A while ago, I was speaking with a friend of mine. She had been one of my best friends for years, one of those friends who you don’t feel uncomfortable to ask the really big favors of, or tell the embarrassing secret. She’s loyal, caring, and just a damn good person. Now around thirty years old, she was telling me about her frustrations trying to claim credit for her ideas and performance at work, and get promoted in her highly-competitive field.
“Everyone keeps telling me that I’m too nice, and that no one will take me seriously as a boss unless I behave more like an asshole,” she said.
This was frustrating to me, because in fact, I viewed her friendliness, openness, and concern for others to be one of her core professional strengths. To see her sacrifice that in order to be perceived as a better manager would be disappointing to me, and in the long run, I believe it would be detrimental to her career as well.
What she expressed was a sentiment that I see quite often in the professional world: a false dichotomy, with “nice and incompetent” at one end of the spectrum, and “effective asshole” at the other. In reality, neither end of the spectrum is a true representation of reality. After all, if you’re “niceness” causes your team to fail, they won’t be very grateful for your compassion when you all lose your jobs. If you ruthlessly manage your way to the top, the bridges you burn will leave you stranded on an island, making it difficult to sustain your success over the long run. Failure to be tough can actually undermine your ability to help others, and failure to care about people can weaken your ability to get stuff done.
In fact, nearly every expert on managing people continuously emphasizes the same core principle: that effective management requires both niceness and toughness, and skillful management is determined by where the two sides of the spectrum are applied. In other words, it’s not about how nice or tough you are, but what you’re nice and tough about.
Tough on the task, soft on the people
One of the most useful management books ever written, in my opinion, is a “children’s book.” In the early 1980s, children’s book author Spencer Johnson met management consultant Ken Blanchard at a party, and they got to talking. Frustrated by the elitist, needlessly complicated jargon so often used by scholars of management, they decided to put their heads together, and write a “children’s book for managers.” The result was the 1982 best-seller The One-Minute Manager. It is cheesy, hokey, and at times condescending, but it boils managing people down to its most basic essence:
1. Set clear goals. Make sure that everyone involved agrees on the goals, and has an example of what good behavior looks like. Make the goals tangible. Write them down. Clarify what the consequences will be if the goals are met, or not met.
2. Praise people when they do something right. Watch them carefully whenever they begin a new task or responsibility. When they do something right, let them know, and show how their positive behavior impacts you and others on the team. Praise them immediately and be consistent, regardless of your mood. Once it is clear that they understand the task, you no longer have to praise them so often, but since each team member should have a development plan, there always should some area in which you are looking to praise them. Try to give three times as many praisings as reprimands.
3. When people do something wrong, let them know. Reprimand them immediately. Tell them what they did wrong, and how it impacts you and others on the team. Then, remind them that you value and support them as a person, just not their behavior in this instance. Be consistent in what you reprimand people for. Realize that when the reprimand its over, it is over. There is no need to remain upset or angry with the team member.
The gist of The One-Minute Manager can be boiled down to a simple philosophy: be clear and organized about the task that needs to be accomplished, and hold people accountable for meeting the task, but respect and value each individual’s inherent worth as a person, which exists regardless of their performance. Our ability and performance vary, but our worth as humans does not.
A similar concept has recently caught fire in many management circles, articulated in former tech entrepreneur and Googler Kim Scott’s 2017 book Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. In Scott’s model, she identifies two essential activities at the core of managing people: caring personally, and challenging directly. Depending on the degree that each is applied, they separate the behavior into four distinct styles: “manipulative insincerity,” “ruinous empathy,” “obnoxious aggression,” and the hallmark of great people-managers, “radical candor.”
Manipulative insincerity is what happens when a person neither cares personally nor challenges directly, but simply avoids engagement altogether. Imagine your colleague who has given up trying to perform at work, and spends their time on Wechat or Taobao. Maybe they will still go through the motions of work, but you know they have stopped giving a shit. In one of my first jobs that I had in China, when I was in my mid-twenties, I once had a direct manager who used this approach to manage me. I was on a sales team in Beijing. Foreign headcount was required on the team, so that’s why I was there, but it was clear that the manager did not quite know how to properly integrate my role. He didn’t ever really criticize my performance, but also never really gave me goals or KPIs. Most of my job was spent attending client meetings as a “white face” to provide the image of internationalization, but with little substance.
I would actually find myself being a bit jealous of my Chinese colleagues who were often yelled at and reprimanded by our manager. Sure, he treated them poorly, but at least they were challenged, and given the opportunity to develop real skills. Every now and then the manager would give me general compliments in meetings, but it felt like he was patting the head of the family dog. Sure everyone likes the family dog, but it is neither valued nor respected to the same degree as the humans.
To be clear, despite the actions of my manager, I was able to find ways to grow on the job. This was mostly thanks to an excellent team of colleagues, most of whom I grew to rely on both personally and professionally. I still maintain meaningful relationships with many of them today.
Ruinous empathy is what occurs when someone cares personally, but fails to challenge directly. In this situation, the care someone has for an individual, coupled with an avoidance of confrontation, causes them to enable the individual’s poor performance or bad behavior. Paradoxically, the desire to care for the individual ends up hurting them in the long run. I can think of one experience when this happened in my group of friends. One friend was clearly starting to steer her life in a destructive direction. She began drinking heavily, doing hard drugs and having risky sexual encounters. These habits contributed to her inability to keep a job.
One of our friends who was fortunate enough to have a well-paying job began lending her money the (which she never paid back), and allowing her to live in her extra bedroom. She was compassionate, but could never confront our friend to receive help for her problems and turn her life around. Instead, the support that was provided simply enabled our friend’s bad behavior. With a source of money, but also no job, her destructed habits grew progressively words. While I moved away and lost contact with both of them, I recently received news over Facebook that our friend’s destructive lifestyle had led to her premature and unfortunate death.
Obnoxious aggression is what happens when someone is ok with challenging directly, but does not care personally about those around them. These are the abusive wrecking balls that rip through the company, leaving a mess in their wake. They hold others accountable for results, but cross lines in their behavior that limit success in the long-run. Often they are abusive, insult and demean others personally, and use their power in a way that fails to regard the humanity of those around them. This person creates culture of fear where team members fail to share information, try to cover up bad news, and focus more on competing with each other than achieving their team’s goals. Basically, it can be the workplace version of The Hunger Games.
An excellent example of this is Steve Jobs’ first tenure at Apple. Sure, he was laser-focused with a passion for making excellent products, but he caused self-destructive harm. He famously had trouble eliciting or accepting feedback from those around him, alienated himself from his co-founders and investors, and even refused to support, or even acknowledge his own daughter. This eventually led to a series of well-designed, but under-performing products, which led to his 1985 removal as CEO of the company he founded.
Radical Candor is the result of both caring personally and challenging directly. It is the common thread that weaves between just about every great manager. Think about the teachers, family members, mentors, or bosses that have really been instrumental in helping you grow in life, both in your skills and as a person. There’s a good chance that those people were able to be effective due to their ability to care personally while also challenging directly.
An excellent example of the power of radical candor is, somewhat surprisingly, also Steve Jobs… but in his second stint at Apple, from 1997 to 2011. While still as relentlessly hard-driving as he was early in his career, his ouster undoubtedly humbled him, and cause him to re-examine how he dealt with those around him. In his personal life, he became a better father and friend. Professionally, he learned to curb the excessive petulance and cruelty that gave him his early-career infamy.
Long-time Silicon Valley reporter and Jobs biographer Brent Schlender described Jobs’ change this way:
“He developed patience, which believe it or not, is a leadership skill. He learned not to rush things that needed more work. He also learned how to be more sensitive to the physical limits of how much his people could work and moderated his demanding behavior. He still was a tough boss, but he got better at helping people share his high ideals for whatever Apple made.”
It was Jobs’ natural vision, and his ability to challenge directly that made him a genius. But it wasn’t until he learned to care personally as well that he was able to have his greatest impact.
The “virtuous cycle” of caring for both people and task
Both The One-Minute Manager and Radical Candor share the same fundamental principles:
1. Every person, regardless of position or status or performance, deserves to have their humanity respected. Period. No exceptions. No goal is a justifiable excuse for treating someone poorly.
2. Tasks need to be accomplished, work needs to be done. If we do not communicate clearly about expectations and hold people accountable for meeting them, in the long run, it benefits nobody.
While each principle has value on its own, the combination of the two create a positive feedback loop in which one enables and strengthens the other. When people know you respect and care about them personally, they are more willing to accept negative feedback, trusting that you want the best for them, rather than hurt them. When tasks are accomplished, work gets done. People feel better on account of their accomplishments, and hopefully, it results in more wealth and resources from which the entire team can benefit.
It’s not just professional, it’s deeper than that
This approach is not just a tool for managing a team, it’s a philosophy for managing one’s self. When I think about the people I most admire, they’re the people who set goals for themselves and push themselves to achieve them. However, when people define their self-worth by those accomplishments, they become insecure, unforgiving of themselves fearful of change, and unable to accept difficult feedback. I think about NBA legend Kobe Bryant later in his career. Hobbled by injuries and age, he was a shadow of the player he once was. However, he seemed unwilling to accept his declining abilities. He continued to take the most shots on his team, with terrible results. In his final season, he was one of the least-efficient players in the entire NBA, and his Los Angeles Lakers finished with a record of 17 wins and 65 losses, the worst in the history of the team.
Contrast Kobe with the other legend of his era, Tim Duncan. While Kobe defined himself by his dominance on the court, this never seemed to be how Duncan viewed his identity. To Duncan, he always seemed to view himself as part of something bigger: as a teammate, a father, and a friend. Because of this, Duncan was comfortable playing a dominant role when his talents allowed him, and his team required him, to do so. He won two MVPs during the peak of his career. Kobe only won one. As his skills declined, he adjusted how he saw his role. He scored less, mentored more, and played fewer minutes. Somewhat paradoxically, his ability to accept his declining skills made him a greater player. In 2014, at age 38, he led his San Antonio Spurs to their fifth championship. Kobe had his abysmal final season at age 37.
While obvious and dramatic in sports, this is indeed a question we all have to wrestle with in life. In our lives and careers, we rise and we fall. The accomplishments we work so hard for often go unrecognized, our companies succeed and fail, we are hired, promoted, and sometimes fired. Eventually, our strength diminishes and beauty fades, our mind become dull, and yes, we die. Many of our internal struggles in life come from the difficulty we face in accepting that inevitable truth.
At its core, this is what just about every great spiritual tradition on earth is trying to address: helping us identify not with our bodies, our egos, and the world, which are imperfect, temporary, eventually betray even the best of us, but rather with a spirit, soul, or “life force” which is eternal. This was articulated beautifully by mythology scholar and author Joseph Campbell as he neared the end of his life:
“The problem in middle age, when the body has reached its climax of power and begins to decline, is to identify not with the body, which is falling away, but with the consciousness of which it is a vehicle. This is something I learned from myths. What am I? Am I the bulb the carries the light, or am I the light of which the bulb is a vehicle?
One of the psychological problems in growing old is the fear of death. People resist the door of death. But this body is a vehicle of consciousness, you can watch the body go like an old car. There goes the fender, there goes the tire, one thing after another – but it’s predictable. And then, gradually, the whole thing drops off, and consciousness joins consciousness. It is no longer in this particular environment.”
What I find useful about this metaphor is this: the physical world around us, our work, our egos, our bodies, these are important. We need to maintain them, manage them, and keep them healthy. Sometimes the bulb fits well in its socket, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the car is appropriate for its terrain, sometimes it isn’t. Regardless, the bulb will eventually burn out, and the car will break down. In life, wisdom and peace come from viewing ourselves and others not as the bulb but the light, not as the car but the passenger.
This concept is central to the tradition of Christianity, in which I was raised. Jesus taught that while on one hand, “to much is given, much is expected,” his followers should not “keep their treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy,” but instead keep “treasures in heaven,” because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In the many years I have spent in China, I’ve come to see a similar theme, but through different traditions. While Confucianism provides a structure through which the world can be managed, Buddhism teaches us not to cling to that world, because it is all fleeting in the end.
In management, as in life, we have the responsibility of building something, and being productive. Sometimes we need to say “no” to people, sometimes we need to fire people. Sometimes we need to deliver difficult news. Sometimes we need a new “car,” or to change the “bulb.” However, if in doing so, we fail to recognize the passenger of the car, or the light in the bulb, we foolishly distract ourselves from the very nature of our existence in the first place. After all, management is a spiritual practice.