There was a problem. Please try again.
Thank you!

This post is by Kim Scott (@kimballscott), Co-founder and CEO of Radical Candor, Inc., former Google and Apple exec, and advisor to Twitter, Dropbox, Shyp and others. Her first post on Radical Candor went viral last fall. Here, she looks at the topic from a new angle.

In honor of International Women’s Day yesterday, I want to explore why gender issues make it harder for both men and women to be candid at work, and to suggest some ideas for addressing the problem. Here’s the short version:

Gender politics and fear of tears push men away from being as radically candid with women as they are with other men. This is bad for men, women and the truth. Gender bias pushes women away from being radically candid in a way that is also bad for men, women and the truth.

Before I unpack these statements, tell a few stories and suggest some solutions, I’ll explain 'Radical Candor' briefly.

Radical Candor

The difficulty of being candid is NOT a gender issue. Everyone has a hard time with it. Last November, I gave a talk at The First Round CEO Summit describing Radical Candor, which is the ability to give feedback in a way that challenges people directly, and at the same time shows you care about them personally.

Radical Candor is rare because criticizing employees can feel brutal, and praising them can feel patronizing. But praise and criticism are, as Ben Horowitz, the venture capitalist, once put it in his blog on management, “The unnatural atomic building block atop which the unnatural skill set of management gets built.” Giving praise and criticism is just the beginning. Great bosses must also get it — especially criticism — from employees, and encourage it between them too.

While analyzing why praise and criticism are such “unnatural acts” for most people, I found there are two especially common reasons:

That’s why being radically candid is hard. One of the best ways to make it easier is to remind people what happens when they fail to care personally and challenge directly.

Obnoxious Aggression is what happens when you challenge, but don’t care. Ruinous Empathy is what happens when you care, but don’t challenge — and 80% of management mistakes happen as a result of Ruinous Empathy, in my experience. Finally, worst but also fortunately comparatively rare, is Manipulative Insincerity  when you neither care nor challenge.

I’ve boiled this down to a framework with four quadrants:

How does gender play out in each of these quadrants? Let’s take a closer look.

Why Gender Politics & Fear of Tears Makes Radical Candor Harder for Men

I was recently talking to a physics professor whose student didn’t know the quadratic equation. (I don’t remember it from high school algebra either, but I’m not majoring in physics.) Stunned, and wondering how she’d gotten this far with such a gaping hole in her knowledge, the professor told her she needed to learn it immediately. Furious at the criticism, she slammed him in his rating as a teacher.

This didn’t start out as a gender issue but it became one. The initial problem was that this young person, like so many others, was unused to criticism — a phenomenon explored well in an Atlantic article I like, The Coddling of the American Mind. But the professor's colleagues, many of them well-meaning men trying to be sensitive to gender issues, somehow made the rift into one. Suddenly, telling a student majoring in physics that she needed to learn the quadratic equation became a risky thing for professors at this institution to do.

This situation was bad for the student who didn’t learn what she needed to know to succeed. And it was bad for all the female students this professor taught after her. Understandably, he became more hesitant to criticize the work of his female students than his male students. But to grow in their field, these young women, like their male counterparts, needed his criticism. The situation wasn’t much fun for the professor either. Real teaching — the reason why he’d chosen his profession — became risky.

This scenario illustrates a trend that's creating a perfect storm in higher education — and blowing through all companies where millennials are working today:

The trend is not to criticize or even to expose people to facts that might be perceived as “disturbing” from history or literature or any other field. Combine that with gender politics, and learning takes a real hit. Will the tone of the current "campus conversation" (or lack thereof) backfire and reduce mentorship and learning for women? I’m focusing on gender in this article, but there are important parallels in race — and anytime relationships cross group boundaries.

The strange case of the quadratic equation is extreme, but milder examples happen every day, and not just with college students, but with middle-aged people working at companies that pride themselves on being data-driven.

Recently, I was talking to a close male friend who’s an engineering leader about the issue of women in tech. I suggested he ask a woman who works for him — a person whose career he's supported and nurtured for years — what she thought. He looked up at me with real surprise. “I can’t talk to her about that! It’s too fraught,” he said.

This came from a man who's not just unbiased but truly sensitive to bias and determined to stamp it out. He catches things even I miss. So if he can’t have a radically candid conversation about gender issues with a woman he knows well, we’ve hit a real low. But the problem is not him, nor the woman who works for him. I know them both, and I'm pretty sure that the conversation would’ve gone well. It's that the swirl around gender issues has everybody walking on eggshells.

Another male colleague recently got caught in a firestorm by making an important and logical point about gender in the workplace. Phrases he used got taken out of context and blown up in the press and throughout social media. This is another man who’s committed to treating everyone he works with fairly, and regularly throws extra energy into fostering the careers of his female colleagues. But after this kerfluffle, he decided he wasn’t going to talk about gender publicly any more. I couldn’t blame him. But it was another blow to Radical Candor and to civil discourse on an important topic where he was, for my money, on the right side.

We must stop gender politics.

Some Thoughts on the Fear of Tears

Of course, it’s not always politics that cause a man to pull his punches with a female colleague. Just as often, it’s his fear that she might cry if he criticizes her. I recently heard a story about a woman who interviewed for a job with a man who’s legendary for being tough. Before he offered her the job, he asked her, “Do you promise you won’t cry no matter what I say to you?”

Bravo to him for being so open about his fears. But perhaps a little analysis could’ve helped him overcome them. First, men cry too. I recall two people who worked for me crying after I gave them feedback. One was a man, the other a woman.

Second, if you tell somebody they can’t cry, it becomes almost inevitable they will cry, and impossible for them to stop. (It’s like Tolstoy’s brother telling him he couldn’t leave the corner of the room until he quit thinking about a white bear. The white bear occupied Tolstoy’s mind for hours.)

Third, it’s not your fault when someone does cry. You can’t control another person’s emotions.

Four, it's not a disaster if they cry. You won’t melt (and neither will they). As a wise man once said to me, “I never heard of anyone dying from crying.”

People I’ve managed or coached have often come to me distraught after somebody started crying. “What should I have done differently?” they ask. Maybe they handled the situation perfectly. Just because somebody's crying doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. It just means they're upset. Your job is not to prevent tears — it’s to react kindly if crying occurs.

Why Gender Bias Makes Radical Candor Harder for Women

Political correctness and a fear of tears are not the only problems. Gender bias is a fact of life, and it’s worth looking at how it pushes women away from Radical Candor, which hurts them, as well as the men they work with.

If gender politics makes it difficult for men to be radically candid with women, gender bias makes it difficult for women to be radically candid with both men and women.

Gender bias is tricky because women can also be biased. I took the IAT gender bias test with the two men I mentioned above. I was more biased than either one of them.

One common bias women fall prey to and perpetrate: 'The Abrasive Trap.'

Here’s my personal experience with the Abrasive Trap. One day, my boss called me into his office and asked me if I was familiar with recent competence / likeability literature. I wasn’t, and he explained point blank that the more competent a woman is, the less her colleagues tend to like her. There were a couple of people I worked with who simply found me unlikeable, and it was making my boss’s life harder. He asked: could I work on my “likeability”?

It was painful to hear that my colleagues didn’t like me, and I didn’t really agree with my boss’s approach. I thought he should address the gender bias, not tell me to work around it by making nice with people who resented my competence. But I loved the work I was doing. I was close friends with the men sitting in the offices to the right and left of me. And, in my heart, I knew I could in fact be obnoxiously aggressive sometimes.

I don’t know anyone in a leadership position who doesn’t fall into that quadrant a little more often than they’d like to. Plus, I had a good idea who it was who didn’t like me and why the situation was driving my boss nuts. So I went and made peace with them.

I was pretty sure I’d fixed the problem when my boss called me into his office once more. He said things were better, but he had an idea that would totally put the issue to rest. I was all ears. His suggestion? A demotion for me. That way, he explained, my colleagues would not be so jealous of my position. That would would make it easier for me to be more “likeable.” Less than three weeks later, I found another, better job and quit.

I was lucky. It all turned out fine. This happened late enough in my career that I had lots of other options. If it had happened earlier, though, I might have accepted the demotion along with the bitterness that came with it. Or I might have quit without the benefit of other job offers and been set back in my career.

A while ago Kieran Snyder, a linguist and co-founder of Textio, applied linguistic analysis to performance reviews, and she found that when women challenge men or women directly — which they must do to be successful — they get penalized for being “abrasive.” (That word actually comes up verbatim a lot.) To be sure, the abrasive label gets placed on women by other women as well as by men.

Snyder wrote an article about her findings for Fortune, which sparked some of the longest, most impassioned email threads I’ve seen at several companies that I advise. Another story on Snyder’s research was Fast Company’s No. 1 leadership article of 2014. Why did this article strike such a nerve? Every professional woman I know has many, many stories of being called some version of “abrasive,” or of being disliked for being too aggressive — and of paying the price professionally.

Let’s examine an abstract case, and show why the “abrasive” label holds women back and contributes to fewer female leaders, even in organizations that start out with a 50-50 gender balance. Take Snyder’s example of two colleagues who perform at the same high level. Here's the feedback they received from their reports:

These comments will translate into performance ratings, and the ratings will affect promotions. Let’s assume that Jessica gets a slightly lower rating than Steve as a result of her so-called “abrasiveness.” Not such a big deal in a given quarter, perhaps. But a series of lower ratings will eventually cost Jessica a promotion. And even if the ratings aren’t lower, selection for promotion and leadership roles depend heavily on “likeability.”

When bias plays out over a whole organization, the impact on female leadership is profound.

Researchers ran a simulation of what happens to promotions over the course of several years when bias impacts ratings just a little bit. When gender bias accounts for just 5% of the difference in performance ratings, an organization that starts out with 58% of the entry level positions filled by women winds up with only 29% of the leadership positions filled by women.

Of course, that’s only part of the story. Let’s look at what happens to Jessica personally over the course of her career, not just the leadership composition of her company. If she’s early in her career, she’ll probably get promoted eventually despite her alleged “abrasiveness,” but now she’s a year or so “behind” Steve. Fast forward another 5 to 7 years. Now Steve is two levels ahead of Jessica. Since pay increases steeply with each promotion, he may be getting paid a lot more than Jessica is paid. If Steve and Jessica are married, and they have a child, guess whose career is more important for family income, and who’s more likely to stay home from work when the baby is sick?

But that’s not even the worst-case scenario for Jessica. Let’s imagine that she takes the “abrasive” feedback to heart and quits challenging her reports directly. She adjusts her behavior so that she's less effective at work. Instead of being “radically candid,” her feedback is always “ruinously empathetic” or “manipulatively insincere.” This makes her less effective as a leader. So now, in addition to gender bias, there are real performance issues to contend with. In this case, Jessica is never going to get ahead. Frustrated beyond measure and feeling that she must choose between being liked and being successful, she decides that this is not a game worth playing — and quits.

Some version of this has happened to literally every professional woman I know. We must stop this madness, too.

What Can We Do?

These issues have gotten too hot to handle. Men — even the men who genuinely care about addressing gender bias — have understandably decided it’s not worth the risk to talk about anything remotely related to gender. The risk doesn’t come from the women they work with. It sometimes comes from other men who stir the pot in an effort to use gender issues to advance their careers. It sometimes comes from an overzealous HR department. It sometimes comes from the law, which can so often be an ass. It sometimes comes from the swirl of social media, or a one-sided story in the press — these stories are too often low-hanging fruit for reporters looking for something brainless and juicy. Context matters, and the context of gender politics and gender bias has become untouchable, to everyone's detriment.

We need to figure out how to cool it down. It doesn’t need to be so bad. I have a few thoughts on how individuals can take action to help calm things down where they work on a daily basis.

Tears: Some simple coping mechanisms.

Emotion can be a shortcut to the heart of the matter. Often when somebody is frustrated or angry or upset enough about a situation at work that they start to cry, this is your cue to keep asking questions until you understand what the real issue is. Don’t avoid the emotion. React to it with kindness, but also use it to better understand what’s really going on.

At the same time, all this emotion can be exhausting. Here are some techniques for keeping things on an even keel:

Men: Don’t “pull punches” with women.
Women: Demand criticism.

If you're a man who’s worried you might be pulling his punches with female employees because you're wary of gender politics or afraid she’ll cry, it can be helpful to become aware of how the woman feels about your feedback. Even if you’re not worried about this, it’s good to be more aware of how others feel about your feedback. You may not even be aware you’re going easy on some people and not others.

Similarly, if you're a woman who’s worried your male boss is hesitant to criticize your work, it can be helpful to make him aware that you want more feedback. Three suggestions here — they're designed to work well for either of you:

Things to think about when telling a woman she is “too aggressive.”

Before you give feedback like that, try these tactics to make sure you’re not falling into the competence/likeability trap:

Things to think about if you’re a woman who’s being told "you’re too aggressive."

Similarly, before you react to feedback that you’re too aggressive/abrasive/etc., consider the following four rules of thumb:

SLOW DOWN and talk to others.

My advice for managers, male or female, when giving “you’re aggressive/abrasive” feedback to a woman, and also for women getting that sort of feedback, is to SLOW DOWN and get an outside perspective. This is a classic case where thinking fast, to borrow Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, may trip you up. Silence your lizard brain and use your higher-level problem-solving skills.

The lizard brain is powerful. It overwhelms both intelligence and love at times.

When I told my father about my boss who offered me a demotion as a way to avoid the competence/likeability trap, he asked me what I meant. I described for him the now infamous Harvard Business School case of Heidi/Howard Roizen, in which a business professor gave two different classes of students the same case study about the real life actions of real life entrepreneur Heidi Roizen — but changed the gender of the protagonist for one of the classes.

When he surveyed students, they thought that Heidi and Howard were equally competent, but that Heidi was a bitch and Howard was a great guy. (My words!) My father replied, “Yeah, I know what you mean, I work with a lot of women who are just more aggressive than they need to be.” Now, my father is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, and he’s supported my ambitions and my career every step of the way, starting with taking me out to look at the stars through a telescope every night when I was 10 and wanted to be an astronaut. But neither his intelligence nor his love for me nor his desire to see me succeed were strong enough to silence that lizard brain. He still fell kersplat into the competence/likeability trap. I explained it to him again, though, and we both had a good laugh.

I've certainly been accused of obnoxious aggression, and it’s hard to know when it's gender bias talking or when I’ve actually been obnoxious. If it’s gender bias talking, I need to reject the feedback, put on my thick skin suit and power through. If I’ve actually been obnoxiously aggressive, I need to change my behavior. But it’s rarely clear at first which situation is which. The best way to distinguish between the two is to talk to people — to get an outsider’s perspective.

Furthermore, I have to imagine that it would be hard for the boss of a woman like me, especially if he’s a man, to criticize me for being too aggressive without fearing that he just stepped on a landmine. Again, the best way out is to slow down, socialize the situation and issues at hand, and see what other people think.

If you don’t have anyone to talk to about avoiding the competence/likeability trap, here are four ideas:

When my boss offered me the demotion, he might have been fired if I’d tried to involve others from the company in the situation. I didn’t want him to be fired — but I did want him to understand how wrong the way he handled the situation was. I also wanted him to do better with other female employees.

It would've been great if we could have had a confidential conversation with some neutral third party. Not a mediator, because I didn’t want anything from him, but just a person who could have helped us understand one another. I’m not sure what exactly this would look like, but I’d love to figure it out. Any volunteers? If you’re interested, send me a note at Kim at radicalcandor dot com. Or visit my website to see how others are approaching the conversation.

Recommended Articles