How to be a better leader

This episode is with Kim Scott – author of bestselling books Just Work and Radical Candour. Kim was a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter and other tech companies, and has led the AdSense, YouTube and DoubleClick teams at Google. In this episode we talk about how to be a better leader, discussing concepts from her books Radical Candour and Just Work.

LINKS

You’re listening to The Growth Manifesto Podcast, a Zoom video series brought to you by Webprofits – a digital growth consultancy that helps global and national businesses attract, acquire, and retain customers through digital marketing.

Hosted by Alex Cleanthous.

SHOW NOTES

  • 00:01:37 Kim Scott introduction to the Growth Manifesto Podcast
  • 00:02:35 How would you summarize your approach to leadership?
  • 00:05:26 How do you build trust?
  • 00:15:47 What can people do to get to the top of the quadrant?
  • 00:24:25 Where did you get the idea for your 2nd book?
  • 00:32:15 How do you become aware of biases?
  • 00:36:13 How do biases affect the team’s performance
  • 00:48:26 Are there any less obvious version where it doesn’t look like bullying?
  • 00:49:18 The definition of an “It” statement
  • 00:52:45 What are some things listeners can do to get them started?

TRANSCRIPT

Kim Scott:

Unconscious bias often creates an invisible tax on the team, because I don’t think you would do this, but let’s say you call me honey. And so now, you probably don’t mean any harm when you called me honey, but now I’m a little annoyed that I feel like, “Ah, is Alex taking me seriously?”

Alex Cleanthous:

So I didn’t call her honey, by the way, just for the record.

Kim Scott:

Yes. He didn’t.

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah.

Kim Scott:

But now it’s like this thing in my mind and I’m not doing absolutely my best work or let’s say that you interrupt someone, and that consistently the women on the team are being interrupted more than the men. And the more often it happens, the more irritating it is for the women on the team or they just shut down. And so now, they’re not doing their best work, but also the team is not getting the best ideas out of the team.

There’s a lot of evidence that shows when everyone on a team participates roughly the same amount that the team performs better. And so, if you’re sort of consistently interrupting or shutting down some members of the team, it hurts that person, but it also hurts the whole team’s performance. When we’re being biassed, we’re not respecting one another’s individuality and we’re not going to collaborate as well as a team.

Alex Cleanthous:

Today, we’re talking with Kim Scott. She’s the author of the bestselling books, Just Work, and Radical Candour. And I’m sure that you’ve heard about those books. She’s worked as a CEO coach at companies like Dropbox, Twitter, Qualtrics, and she’s led the ad sense, the YouTube and the double click teams at a company that you may have heard of called Google. And today, we’ll be talking about how to be a great leader in today’s world, which is a complex world.

And just quickly before we get started, make sure to go ahead and hit that subscribe button so you get the latest episodes as soon as they’re released. Now, let’s get into it. Welcome, Kim.

Kim Scott:

Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah. Fantastic. I’m excited about this conversation, but I do say that every time. But specifically, because I know that there’s been quite a lot of people at Web Profits even that speak extremely highly of your books and there so many people I’ve spoken to as well that just love your work. But let’s get straight into it. You’ve been a CEO coach for a while and you’ve written a couple of books on the subject, but how would you summarise your approach on leadership?

Kim Scott:

So the key to being a great leader is to know how to build great relationships with the people who you work with. And it was very hard to write when I first started writing Radical Candour, I thought, “It’s hard to write a book about leadership when I hate the word leadership, I hate the word manager, I hate the word boss. What do I call this even?” Because there’s such a bad feeling in the world about this role.

And the fact of the matter is it is a job. Being a manager is a job. And it’s a job for which you get held accountable and it is not a value judgement . So the sooner you can lay down your power to the extent you have any and form good relationships with each of the people who you work with, the faster you’re going to achieve better results.

Alex Cleanthous:

The faster you can lay down your power and build better relationships. That’s an interesting one, right? So that does seem to talk to people who first start out their journey as leaders may have an incorrect view on what it means to be a leader. They think that they are the boss, right?

Kim Scott:

Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous:

And it’s their way or the highway. That’s kind of just like a more kind of old school statement, but you think, of course, now I’m the boss. Now I have to be the boss, right? But what you are saying is that it’s more about now establishing relationships with the team, essentially.

Kim Scott:

Yes.

Alex Cleanthous:

Is that right?

Kim Scott:

Absolutely. Absolutely. So a great mentor of mine, Richard Tedlow, who’s a wonderful professor at business school. He said, “Do you want to be a boss or do you want to do the things that bosses do?” And so, what are the things that bosses do? They solicit feedback. They give praise and criticism. They encourage, they gauge, they understand how, what they’re saying is landing for other people. And they encourage teams. So they build this culture of feedback. They build teams on which everyone can take a step in the direction of their dreams and they achieve results, of course.

And they do all of that by creating what I call a just work environment. And just both in the just get stuff done, but also in the justice sense of the word, a fair and reasonable working environment. And that sounds, it’s easy to say all those things, really hard to do all those things. And most of what I learned, I learned by getting it wrong.

Alex Cleanthous:

And we did speak about that quickly in the discussion before the podcast started, right? And so, look, I think we’ll get into the details around this, like in this podcast, right? But am I right in saying, “So, yes, it’s about relationships, but at the core of that is about trust?”

Kim Scott:

Yeah. And the question is, how do you build trust? How do you build trust? And I would argue that you’ve got to care personally about each of the people who you’re working with and at the same time challenge them directly. And that’s kind of the definition of radical candour is when you’re caring personally and challenging directly at the same time.

Now, I love a good two-by-two. I think all of life’s hardest problems can be boiled down to a good two-by-two framework. So let’s sort of imagine a vertical axis on which we’ve written care personally, and a horizontal axis on which we’ve written challenged directly. Sometimes the mistake we make is we challenge directly, but we forget to show that we care personally. And that puts us in the bottom right hand quadrant, obnoxious aggression.

And in a first draught of radical candour, I called that the asshole quadrant, because it seemed more, I don’t know, radically candid. But I stopped doing that for a very important reason. I stopped doing that, because I found as soon as I did, people would use the radical candour framework to start writing names in boxes, and beg of you, don’t use this framework that way. Because these are mistakes that all of us make. Sometimes I too, I’m obnoxious.

I try really hard not to be a jerk, but I land in that obnoxious aggression quadrant at least once a day. And there’s a bunch of problems with that. One of them is that the biggest of them, of course, is that I harm someone else when I’m obnoxious. But in addition to that, the other problem is that when I realise I’ve landed an obnoxious aggression, it’s my instinct that I have to fight against to go the wrong way on challenge directly.

It’s not my instinct to go the right way on care personally. If I did, I’d wind up in radical candour. But instead when I go the wrong way, unchallenged directly, I wind up in the worst place of all. The dreaded bottom left hand quadrant, which I call manipulative in sincerity. And this is where passive aggressive behaviour, political behaviour sort of back-stab things that make, that destroy trust. This is where they creep in.

And it’s fun to tell stories about obnoxious aggression and manipulative and sincerity, because this is where the drama occurs. But in my experience, the vast majority of us make the vast majority of our mistakes in this upper left hand quadrant, where we do remember to show that we care personally, but we’re so worried about not hurting someone’s feelings that we don’t tell them something they’d be better off hearing in the long run. And that is what I call ruinous empathy.

And ruinous empathy can also destroy trust. That’s where people are sort of marching through their careers and they know something’s not going right, but their boss is telling them what it is and that also destroys trust.

Alex Cleanthous:

Okay. So for the people listening, I’m sure they have already self-selected the place that they would be in, right? And I would say potentially for myself in the past, I would’ve been in the bottom right hand corner, which you —

Kim Scott:

Obnoxious aggression?

Alex Cleanthous:

… called obnoxious aggressive, because I wasn’t really in touch with my feelings so much. It’s something I’ve had to work on over the years so I could be a better leader is actually to know how to care while still pushing the challenges, right?

Kim Scott:

Yes.

Alex Cleanthous:

And so, look, I’ll put myself out there just for the listeners and just for the podcast just to say, “Look, but no one’s perfect, right?”

Kim Scott:

Yes.

Alex Cleanthous:

And it’s a journey, right? But it’s kind of to be aware of it and to know that the goal is the upper right, right?

Kim Scott:

Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous:

And you will be defaulting to probably either the bottom right or the top left. I think if you are in the bottom left, maybe that’s… Is that too hard to come from?

Kim Scott:

No.

Alex Cleanthous:

Like if you are being insincere or is that just kind of easy to do as well?

Kim Scott:

I’ll share with you my own heroes’ journey to manipulative insincerity, because we all wind up there some of the time. So this happened shortly after I had joined Google and I got into an argument with someone about an ad sense policy. And I sent him an email. I’ll send it to him and about 30 other people. “We claim we want to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, but if it’ll make us a buck, it turns out we’re willing to create clutter sites that muddle the world.”

So this was not really my most politically astute moment. So why did I do such a thing? This is obnoxious aggression. And the reason I did it was that I believe like probably all your listeners and there’s a special place in hell for people who kiss up and kick down. And I was kicking up, but actually it turns out that kicking up is not any better than kicking down. Like common human decency is the one thing we can offer to everyone.

It also turned out that that was not what got me in trouble in this situation. This executive that I sent that to actually thought my email was kind of funny. The problem happened, and here comes the hero’s journey to manipulative insincerity. The problem happened in what I did next. And what happened next was that a friend of mine called me up and said, “That was really obnoxious. Why’d you send that email?” And I thought, “Gosh, you know what? That really was obnoxious. Why did I send that email?”

And then, the next time I saw this executive, rather than moving up on the personal dimension and sort of saying, “I was sorry.” I lied. I said, “Oh, I’m sorry. You’re right. I’m wrong.” Two problems with that. First, I was lying. The second is that it was pretty clear I was lying. This guy, like most people, had a pretty good BS metre and he kind of glared at me and stalked off. It was one of those cringe moments where the guy sitting next to me looked at me and said, “I think he likes it better when you disagree with him.”

So don’t make that mistake when you realise you’ve landed on obnoxious aggression, but I’ll tell you there’s another way we get to manipulative insincerity. You want another, you ready for another story?

Alex Cleanthous:

Yes, please. I would want another story.

Kim Scott:

Okay. So this happened, I had hired this guy. We’ll call him Bob. And I liked Bob a lot. He was smart. He was charming. He was funny. He would do stuff like we were at a manager offsite and we were playing one of those endless get to know you games. Nobody really wanted to be playing it. Everybody was stressed out. It was a startup. There was a lot going on.

And Bob was the guy who had the courage to raise his hand and to say, “I can tell that everyone is stressed and would rather get back to work. I’ve got a great idea. It’ll help us get to know each other. And it’ll be really fast.” And whatever his idea was, if it was fast, we were down with it.

And he says, “Let’s just go around the table and confess what candy our parents used when potty training us.” Really weird, but really fast. Weirder yet, we all remembered. And then, for the next 10 months, every time there’s a tense moment in a meeting, Bob would whip out just the right piece of candy for the right person at the right moment. So Bob brought a little love to the office.

One problem with Bob, everybody loved him, but there was one problem. He was doing terrible work. He would hand stuff into me and there was shame in his eyes. He knew, and I couldn’t understand what was going on, because he had this great resume, this great history of accomplishments. I learned much later the problem was he was smoking pot in the bathroom three times a day, which may be explained all that candy that he had. But I didn’t know any of that at the time. All I knew is that he was doing terrible work.

So he would hand stuff into me and I would say to him something along the lines of, “Oh, Bob, this is such a great start. You’re so awesome. You’re so smart. Everybody loves working with you. Maybe you can make it just a little bit better.” Which of course he never did. And this goes on for 10 months and eventually the inevitable happens. And I realise if I don’t fire Bob, I’m going to lose all my best performers.

And so, let’s pause though before we get to what happened. Why did I say such a banal thing to Bob? It obviously wasn’t working. And I think part of it was truly ruinous sympathy. I really liked Bob. I really cared about him. I really didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but if I’m honest with myself, there was more than a little bit of manipulative insincerity in there. And the reason was that Bob was popular on the team. And Bob was also kind of a sensitive guy.

And I was afraid that if I told Bob, in no uncertain terms, that his work wasn’t nearly good enough, that he would get upset. He might even start to cry. And then, everyone would think I was a big you know what. And so, the part of me that was worried about my reputation as a leader was the manipulative insincerity part. The part of me that was worried about Bob’s feelings was the ruinous sympathy part.

Anyway, this goes on for 10 months and eventually I realised I’m going to lose all my best performers. So I sat down to have the conversation with Bob that I should have started 10 months previously. And when I finished explaining to him where things stood, he looked me right in the eye and he pushed his chair back from the table and he said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

And as that question is going around in my head with no good answer, he said, “Why didn’t anyone tell me? I thought you all cared about me.” And that was about the worst moment of my career. Because I realised, I thought I had been being nice to Bob by not telling him. And now I’m having to fire him, having not given him an opportunity to fix the problem, not so nice after all.

And so, that to me is sort of a cautionary tale about how some combination of ruinous sympathy and manipulative insincerity can cause you to really harm someone who you’re just trying to protect actually.

Alex Cleanthous:

And it can happen so easily, and it can happen from the best intentions. Then, that’s the part, right?

Kim Scott:

Yes.

Alex Cleanthous:

Because I’m sure that you’ve had the best intentions from it and you thought, “Hey, I’m being a nice person.” And you made all these assumptions that kind of ended up just not being right for Bob, and then for the team, right?

Kim Scott:

Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous:

But it’s kind of the natural kind of instinct thing, right? So what can people do to move themselves up to the top right quadrant? What are some of the things that people can kind of hold onto to say, “All right, I’m doing that or I’m doing this or I should be doing that more or not?”

Kim Scott:

So there’s a definite order of operations to radical candour. And it all starts by soliciting feedback, especially if you’re the boss, but no matter what your role is in the relationship, you want to start by soliciting feedback. Don’t dish it out before you prove you can take it.

And so, what do I mean? How specifically can you solicit feedback? Because if all you do is say, “Do you have any feedback for me?” You’re wasting your breath. The other person’s going to say, “Oh no, everything’s fine.” Nobody, with the possible exception of your children, if you have them, they really want to give you feedback, but nobody else in your life really will eagerly give you feedback.

So you’ve got to do four things to ask for feedback. The first is you’ve got to come up with a good go-to question. And if all your listeners do as a result of our time today is this one thing, is write down your go-to question. Take out a pen, write down on a piece of paper, what are the words that are going to come out of your mouth when you want to ask for feedback?

And so, I’ll give you a… But I’m not going to tell you what they ought to be because the words have got to sound like you, not like… If you sound like Kim Scott, people will think it’s a bunch of phoney baloney. So you want to make sure that you ask a question in a way that can’t be answered with a yes or a no. Like do you have feedback from me? The answer is no.

So for example, I like to ask, what could I do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me? But I was talking to Christa Quarles when she was CEO of OpenTable, and she said, “I could never imagine those words coming out of my mouth.” She said, “The way I like to ask is tell me why I’m wrong.” “Okay. That’s fine too.” You’ve got to ask in a way that works for you and crucially for the person who you’re talking to.

So for example, I started this company Just Work with Jason Rosoff. And after we had worked together for a little bit, Jason said to me, “You know, Kim, I hate your go-to question. It’s too open ended. It makes me nervous.” And so, I’ve had to adjust it for him and ask him more specifically about a meeting that I was in. Did I interrupt him too much or whatever I did? Tell him what I’m working on and give him more time bounded.

So come up with your go-to question. If all you do today is write down what are the words that are going to come out of your mouth? This will be a really great use of your time. Okay. So there’s three more parts to soliciting feedback.

Alex Cleanthous:

Okay. Well, let me just kind of just say the one point then, right?

Kim Scott:

Okay.

Alex Cleanthous:

So then it seems like for most leaders they will have like their one-on-one. So this could be, like is this something that they would have as kind of the beginning of their one-on-ones once a month? Is that how it would work? Would it be done separately? How would you advise, where should they be using this question and how often?

Kim Scott:

Yes. So I recommend at the end of your one-on-one. And I recommend that you have a one-on-one with everybody once a week. So that’s the answer. If you’re someone’s manager and you have a one-on-one with them, you want them to set the agenda. You don’t want to set the agenda. You want the other person coming to you with their thoughts, their ideas, their new, the things they want to create, whatever’s on their mind is the main agenda of your one-on-one. But you want to save five minutes at the end to solicit feedback.

Another good, really good moment in time to solicit feedback is when the other person is mad at you, because people are more likely to tell you what they really think when they’re mad, but if you’re like me, like if somebody’s mad at me, it’s my instinct to avoid them. And so, you want to sort of challenge that instinct in yourself and try to be willing to talk to people, as long as you yourself, if I’m furious, then it’s better for me to avoid that person, because I’m going to wind up in obnoxious aggression in that case.

Alex Cleanthous:

So what are the other three things that you were going to say now?

Kim Scott:

Okay. So now you’ve asked your question. The bad news: no matter how good a question you come up with, the other person is still going to be uncomfortable. The other person is still not going to want you. You want to put them on the spot with your question, and then you want to embrace the discomfort. And you want to make sure that you just close your mouth and count to six. I only made it to three just there. And I can tell you were about to jump in and say-

Alex Cleanthous:

No. I was… No. Because I knew that was a test, so I’m not going to talk now.

Kim Scott:

You passed the test. But most people will not pass the test. Most people will say something. Six seconds is a really long time. So now you’ve dragged this poor soul out on a conversational limb they never wanted to go on. They’ve said something. Now comes part number three. You want to listen with the intent to understand, not to respond, because even though you just asked for feedback, when you get it, you’re going to feel a little bit defensive.

And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a lesser mortal. It doesn’t mean you’re shut down to feedback. It just means you’re a human being. So you want to extend yourself a little grace that you felt defensive, but at the same time, you want to manage that defensiveness.

And so, the best way I know of to manage your defensiveness is to be prepared to either repeat back what you think you heard or to ask some follow on questions. So for example, my daughter said to me recently, “Mom, I wish you weren’t the radical candour lady.” And immediately this huge wave of parental guilt washed over me. I thought, “Oh, I’m spending too much time at work.” And then, I felt defensive, but I’ve tried.

And then, I thought, “Well, I should pause and ask a follow up question and make sure I understood what she’s trying to tell me.” And so I said, “Well, who do you wish I were?” And she said, “I wish you were the lady who minded her own business.” So it was a totally different form of fact. I could spend more time at work, in fact, as far as she was concerned. So you want to make sure you’re listening with the intent to understand.

And then, last but not least, you want to reward the candour when you get it. And that means if you agree with the feedback, you want to fix the problem and ask the person, “Did I go too far? Did I go not far enough?” And if you disagree with the feedback, and this is really important, because I think a big reason why people don’t solicit feedback is they don’t know what to do when they disagree with it.

And so, what’s the radically candid way to deal with feedback that you’ve just solicited that you disagree with? The first thing to do is to demonstrate that you’re not defensive by looking for that 5% or 10% of what the person said that you can agree with and give voice to that. And then, the next thing that you want to do is you want to say, “Can I get back to you?” And have an honest open conversation with him about why you disagree or respectfully, not in a bullying way.

And at some point, you’ve got to listen, challenge, commit. You can’t argue endlessly, but at least the other person, at least you’ve made your listening tangible. The other person has been heard.

Alex Cleanthous:

That was awesome, by the way. And I think for all of the leaders out there, I think like at any stage of their career, this is going to be super valuable, right? So check the transcript and have a look at this part again and just take the notes down because like, that was just literally the guide to how you can start to be a better leader, right?

Kim Scott:

Yeah. Four simple things. Go-to question, you want to embrace the discomfort, you want to listen with the intent to understand, not to respond, and then you want to reward the candour. I’ll summarise in case you don’t have time to go back to the next.

Alex Cleanthous:

Perfect. Because everyone’s so busy these days.

Kim Scott:

Yes.

Alex Cleanthous:

So let’s jump to building and managing a team. Because a big part of the book Just Work now is kind of like how to avoid the biases and the prejudice and the discrimination and the bullying and everything in there that actually will stop the team from performing well, right?

Kim Scott:

Yes.

Alex Cleanthous:

So it’s like, because it’s such a big topic, right?

Kim Scott:):

Yes.

Alex Cleanthous:

Where did you get the idea for this second book, Just Work? So where did that idea come from? Let’s start with that, because that might give us some context of how to kind of lead the conversation. Yeah?

Kim Scott:

Sure. Absolutely. So if you write a book about feedback, you’re going to get a lot of it, and indeed I did. And so, the most valuable feedback I got came shortly after the book came out. I was giving a presentation at a tech company in San Francisco. And the CEO of that company is someone who I like and respect enormously. And one of two, few black women CEOs in tech or in any other sector, frankly.

And she pulled me aside when I finished giving the presentation. And she said, “Kim, I’m really excited about rolling out Radical Candour. I think it’s going to help me build the kind of culture I want.” But she said, “I got to tell you. It’s much harder for me to roll it out than it is for you.” And she explained to me that as soon as she would offer someone even the most compassionate, gentle criticism, she would get slimed with the angry black woman stereotype. And I knew this was true.

And as soon as she said it to me, I had sort of four revelations at the same time. The first was that I had not been the kind of colleague, the kind of upstander that I wanted to be, that I saw myself as. I had failed even to notice the extent to which she had shown up at every single meeting I had ever been at with her, unfailingly, cheerful, and pleasant, believe me in that period of time, she had what to be pissed off about at work as we all do, but she couldn’t show it. And I didn’t notice and didn’t help create a better environment for her.

So, one, I hadn’t been an upstander. I hadn’t intervened on her behalf. Two, I had been in denial about the kinds of things that were happening to me as a woman in the workplace. Kind of a hard thing for the author of a book about candour to admit that. But I had a hard time acknowledging to myself the extent to which I had been a victim of any form of workplace injustice.

And the third thing I realised was that even harder than coming to grips with my role as victim was coming to grips with my role as perpetrator. As a white woman in the workplace, I have sometimes caused harm to my colleagues who are not white. And that was something that was important for me to come to grips with.

And then, the fourth thing I realised was that as a leader, so these are roles we all play. We play the role of the observer, the upstander, the role of the victim, the role of the, or the person harm, the person who causes harm. And then, last but not least, the leader. And as a leader, I realised that I had not always created the kinds of environments in which everyone could just work, could both just in the justice sense of the word, and also just in terms of the just getting stuff done sense of the word.

And so, that was what really prompted me to write Just Work. And as you said, it feels like such a big monolithic problem. So one of the things I wanted to do was to break the problem down into its component parts so that we can fix the problem, so that it doesn’t feel so intractable. And so, one of the… You want to talk about biassed prejudice?

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah, please.

Kim Scott:

Okay.

Alex Cleanthous:

Well, yeah. I think the big one is kind of, how do we be aware of it? How does it happen without us even knowing? How does it affect the team? And how do we kind of start to change it, because maybe it doesn’t just change with the click of a finger, right? And so-

Kim Scott:

Yeah. No. It’s not going to change just because we want it to change. So to me, the thing that is most helpful is to break the problem down. And so, for me, the root causes of workplace injustice are biassed, prejudice, and bullying. And these three things we often conflate as though they’re the same thing. And they’re not. They’re very different and the responses need to be different. The way that we respond as upstanders or as people harmed by these things are different, and the way that leaders can respond are different.

So let me offer some super-fast definitions. Bias, I define as “not meaning it”. It’s usually unconscious and it’s not really a belief that we believe when we examine it, whereas prejudice is meaning it. This is a stereotype that we do believe that we’ll stand behind, whereas bullying is being mean with the intent to cause harm. And so, how can we respond?

First of all, how can we distinguish between the three? Because it’s not always totally clear. So I’ll give you, you want a bias story? I’ll tell you a bias story.

Alex Cleanthous:

I mean I want a story for all of them, actually, but yeah.

Kim Scott:

Okay. I’ll give you three stories to help distinguish-

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah, because I do think the words are very emotionally charged words.

Kim Scott:

Charged. Yes.

Alex Cleanthous:

But I think the practical element of them can happen super subtlely. Right?

Kim Scott:

Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous:

Like it can happen without you even knowing it’s happening, and it could be bullying, and you’re trying to be funny, right?

Kim Scott:

Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous:

And that it can happen super easy, right? So I’m super interested in unpacking it, because the words are big. But I think that everyone probably has something that they’re doing that they don’t even know they’re doing. So, yeah. The stories I think will be super helpful just to really get people understanding it a bit more.

Kim Scott:

Yeah. So one of my favourite examples of how an upstander can change bias in a situation comes from Aileen Lee who founded Cowboy VC. And she was going into a meeting with two colleagues who were men and she had the expertise that was going to win her team the deal. And so, they file in and Aileen sits in the middle of the table and her two colleagues sit to her left. And then, the other side comes and the first person sits across from the guy to Aileen’s left. The next guy sits across from the guy to his left, and then everybody else files on down the table, leading Aileen dangling by herself at the end.

And so, very often that’s how biassed manifests. It’s just in where we sit. The assumptions we make and where we sit. But Aileen was not to be deterred. She’s a determined person. And so, she started talking and when the other side had questions, they directed them at the two men who she was with. And not at her, even though she was the one talking. And it happened once, it happened twice, it happened a third time and her business partner stood up and he said, “I think Aileen and I should switch seats.”

And they did and the whole dynamic in the room changed. So that was all he had. That’s what I call an I statement. That was all he had to do to help the other side become aware of what they were doing and to stop doing it as soon as they became aware. And he did it for two reasons. One, was he cared about Aileen and he didn’t like seeing her get ignored, but two, he just wanted to win the deal and he knew that if he couldn’t get them to listen to her, they wouldn’t win the deal. And so, that is a simple example of an I statement that invites the other people and understands things from your perspective.

Alex Cleanthous:

This is for bias, right?

Kim Scott:

For bias. Yeah. This is sort of an I statement is a good response if you think what you saw was biased.

Alex Cleanthous:

Okay. So basically, so we’re talking about a bias and we’re saying, of course, so if you notice it, right? The first part is to notice the bias, but then to solve the bias is to say, “I…” And you finished that sentence. I think this should change. I think that something happened. How do you be aware of the biases? Because that’s a good story, but that’s a story of one thing that we see, where are the other things that we don’t? It’s not easy to see.

Kim Scott:

It’s unconscious.

Alex Cleanthous:

Right. It’s unconscious. Right.

Kim Scott:

So almost by definition, we don’t notice it when we… This is why I think, and this is something that leaders can do. Some people can become more self-aware and stop their biases that way. Most of us need other people to point them out to us. And so, one of the things that leaders can do, because I had to think a lot and talk to a bunch of people to get to that Aileen Lee story, because it doesn’t happen very often, more often than not nobody says anything.

And so, one of the things that leaders can do to help it become more likely that upstanders will stand up to bias will point it out is what I call to create a system of bias disruptors. And there’s three parts to bias disruptors. The first is you want a shared vocabulary. So what is everyone on the team going to say when they notice bias to flag it?

So some teams that Trier Bryant, my co-founder and I have some teams that we’ve worked with have used phrases from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Others have used, I don’t think you meant that the way it sounded. Others have just said, “Yo.” And so, as soon as somebody says, “Yo.” Everybody else knows that there is some bias. Trier recommended to me that we use a purple flag. So now I’ve bought these purple flags, and whenever someone on our team waves a purple flag, we know that it’s a friendly purple flag. And someone has said or done something that’s biassed.

So one, is just a shared vocabulary that makes it more natural for everyone to point it out when they notice it. The second thing is a shared norm about how to respond when your bias has been pointed out, because it’s one thing to point out someone else’s bias, but I don’t know about you, but I always feel profoundly ashamed when I realise I’ve said something or done something that’s biassed. And so, helping people move through that shame and respond productively instead of defensively is really important.

So basically, you get two choices, either thanks for pointing it out. I get it. I’ll try not to do it again or thank you for pointing it out, but I don’t know what I did wrong. Can you tell me after the meeting? And that second one is really hard, because now I’m doubly ashamed. I’m ashamed because I’ve harmed someone and I’m ashamed because I’m ignorant. I don’t even know what I did wrong. And so, that’s tricky.

And so, letting people know that that happens to all of us with some frequency and that there, you need to respond by you, I’m not going to tell anyone how to feel, not to feel ashamed, because you probably will feel ashamed, but you need to move through that shame and not let the shame sort of prevent you from responding well. So that’s the shared norm.

And then, the third part of the bias disruptor is that you need a shared commitment. And if you get to the end of a meeting and no bias has been disrupted, you need to pause and think about what you didn’t notice that you should have noticed. Why did people not feel comfortable pointing something out? Because there are so many different kinds of biases and we’re all learning together. And the more quickly we can point out, the faster we’ll learn and it doesn’t… The more often we do it, it’s not that big of a deal.

Alex Cleanthous:

So two questions quickly. First one is, so what are some of the biases that can happen because you said there’s a lot, but if you could just list a few of them? And the second part is how do the biases actually affect the team performance?

Kim Scott:

Yeah. So let me take the second question first. Unconscious bias often creates sort of an invisible tax on the team, because let’s say… I mean I don’t think you would do this. But let’s say you call me honey. And so, now you probably don’t mean any harm when you called me honey, but now I’m a little annoyed that you… I feel like, “Ah, is Alex taking me seriously?”

Alex Cleanthous:

So I didn’t call her honey, by the way, just for the record.

Kim Scott:

Yes. But now it’s like this thing in my mind and I’m not doing absolutely my best work or let’s say that you interrupt someone and that consistently the women on the team are being interrupted more than the men. And the more often it happens, the more irritating it is for the women on the team or they just shut down. And so now they’re not doing their best work, but also the team is not getting the best ideas out of the team.

There’s a lot of evidence that shows when everyone on a team participates roughly the same amount that the team performs better. And so, if you’re sort of consistently interrupting or shutting down some members of the team, it hurts that person but it also hurts the whole team’s performance. When we’re being biassed, we’re not respecting one another’s individuality and we’re not going to collaborate as well as a team. So that’s the problem.

So what are some examples of bias? I’ll give you some of the ones. So one of the things I did when I wrote Just Work, because I know that I exhibit bias like everyone. So I hired a bias buster. I hired someone to read through the book and to point out problematic language that I was using. And one of the things that you pointed out is that I tend to use sloppy site metaphors. So the first chapter of the book is now called, we can’t fix problems we refuse to notice. But at first it was, you can’t fix problems you don’t see.

And of course, I didn’t really mean physically see, I meant notice. And so, it was an ableist, sort of ableist language. And I knew that it was right, and I care about words, like words matter to me. So I wanted to use the right words. And I realised that I was probably frustrating one of the other editors of the book, who’s blind. One of the clearest thinkers I know who notices everything, but he’s blind.

And so, I really cared about fixing this. And I really thought I had fixed it. But when I turned the book in to the publisher, I thought, “Well, I should do a quick control find and make sure.” In a 350-page book, guess how many times I had used sloppy site metaphors?

Alex Cleanthous:

350?

Kim Scott:

  1. 99 times.

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah. Okay.

Kim Scott:

And so, I was shocked. So this can be, you really need to be persistent with yourself, be patient with yourself like I didn’t need… Self-laceration was not going to help solve the problem. But I did need to be persistent about my efforts to fix this problem. So that’s an example of biassed language.

Alex Cleanthous:

It seems that it is linked or it should be linked to your values, right? If there are things which you value, for example, like that you valued how that person actually was basically understanding the book and how that segment was understanding the book. And so, that kind of led you to be open to it, right? So it does seem to maybe start from what’s important to you, and that can then lead you to being courageous enough, I would say, to see —

Kim Scott:

To notice.

Alex Cleanthous:

… to notice how you are, right? Because it can often feel, maybe sometimes overwhelming to people like who are listening to think of all the possible things that they could have some bias in, but how do they know the place to start, right? Because like if you gave a list of all the possibilities, it would be like, “Whoa. Okay.”

Kim Scott:

It would be daunting. Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous:

It’d be daunting.

Kim Scott:

I will tell you that the bias buster who I hired gave me a list of eight words that I tend to use that I would be better off not using, that I needed to reexamine. And I’m kind of ashamed to admit this, but my first response was, “No word in the English language is safe.” And it was eight words. There’s like, I don’t know, 250,000 words. And so, it was a tiny fraction. So I think that this is why I like the notion of bias disruptors.

You don’t have to fix all the world’s problems all at once. You don’t have to make… And then, an exhaustive list of biassed terms would not be helpful. But what you do need to do is to be willing to hear about it when you’ve said something that bothered someone else, that harmed someone else in some way that reflected a stereotype that you don’t believe when you stop to consciously think about it. And so, if you’re willing to sort of take it as it comes, then it’s not that big of a deal.

Alex Cleanthous:

Okay. So it’s being open to it. So when it pops its head up, it will pop its head up, and if you’re open to it, then you’ll notice it. But if you’re not open to it, it will just be that defensive mode, right, that can happen?

Kim Scott:

Yeah. Absolutely. You want to notice you’re defensive… It’s natural. Like I wrote, in fact, about my defensive, no word is safe in the English language. I think it’s important to recognise that and not to sort of judge yourself or other people too harshly, but to recognise that this stuff is hard. I was working with a CEO, for example, and he was trying to stop, standing up in front of the whole company and saying, refer to everyone as guys, because the whole company was not guys. There were women who worked there, and people who were not binary who worked there.

And so, you wanted, he was really trying to say folks, or you all or whatever, but it took a long time. Some of these habits are deeply ingrained. And so, a word that I say that I really am trying not to say is crazy. And so, you want to-

Alex Cleanthous:

Why?

Kim Scott:

Well, because usually what I mean is something more specific and it’s not really fair to people who struggle with mental illness legitimately. It tends to conflate people who are being irrational or people who are being super aggressive with mental illness. And those things are very different things. And so, again, I mean look, I’m a writer-

Alex Cleanthous:

So being careful with language is really, really important, right?

Kim Scott:

Words really matter.

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah. Being specific with what you mean and not trying to find a word that summarises everything into how you would see it. And this is a conversation to have with my friend. Sometimes he says a word and like, I really don’t know what you mean by that word. Could you use a few more words please? And it’s a bit lazy sometimes with language, you know?

Kim Scott:

Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous:

And then, he says it. I’m like, “Wow. I wouldn’t have got that from what you said. That word didn’t match that sentence at all.”

Kim Scott:

Yeah. I mean it’s a helpful thing in communication to question one another’s words, to try to be a little more precise.

Alex Cleanthous:

This conversation is going very quickly for me, but I am just noticing time is flying. So I’m going to try and just cover a few more points in the time I have left. But you talked about prejudice as a more conscious conversion of bias. Like could you talk about that like a bit more or just explain a little bit more?

Kim Scott:

Sure. So a great way to explain this is in a story that Trier Bryant, my co-founder tells. She was in a hiring meeting and everyone who had interviewed all of the candidates agreed that the best candidate for the job was a black woman who had worn her hair out naturally. And the hiring manager said, “Well, we can’t extend an offer to this candidate.”

And she said, “Well, why not?” And she said, “Well, we can’t put that hair in front of the business.” And believe me, nowhere in the job requirements was hair. And so, this was… She was very consciously defending her decision, her prejudice about this candidate’s hair.

And so, this is where an it statement is helpful. And it statement can appeal to the law, it can appeal to an HR policy, or it can appeal to… So it is illegal, which it was in the state where they were working not to hire someone because of their hair or it is an HR violation not to hire someone because of their hair, which it was at that company or it is ridiculous not to hire the most qualified candidate because of their hair, like what is wrong with you?

And so, that is what is useful, a useful response to prejudice when you notice it. And very often you’re not sure what to say. And so, my recommendation is start with the word it and see what comes out of your mouth next. And other times though, there’s no belief at all. It’s just bullying that is happening. The person’s just being mean.

And so, in those cases, I think your statement is the right response. You can’t talk to me like that or something along the lines of, what’s going on for you here? And I learned this from my daughter. She was in third grade and she was getting bullied on the playground. And I was advising her, as her teachers had advised her to say to this kid, “I feel sad when you blah-blah-blah-blah.”

And my daughter banged her fist on the table. And she said, “Mom, he’s trying to make me feel sad, why would I tell him he succeeded?” And I thought, “That is a really good point.” And so, the idea of a you statement is you’re no longer in the submissive role vis-a-vis, the bully. You’re sort of saying, “You can’t…” You’re pushing back. “You can’t talk to me like that, or what’s going on for you here?” Even just change the subject. “Where’d you get that shirt?”

So now they’re answering your questions and you’ve created kind of a consequence. And if you’re the leader and you notice bullying occurring, it’s your job to create consequences for bullying, because bullying works for the bully, but it’s bad for the collective efforts of the team. And part of your job as a leader is to optimise for collaboration. And so, you want to create either conversational consequences or don’t give, you want to create compensation consequences, you don’t want to give them bonuses or career conversations. You don’t want to promote your bullies, for example.

There’s a point I joke in every company’s history when the assholes begin to win. And that’s the point when the company begins to fail I think. So you want to make sure the culture goes toxic, failure often takes a little while longer to manifest.

Alex Cleanthous:

So with bullying, it’s obvious that I don’t think any company wants it, and the overt examples of it are obviously obvious. I mean that was a weird statement, but they’re obvious. Right? But are there like the less obvious versions of it where it doesn’t look like bullying, but maybe it is, but because of how the person’s actually feeling or is that more prejudice? I’m just trying to understand where it could be bullying, but potentially like it’s not easy to see.

Kim Scott:

Yeah. I think one example is what I call the bloviating bullshitter. And so, this is the person who… Am I allowed to curse?

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah. You could curse. You could curse.

Kim Scott:

So I should have asked in the beginning.

Alex Cleanthous:

No. No. It’s fine. Curse away.

Kim Scott:

So there’s often this person who comes into a meeting and takes way more than their fair share of the air time. They talk… There’s 10 people in the meeting and this one person talks 50% or 60% of the time. And that is, so often that person gets rewarded for dominating. And what should happen is they should be tamped down. And often that person doesn’t intend that. They don’t think they’re being a jerk. They think they’re making a great contribution.

And more times than not, that person is not underrepresented. Because if you do that as a woman or a person who’s not white on a team, then you tend to, you do tend to get shut down, whereas if you waltz in and you are, you look like the management team of your company, then you tend to get rewarded. And so, I think that’s an example of a kind of bullying where it’s not necessarily intending harm, but it causes harm. And it’s taking advantage of over representation. So that’s one example.

There are other times when people don’t intend to act like jerks, they don’t, but they do act like jerks. And they do harm others. And so, they are mean without meaning to be mean. And it’s really important for that person, as well as for the person that they’re harming to point out this behaviour so they can stop it.

Alex Cleanthous:

Is that what condescending is? Is that like a version of bullying to condescend someone?

Kim Scott:

Yes.

Alex Cleanthous:

Because that is something that people can just do without even knowing they’re doing it, but if someone’s watching it, you can see it happening. It doesn’t feel comfortable to see it, but that person who is doing it sometimes doesn’t even know like… Is that a version of it?

Kim Scott:

Yeah. Absolutely. And I think condescension is a version of something that managers tend to do without realising. They think, “Ah, I’m in charge.” And then, they start to behave differently towards people than they did before they became managers. I mean another version of it is very often people who have power feel more comfortable physically approaching and getting close to others.

And that can be a form of bullying as well. Usually, unintended sometimes, sometimes intended. And sometimes it goes all the way to, one of the things I talk about in the book is you get bias, prejudice, and bullying. And then, when you layer power on top, bias and prejudice become discrimination, sort of bullying plus power becomes harassment, and physical touch plus power, whether it’s positional or you’re just physically larger becomes sort of a physical violation.

And so, you want to make sure that you’re taking care to create checks and balances on power in your organisation so that you don’t get discrimination.

Alex Cleanthous:

Okay. So the people that are listening, and they’re hearing this and they’re like, “Well, I don’t want this in my company. And I’m a leader, and so I don’t want this in my team.” She just said a lot of stuff. And obviously everybody should go to buy the book, right?

Kim Scott:

Yes. Buy the book, read the book.

Alex Cleanthous:

Well, in terms of high level stuff, what are some things that the listeners can do today or like the few things to get them started? Because it does feel like a very large topic. It feels like we’re trying to climb a huge mountain. What’s the base camp? What’s the first thing —

Kim Scott:

Yeah. Base camp I think are the biassed disruptors. So get your team comfortable disrupting each other. Disrupting, start with yourself. Get them comfortable disrupting your biases at the very least. And if they can do it for you, they’re much more likely to do it for each other as well. In terms of preventing prejudice from manifesting on your team, you really want to think about having sort of a code of conduct that explains to everyone there’s a line and on one side of the line is everyone’s freedom to believe whatever they want. And on the other side of the line they’re not free to impose their beliefs on others. They’re not free to do or say…

And every team, every company draws that line in a slightly different place. And so, the more explicit you can be about where that line is the better. And then, in terms of bullying, you want to make sure you’re, again, creating these consequences for bullying. That you’re not promoting the brilliant jerk on your team, that you’re not giving people a big bonus for achieving results, but harming the rest of the team. That you’re learning how to shut down the bloviating bullshitter in the meeting so that everybody has a chance to talk.

So those are three things that leaders can do. Bias, disruptors, create a code of conduct and create consequences for bullying. That will really begin to chip away at these problems.

Alex Cleanthous:

And I think that’s really, the second book is like a really good addition to the first book, because the first book could be like, “Well, I’m just being candid, right?”

Kim Scott:

Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous:

And actually —

Kim Scott:

And no, you’re actually being jerk going against-

Alex Cleanthous:

… maybe you’re being biassed, maybe being… So I think it is a good combination. And that takes you more to the caring part of it, right?

Kim Scott:

Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous:

You’ve got the challenge side, talked about, but this goes into the caring side and actually trying to understand how everyone actually experiences the workplace. And especially now where everything’s on Zoom and starting to become like a lot more decentralised and global. Be careful having a team that’s overseas and trying to make a joke that you think’s funny and it’s not funny. It can kind of happen without you even knowing it, because of how things are changing in the world.

Kim Scott:

Yeah. And-

Alex Cleanthous:

Is that a fair statement to say?

Kim Scott:

Absolutely. I mean the core thing is to be open to learning about it. To take a growth mindset. I think very often, Carol Dweck wrote this great book Mindset, and it’s very, it’s sort of hard to have a growth mindset, even about math skills. To relish, getting the problem wrong, because you’re learning something. It’s even harder to have a growth mindset around these issues, because it feels like when I realise that I’ve said or done something that is biassed, it feels like my morality is being judged.

Well, let’s end this with words of wisdom from my son’s baseball coach. He said to the kids on the team, “You can’t do right if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong.” And so, all of us want… I’m going to assume, not all of us, but the vast majority of us want to do right. And so, we’ve got to be willing to learn what we’re doing wrong if we want to do right.

Alex Cleanthous:

Kim, what a great conversation. That flew by. We just touched the surface in terms of the content that’s in the books. And so, for the people that are listening, you have to get her books about this topic, called Just Work. And obviously, you probably already have the Radical Candour, but if not, check it out. You just got a small little taste of the content in there, but the book goes into a lot more detail with a lot more information and frameworks, but lots of different outcomes.

Kim, if there’s one thing that you wanted the listeners of this show to do — a site, to visit somewhere, to subscribe, anything, what would you want them to do?

Kim Scott:

Go to Just Work Together, and there’s a place on the site where it’s justworktogether.com, where you can submit your story. I think the more we are able to tell our stories about bias, prejudice, and bullying, the more we’re able together to, to really create change in the workplace, and to be able to just work in the sense of justice and also getting stuff done.

Alex Cleanthous:

Kim, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. This has been like a very enlightening discussion. And I think it’s going to help a lot of the ladies in the world just to improve how they lead, including myself. So thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.

Kim Scott:

Thank you so much. Really enjoyed the conversation.

Alex Cleanthous:

Awesome. Thanks for listening to the Growth Manifesto Podcast. If you enjoy the episode, please give us a five star rating on iTunes. For more episodes, please visit growthmanifesto.com/podcast. If you need help driving growth for your company, please get in touch with us at webprofits.io.

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