Home / Opinion / Columns /  The art of telling the uncomfortable truth at work

Investor Nassim Nicholas Taleb predicted the 2008 financial crisis and alluded to the coronavirus outbreak back in 2007, in his best-seller The Black Swan: The Impact Of The Highly Improbable. Not known for his political correctness, he tweeted in the middle of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, “Those who panicked early don’t have to panic today." Taleb owes his professional success to spotting unlikely trends and sharing uncomfortable truths. Is he an effective communicator because he is abrasive?

Simply telling the uncomfortable truth isn’t enough. We need to ensure the underlying message reaches the intended audience effectively. CEO coach Kim Scott has developed a four-pronged behavioural awareness framework to guide important conversations. It is worth noting that these are behaviours, not personality types, that all of us fall into from time to time.

First, radical candour. It is a management philosophy when a person cares for your growth and simultaneously presents a direct challenge. Scott learnt it first-hand from Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, who used to be her manager at Google. After a largely successful presentation, Sandberg privately told Scott she needed a speaking coach to avoid awkward pauses.

To Scott, it seemed like a trivial point. She listened but it was clear she wasn’t going to act on the feedback. Finally, Sandberg said, ‘‘You know, Kim, I can tell I’m not really getting through to you. I’m going to have to be clearer here. When you say ‘um’ every third word, it makes you sound stupid."

According to Scott, Sandberg’s radical candour was the kindest thing she could have done for her professional growth.

There are four defining aspects of radical candour—it is humble, helpful immediate and in-person (private if it’s criticism and in public, if praise).

In a high trust environment, radical candour works like a charm but it requires training. You first have to establish that you care for the person you are offering feedback to. Only after that can you expect to offer sharp critique and still manage to have a healthy relationship.

Second, obnoxious aggression. It is what happens when we challenge someone directly but don’t establish that we care about them. This is commonly observed when someone with leverage and credibility publicly shames or mocks others to get the outcome they want. While the aggressor might feel powerful in the short-term, it is a guaranteed way to not get the outcome they want in a longer time-frame. In today’s hyper-connected world, the way we treat people is public knowledge. We might have some leverage today, but nothing is permanent. As an obnoxious aggressor, one should keep in mind that we are making ourselves unemployable in the long-term.

Third, manipulative sincerity, the hallmark of toxic culture. This is often an after-effect of obnoxious aggression and leads to a situation when we neither care nor challenge. Insincere praise, flattery and back stabbing are commonly observed traits of manipulative sincerity.

Lastly, ruinous empathy. It is what happens when we want to spare someone’s feelings in the short-term and end up not telling them something they absolutely need to know. We care but fail to challenge. Ruinous empathy may feel safe, but is ultimately damaging. Empathy is a great asset but it can paralyse us if we prioritize relational comfort over what is good for the other person. Scott shares that 85% of management mistakes are a direct result of ruinous empathy.

I believe though Taleb straddles the fine line between radical candour and obnoxious aggression for today’s young workforce, adopting radical candour as default communication style is the most rational option to help them become better inside and outside the workplace. Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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