The Unique Power of “Ruinous Empathy”

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott explains how almost any organization — whatever its size and nature may be — can “defy the gravitational pull of organizational mediocrity.” The ultimate goal of what she characterizes as Radical Candor “is to achieve results collaboratively that could never be achieved individually.” Scott focuses on two dimensions:

“The first dimension is about more than ‘just professional.’ It’s about giving a damn, sharing more than just your work self, and encouraging everyone who reports to you to do the same. It’s not enough to care only about people’s ability to perform a job. To have a good relationship, you have to be your whole self and care about each of the people who work for you as a human being. It’s not just business; it is personal, and [begin] deeply [end] personal. I call this dimension ‘Care Personally.’”

“The second dimension involves telling people when their work isn’t good enough — and when it is; when they are not going to get that new role they wanted, or when you’re going to hire a new boss ‘over’ them; when the results don’t justify further investment in what they’re working on. Delivering hard feedback, making hard calls about who does what on a team, and holding a high bar for results — isn’t that obviously the job of any manager?…And yet challenging people is often the best way to show them you care when you’re the boss. This dimension I call ‘Challenge Directly.’”

Scott has much of value to say about what she characterizes as “ruinous empathy,” a phenomenon that is “responsible for the vast majority of management mistakes I’ve seen in my career. Most people want to avoid creating tension at work. They are like the well-meaning parent who cannot bear to discipline their kids…

“Ruinous empathy can also prevent a boss from asking for criticism. Typically, when a boss asks an employee for criticism, the employee feels awkward at best, afraid at worst. Instead of pushing through the discomfort to get an employee to challenge them, bosses who are being ruinously empathetic may be so eager to ease the awkwardness that they simply let the matter drop.”

In the healthiest organizations, principled dissent is not only encouraged…it is required .

Keep in mind that, in his Inferno, Dante reserved the last – and worst – ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.

I also highly recommend Joseph Badaracco’s Managing in the Gray: Five Timeless Questions for Resolving Your Toughest Problems at Work, published by Harvard Business Review Press (2016).
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Kim Scott is the co-founder and CEO of Candor, Inc., which builds tools to make it easier to follow the advice she offers in the book. She is also the author of three novels. To learn more about her and her work, please click here.

Radical Candor was published by St. Martin’s Press (March 2017).

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