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How COVID-19 made Kim Scott rethink one key aspect of Radical Candor

Her book emphasized the importance of in-person communication. Now she’s reconsidering what virtual communication can offer.

How COVID-19 made Kim Scott rethink one key aspect of Radical Candor
[Source image: MissTuni/iStock]

When I first published my book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity in 2017, I was convinced that the most effective way to communicate with people at work was in person. Until the COVID-19 crisis, I discouraged giving guidance and feedback remotely if there was an opportunity to do it in person, because more than 90% of communication is nonverbal.

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That’s not to say words don’t matter, but body language experts claim that things like the tone of your voice, your facial expressions, and how you position your body reveal more about how you’re feeling than the words themselves. Therefore it stands to reason that communicating in person gives you the best opportunity to observe this type of communication.

But with a global pandemic upending life in every way imaginable, I’ve had to shift this mindset because for many, being in the same room is no longer possible. And in doing so, I’ve not only realized that even nuanced communications can be very effective over video, I’ve also discovered that video offers some hidden benefits.

Here’s what else I’ve realized about effective communication in this new virtual era: 

Video meetings can be great, if done properly 

During the past few months, as my team has delivered online talks and workshops, we’ve found that video meeting platforms with tools like chat, Q&A, breakout rooms, and polls can allow for more inclusion and participation because everyone in the meeting is able to see other people’s perspectives.

That said, video meetings are not without their challenges. Introverts and underrepresented people are more likely to be talked over on Zoom meetings than during in-person meetings. This means they sometimes have to work twice as hard to get their voices heard, which is exhausting.

According to research from Google’s Project Aristotle, teams that speak roughly an equal amount of time perform better than teams where one person takes up all the airtime. If you find that some people are dominating meetings and others don’t make a peep, change the way you run meetings. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to make sure everyone’s voice is heard. 

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But there are ways to make virtual meetings more engaging and equitable. During my first-ever publicly offered leadership course in partnership with coaching platform Torch, which took place right after the killing of George Floyd, we wanted to create a space for everyone to share how they were feeling before we launched into the session. 

This can be difficult with 400 participants on a webinar. To make the large meeting feel more interactive, we used Mentimeter to create word clouds that captured how participants were feeling at any given moment. It also lets the meeting leader understand the overall mood of the group right away.

In addition, we’ve found that since we began delivering workshops virtually, we are not only seeing more people participate, we are seeing people engage at a deeper level, which is not something we expected to happen when we transitioned from in-person to virtual events. 

Chat and Q&A features are an effective way for participants to deepen self-awareness and relational awareness during virtual workshops because they allow for shared vulnerability and give everyone a voice—versus just a few people who tend to speak out during in-person workshops. So while more people aren’t necessarily talking out loud, more people are being heard.

There is a difference between empathy and ruinous empathy

Radical candor is what happens when you care personally about someone and challenge them directly at the same time. However, not giving someone information they need because you’re worried about hurting their feelings is not empathy; it’s ruinous empathy. And defaulting to ruinous empathy during a crisis can cause great harm.

This could mean not being transparent about upcoming layoffs or furloughs because you’re afraid people will worry. Uncertainty always causes more anxiety than transparency, and this is especially true during times of crisis. Being radically candid means you tell people what they need to know in a way that’s both kind and clear, and you ask them to do the same with you and each other.

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When I was CEO of a software startup in the early 2000s, I let everyone know exactly how much money the company had and when we would run out. It’s difficult for people to do their jobs if they don’t know what’s going on. It’s also okay to admit that you don’t have all the answers. However, when you do have information (good or bad) that affects your team, commit to delivering it as soon as possible in a way that’s kind and clear.

Admitting you “don’t know” can make you feel out of control, but a little discomfort is worth your team trusting your leadership. As one of my coaching clients, Cameron Yarbrough, CEO of Torch, eloquently said to me, “If you over index on instilling confidence, and gloss over the bad news, it will come at the expense of trust.” One of the biggest mistakes leaders will make in the next phase of the pandemic is not admitting “I don’t know.” They’ll also need to share what information they do know more transparently.

Compassion extends to layoffs, too 

Not everyone is able to retain their employees right now, and the way you let those people know matters. It’s important not to distance yourself from the person you’re about to lay off or furlough. If you try to avoid feeling the pain that is inherent in the situation, especially for the person you’re letting go, you’ll make a hash of it.

It’s inevitable that the person you’re laying off, furloughing, or asking to take a pay cut will get emotional, and that’s okay. It’s not your job to manage other people’s emotions, but as a leader and a human being, it is your job to allow people the space to experience their emotions. What’s more, it’s important to be present for these emotions (on video, if the meeting is virtual), so you can better understand how your message landed, and to adjust.

Once you’ve delivered the news, don’t just disappear. Email people about a month after they’ve been let go to check in and see how they’re doing. Keep an ear to the ground for jobs they might be well-suited for. But even when you don’t have anything to offer, it’s still important to reach out. Don’t be surprised if you’re the last person they want to hear from, and if you don’t hear back, don’t push it.

Take care of yourself and your personal relationships first

There are some very important people I do need to show up in person for more right now: my husband and my 11-year-old twins. I’ve learned that if in-person communication is important with work colleagues, it’s far, far more important with spouses, children, and our most intimate relationships.

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Now that people are spending so much time at home online, it’s easy to unintentionally ignore the people closest to you. Make sure you take time to nurture the relationship with the people running behind you in those Zoom calls, too.

Finally, don’t undervalue the emotional labor of being a leader. It’s important to recognize that being the boss can be exhausting during the best of times, and during times of crisis, it can feel downright paralyzing. If you don’t identify ways to take care of your emotional, physical, and mental health, you won’t be able to be there for anyone else.


Kim Scott is the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity and the cofounder of Radical Candor LLC. A former CEO coach for several tech companies, including Dropbox, Qualtrics, and Twitter, she also teaches “The Radically Candid Coach” her first publicly offered executive coaching course with Torch. She is the author of three novels and the forthcoming leadership book Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair, available March 16, 2021 from St. Martin’s Press.

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