Even the strongest relationships have friction. You might have the same argument about filling the dishwasher with your partner every week. Or get into heated debates about reality TV with a good friend. Or invest long, frustrating hours in changing a relative’s mind about a regressive viewpoint.
In all of these cases, we know we can disagree because the foundations of the relationship are strong enough to take it. If you can’t bicker with someone, or discuss topics you care about, are you really close to them?
The same principle applies in the workplace. Direct communication and honest feedback are vital for getting good results, and both come more easily if there’s mutual trust and understanding. One of my favourite methods for building and maintaining relationships in teams comes from Kim Scott. In Radical Candor she argues that this emotional labour is “the key to being a good boss.”
Scott knows first-hand how hard that can be. She shares a story of complaining to her coach that she felt like an “emotional babysitter”, only to be shocked by the blunt reply:
“This is not babysitting. It’s called management, and it is your job!”
So, what’s her approach?
Care personally, challenge directly
The core of the radical candour method is this: care personally, challenge directly.
A lot of people misinterpret “caring personally”. They think it means knowing the minutiae of everyone’s lives, never pushing them too hard, being able to empathise with everything they’re experiencing. But that can become overstepping personal boundaries, letting sub-par work slide, or only hiring people whose experiences are like yours.
So how do you avoid those pitfalls? As Scott explains, “caring personally is not about memorizing birthdays and names of family members. Nor is it about sharing the sordid details of one’s personal life, or forced chitchat at social events you’d rather not attend. [It’s about] acknowledging that we are all people with lives and aspirations that extend beyond those related to our shared work. It’s about finding time for real conversations; about getting to know each other at a human level”.
Being vulnerable by sharing those things helps you build trust and find points of commonality. And that makes it much easier to challenge directly.
Challenging directly goes in both directions. Your team needs to know they can come to you with problems, and tell you when they disagree with you. And you as a leader need to trust that your team can receive negative feedback and accept tough decisions.
Of course, they might still react badly at the time – but if they know you care personally, that won’t ruin the entire relationship.
“Sometimes people on your team will be mad at you,” Scott points out. “If nobody is ever mad at you, you probably aren’t challenging [them] enough. The key, as in any relationship, is how you handle the anger. When what you say hurts, acknowledge the other person’s pain. Don’t pretend it doesn’t hurt or say it “shouldn’t” hurt—just show that you care.”
The value of humility
Sometimes a team member will get angry at you because you’re simply wrong. We’ve all had managers who think their leadership position means they know better – even when it comes to technical aspects of our job which they’ve never done. Or we’ve had our frustrations about systemic issues dismissed: “I’m sure they just forgot you’d need a ramp, it’s not on purpose”; or “they’re from a different time, they don’t mean anything bad by it.”
When a team member shares an experience which you can’t relate to, or points out a way you’re inadvertently hurting them, try not to dismiss it. Listen first, see where you have knowledge gaps, then respond. Just think about how amazing it is that they feel they can share these things with you. If they’re experiencing discrimination within the company, and they’re asking you to help change that, it means they trust you – what a compliment!
“Gender, racial, and cultural differences do make having Radically Candid relationships harder,” explains Scott. “[But] learning how to push ourselves and others past this discomfort, to relate to our shared humanity, can make a huge difference.”
YuLife: strong relationships as a core value
In the first blog post in this series, I suggested finding organisations which are doing a great job at confronting those issues that can feel different to talk about. And when it comes to putting “care personally, challenge directly” into practice, I think group life insurance company YuLife is a great example.
Here are just a few of the ways I think they’re exemplifying this approach:
The organisation’s core values are clear and well signposted, with the motto “Love Being Yu” acting as a guiding principle. The execs put this into action though being open and vulnerable about their own lives.
YuLife gives employees a platform to share their experiences, highlighting the company’s culture of inclusivity and communication for anyone who might join. As one employee with ADHD recounts, “I’m accustomed to being judged, so I disclose my ADHD in the first interview. […] To my surprise, the Head of Talent, Mel, excitedly replied to my ADHD disclosure: ‘That means you’re creative!’ And at that moment, I began hyperfocusing on exceeding expectations to ensure this job was mine.”
As well as listening to employees’ experiences, YuLife learns from them and shares those lessons. Their Proud to be Yu events bring together people with both lived experience of and professional insights into LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace. And recent discussions of menopause have helped demystify a taboo topic, and make their approach to flexible working and sick leave more effective.
The result? A strong company culture which evolves as it meets new challenges; new hires attracted by exactly that culture; and great buy-in from existing staff.