and structured in Germany. The understanding of power dynamics is completely different in different cultures. In certain parts of the world, leaders are revered, respected and even feared. Employees in some cultures expect a gentler feedback and positive reinforcements, rather than pure critique, while this type of indirect feedback might confuse someone from another country or culture. How then can we sell one way of giving feedback as a better system internationally?

Not everyone wants to be a manager

For every Steve Jobs, there is also a Steve Wozniak. This is my ultimate issue with the “Radical Candor” philosophy. Not everyone wishes to lead, some people just want to build and create, and work in a collaborative environment. “Radical Candor” is marketed as a feedback philosophy not just for managers, but one that can be used by everybody, but as discussed above it is focused on a certain personality type, the assertive self-confident one that does not shy away from direct radical feedback. But it fails to cater to the other types of personalities, the ones who aren’t in-your-face assertive, the ones who are willing to step in and help but equally willing to step back and let somebody else take over. The ones who can give up power, who are able to admit to mistakes or accept that they are wrong.

It is an organisational leader’s responsibility to ensure that ideas are being aired and people feel psychologically safe to voice their opinions and not shy away from expressing them for fear of being ridiculed or reprimanded, maybe because they use the word “Um” too much. All this is not to say that ‘Radical Candor’ as a feedback philosophy does not work at all and should be thrown out of the window, instead that like everything else, it comes with its own sets of flaws and should be taken up as such, with a big disclaimer.  
Therefore my advice to anyone reading this would be, to do what my friend A does. When confronted with “Radical Candor” in your profession, question the need, challenge the feedback giver’s understanding of the philosophy, be aware of its many failings and learn to identify rude and unpleasant behaviour from feedback genuinely given to help you.  
And remember, you can choose to set boundaries around how you receive feedback.

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What to do when things change in your organisation

June 21, 2022

Lucie

“You've got to learn to leave the table When love's no longer being served.” – Nina Simone

Let me start by saying that I have absolutely loved working for my former company. It was the first time since I started working over 10 years ago that I felt psychologically safe at work, accepted, and celebrated for who I am, and that it looked like what I did mattered to my company (which usually doesn’t or very little in my field).

It was also the first time that I chose to work for a company mindfully. When interviewing with them, it seemed like their values aligned with mine, their remote-first model was decades ahead of most companies, and the team was diverse. And by diverse, I mean it was the first time in my entire career that I was interviewed by a black person. A black person had a say in whether I should get hired or not, I was just mind blown.

When I started working there, I was not disappointed. The company walked the talk. There was no microaggression. I could pitch ideas and implement them. My manager cared beyond measure about our mental health and did an outstanding job supporting us all and leading the team through two years of social isolation, uncertainty, and fear about the future.

This is not to say that everything was perfect. Of course, there were disagreements, technical difficulties, delays, and tensions along the way but the way to deal with these was extremely different than in previous companies I had worked at. People reached out to talk, apologised when needed, and genuinely tried to work with each other in a way that worked for both parties. Believe it or not but I had never experienced such a level of maturity in a company before.

Then things started changing. The team simply stopped getting work. After weeks of begging for information to understand what our next focus should be, leadership showed us a vague list of priorities that indicated that whatever we were doing before wasn’t a priority anymore. My manager quit and another teammate got a new position in another team in the company. Suddenly we had a new manager whose focus was on these new priorities, who had a field of expertise vastly different from ours, and no time to manage us.  

What became clear very fast from that moment on was that my role was no longer valued or needed in the new organisation that was slowly being set up behind our back. This article is an attempt at giving some tips on how to handle such situations if they ever happen to you.

“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” – Maya Angelou

The hardest part during this whole ordeal was to believe what was happening to us because it was so insidious. I’d never had a reason to doubt my company’s integrity so far so it didn’t even cross my mind that someone could be withholding information from us on purpose. Surely, it was a mistake, they didn’t mean to come across like that. Not mentioning the gaslighting that was happening whenever we would ask for transparency. Things were just not ready yet and we just had to be “patient”.

Luckily, I’d had 4-5 years of therapy before I worked at this company, and I had some tools that helped me understand the situation a bit quicker than I would have before. When things start to go sideways and you don’t know what to believe anymore, ask yourself this one question: do their actions match their words? If not, chances are you are no longer in an authentic relationship at best, or you are being gaslit at worst. Do not give people the “benefit of the doubt”, believe them the first time it happens.

Evaluate your options

When my manager quit and my other teammate transferred to another department pretty much at the same time, I understood that I was probably not aware of some things happening in the background and my manager and teammate had made choices for themselves.

I asked myself the following questions when that happened:

  • Do I want to stay in this team with a new manager? No.
  • Am I interested in the new focus of this team? No.
  • Do I want to stay in this business unit? No.
  • Do I want to stay in this company? Yes.

This helped me decide what my next steps should be. I wanted to stay in the company, just not in the team or business unit because I didn’t trust the leadership of the latter. It so happened that I had already applied for a new position in another department even before my manager quit, out of pure interest for the opportunity. Now I knew that the best course of action was to actively pursue this opportunity.

Depending on the answers to these questions you could arrive at very different conclusions than me. If your answer is “no” everywhere, looking right away for opportunities outside the company is probably your best option. Alternatively, if you don’t mind having a new manager or you’re interested in learning new things, you might want to stick around for a bit to see how things evolve and if you have opportunities to develop. There’s no wrong answer here, you do you.

Stick to your guns  

Nothing can happen to you without your consent in the workplace. In my case, the internal position I applied for ended up not working out. The offer was downgraded twice. First by the hiring team who wanted me with them but evaluated me at a lower level than the offered position and a second time by human resources, who remembered at the last minute that the company had a rule that no one can skip grades and the position the team was offering me was 2 grades higher than the one I was currently at. Never mind that I would have had the position if I had been an external candidate!

This one was tough. I wanted to get out of my current team, but I also didn’t want to sell off my skills. After thinking it over, I ended up turning down the offer and decided to start applying outside the company. After all, I did not HAVE to accept that offer if it wasn’t what I wanted. I was in an uncomfortable situation in my current team, but they had no power to fire me (labour laws exist!) or change my tasks or my title without my consent. Everything would have to be negotiated with me first.

I used that knowledge to buy myself some time while I was applying to other positions outside the company: I asked my new manager clarity on the role she wanted me to have in her team and to match my current role with a corresponding position in her team setup, which she was hiring for. I gave her the description of my current position (which had been documented by my previous manager), my grade, and asked her to look at the reviews left by my peers on my work during the last employee evaluation round. From that point on, I also did not take any task that I felt did not correspond to my current position or grade (like training her or new recruits on the company product!), which freed some time for interviews. It also sent a strong signal to my employer that I was not about to just accept ANY work that was thrown my way just so it could be used against me in a potential renegotiation of my contract.

Believe in yourself

Believing in myself is what enabled me to say no to an offer that was not matching what I wanted and to apply for opportunities outside the company. You should do the latter too even if you don’t believe in yourself because I guarantee you will after seeing how other companies see you. In my case, not only did it show me my current value on the job market, but it also made me realise how grossly my company was underestimating my skills. Getting interviews was easy, the salary brackets I got to see were much higher than the one I was in, and I even got contacted for a “Head of” position by a company VP on Linkedin. It made all the difference and enabled me to get an offer I was happy with, a job title I wanted, and to ultimately exit my company gracefully.

Now I know that all this sounds probably “easier said than done” and that no two situations are the same. Maybe you cannot afford to lose your job which adds to your stress, or maybe you feel like you have no options or that you cannot stand up to your company or manager. I am not saying all this is easy. I experienced extreme anxiety, anger, and resentment during this time in my company. I was also very sad because I was so happy in this company at the beginning, and I found myself grieving my manager, my team, and the company successively. If I’m honest, this article is probably my way of processing everything that happened so I can let it go before starting my new job.

My only hope by sharing my experience is that you feel less alone if you’re going through something similar in your workplace. And who knows, maybe you find one or two useful tools in there for your situation. And if nothing stuck with you, I want to leave you with these words: you always deserve better.

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The workplace we need today

April 15, 2022

Sanchari

Over a cup of tea one afternoon, a friend shared a few stories of how in her past workplace, she was discriminated against, not allowed to share her opinions, not acknowledged in meetings to the extent of never being looked at directly by the CEO of the company. And all because she chose to work in a place where she was a minority, in this case, a young woman. When attending client meetings she was provided with a liaison, who was given the task to do the actual speaking despite not having done any of the work, the liaison, she was told, would blend in better in the room because of their race and gender.

Needless to say, my friend decided not to stick around in an organisation where she saw no possibility of there being a "glass ceiling" to break through, and therefore moved on. Stories like these are not unheard of, are they? Some of you might remember when Susan Fowler’s article about the toxic workplace culture in Uber made headlines in 2017, leading to this New York Times piece among many others.  

Since then, more exposés in high-profile organisations like Nike and CBS have seen the light of day. Numerous surveys of workplaces were conducted across the US and Europe. As a result, companies went public with new processes and initiatives to try and increase diversity in their workforce.

Yet plenty of organisations still continue to let employee experiences fall through the cracks.  

What surprised me after the conversation above was the total lack of processes that existed in the said organisation for an employee to report instances of workplace discrimination.

I had an HR team that was not co-located and I did not know anyone from the team, so I had no one to reach out to

my friend told me unhappily. This most basic step for organisational accountability was missing.

This kind of culture doesn’t just undermine employees from underrepresented groups, but ultimately hurts the organisation itself.

On another day, a professional event led to more conversations. The topics ranged from organisations firing individuals identifying as LGBTQIA+ from customer-facing roles because of their identity while joining in on the whole bandwagon of changing their logos to display the rainbow, come pride month, to organisations not acknowledging mental health issues  and employee burnout as real problems. Mental health is increasingly being considered a DE&I issue in the workplace, since studies have shown that it tends to afflict populations that have been historically underrepresented in the workplace, more than their counterparts.  

Many of the people I spoke to at the event had approached their respective HR teams and reported instances of discrimination to the first point of contact. While some of them were yet to receive an answer or follow-up on their report and continued to see no apparent change in their organisations, most of them had moved on to other better workplaces. This goes to show that despite doing employee diversity and inclusion surveys, as boldly mentioned on their websites or job advertisements, companies and the people responsible for company processes, most commonly HR and People teams, are still failing to follow through.

Why is that, one wonders? Some common answers I got were, either that they were not equipped or even empowered in the organisation to take active steps or that they themselves did not have the skill sets needed to handle newer and more diverse workplaces.

millenial

However with the onset of what is being called, the era of the "millennial workforce", organisations can no longer put diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace (DE&I) on the back burner. Millennials are found to be actively looking for diversity in the workplace when seeking potential employers, as was found in this 2018 survey by Deloitte.

Some organisations are learning from this and adapting, I myself was recently given a company’s culture deck and discouraged from interviewing if I strongly disagreed with anything there. It included some usual suspects like:

One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.”

But quite refreshingly, it also included some items, in sync with the times, like:

Dedicated to providing an inclusive experience for everyone of any gender identity and expression, age, pregnancy and marital and parental status, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, diet, race, ethnicity, religion (or lack thereof), etc.

or about not tolerating “brilliant jerks”, the term popularised by Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings.  

McKinsey and Company has been actively publishing data and articles on workplace developments and other DE&I topics regularly, although whether they practice what they preach is something this author cannot confirm.  

do better

What this ultimately goes to show is that with our ever-changing world and way of working, organisations need to have processes in place that help them adapt and change with it. Most importantly, they should evolve to become a truly equal opportunities workplace for all who work there, and we, the workforce of today, need to be the ones to hold them accountable. And that is our hope with Yourequal, to provide a platform where employers can receive unfiltered feedback from their employees, so that they can do better.

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Our story

November 26, 2021

Anca, Alyce & Lucie

Once upon a time...

The Yourequal co-founders met as three young professional women in a tech startup in Berlin, Germany. This was the IoT golden age and the scene was as young, fresh, and hip as it was sexist, abusive, and overall not very aware or concerned with being a safe space for all. Believe us, it was ROUGH out there! (It still is, but that’s another story for another blog post.)

As colleagues but first and foremost friends, we supported each other through it all - abusive managers, non-existent career paths, benevolent sexism, etc. Unsurprisingly, these experiences were not the first ones in our careers, but what can you do eh?

Now bear with us as this story is about to get interesting.

The feather that broke the camel’s back happened when one of us was passed over for a promotion during her parental leave. This time, it just seemed that no amount of “best coffee in town”, kicker tables, or biweekly fresh fruits and vegetables deliveries would cut it.

It was time to take action and raise our voices as loud and clear as possible.

Or so we thought.

Trying to report the incident internally only ended up in the company responding with a combination of denial, victim blaming, defending the outcome, and out and out ignoring the situation.  

Trying to speak up about it on Glassdoor led to the review being removed after a month of being up, even though it had been manually curated and approved by the platform’s support team (yes we’ve got the receipts). The review was just suddenly breaking the platform’s code of conduct and that was just that – review removed and account shadow banned.

Meanwhile within the company, requests were made to drown the review in positivity, for the one of us who was actually being discriminated against to “calm people down”, and a general manipulation of the narrative happened. Long story short, instead of addressing the equal opportunity rights issue at hand, the company focused on reducing liability through toxic positivity and “radical candor” (big up to Kim Scott for having created a wonderful tool to enable toxic company leaders to continue being terrible people!).

Despite the law being on our side, there was no place to turn to. There was no clear avenue to take, and the only other options to follow up on the incident came at great personal and financial cost. That’s when the idea of creating a platform that would help employees from underrepresented groups find a safe place to work started to make its way into our minds. Ok, we had the idea during a wine and cheese support session but these are the moments when you have the best ideas, right?!

Further exploring of the DE&I scene around us and educating ourselves on topics relevant to all underrepresented people showed us that even with legal protections, most of us are not safe in the workplace. Most people that identify with an underrepresented group don’t feel like they have recourse when discrimination happens or even simply access to the right information, without great personal expense.

Personal experiences with existing truly inclusive employers also came to reinforce our belief that a truly safe workplace is nothing shy of achievable and necessary to build a better, inclusive future for all. With Yourequal, our hope is that all members of underrepresented groups feel like they have access to true and real information, and know their voices are heard and matter.  

For educational resources on DE&I in the workplace, check out our Linktree.

To know more about our upcoming employer-rating platform, feel free to reach out to us at yourequal.space@gmail.com, on Linkedin or Instagram.

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