Why Leading a Remote Team Requires Radical Candor

How to build better relationships with your team when everyone’s stressed out and miles away

A woman closing her eyes in thought while sitting in front of her laptop at home.
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WWhether you run a company, lead a team, or just find yourself navigating the challenges of working with others at a moment of uncertainty and social distance, it’s obvious why it’s important to care personally about your colleagues now more than ever.

But caring is only one half of the formula we need to keep our teams and organizations functioning. If we are to not only endure but prevail in these times, we need to know how to challenge one another, too.

Teams everywhere are facing unprecedented challenges, and it’s tempting not to share scary information when there is already so much bad news.

Radical Candor” is what happens when you care personally and challenge directly at the same time. It’s easy to fall into the trap of ignoring one of these at the expense of the other, or feel the temptation to withdraw into ourselves and do neither.

No one wants to pile on during an already bleak time; but allowing problems to go unaddressed will only result in much bigger problems in the future, when you may be even less equipped to deal with them. Even in difficult times, you need to avoid ruinous empathy to be willing to challenge directly. At the same time, challenging your colleagues without showing compassion manifests as obnoxious aggression. This can be a natural reaction when stress levels are high and things are as unpredictable as they are right now. But acting like a jerk just increases stress levels and doesn’t help solve problems.

Failing both to care and to challenge is the worst place to land — and also an all too human response to a crisis. When every day brings new and unexpected emotional and practical challenges, you can feel overwhelmed and pull into your shell. Teams everywhere are facing unprecedented challenges, and it’s tempting not to share scary information when there is already so much bad news. Fight the temptation to shut down your feelings for others and your willingness to be honest about problems that need to be addressed.

Radical Candor is the approach that allows us to get on the same page about what we can and can’t do right now, where mistakes are being made and how to fix them without causing the kind of upset and offense that creates drama and slows things down. By combining the exercise of compassion with a willingness to challenge, this technique will help you do your best work and build strong relationships.

Here’s what that looks like in practice, particularly at a time of uncertainty and physical distance:

1. Care personally by checking in with your teammates.

For people lucky enough to be able to work from home, you’re probably spending a lot of time on video calls. Take a couple of minutes at the beginning of these meetings to check in. This means the first thing on the agenda is asking how everyone is doing and giving people the opportunity to show each other support. When you know what’s going on with the people on your team, you can better interpret why someone might be sharp or short, why a deadline is going to be missed.

Check-ins also foster personal connection that makes honesty easier, creating a virtuous cycle. The more connected people are, the more willing they are to say what they really think, the faster problems get resolved, and the less frustrated people are with one another. They share problems early rather than hiding them, and speak more freely when they disagree. They cut each other some slack and hold each other accountable at the same time. Mistakes are more easily forgiven — and corrected.

Be candid and clear about what you are going to do, and honest about what you are not going to do.

Many managers today are leading remote teams for the very first time. This can feel scary, but use this as an opportunity to deepen your relationship with each team member, rather than trying to exert control. I’ve heard of several managers insisting that employees install spyware on their computers so they can track their hours worked. Instead, use check-ins and one-on-ones to build relationships. That is an approach that erodes trust and breeds resentment. Trust is more effective than command and control.

2. Challenge each other directly to prioritize more, work less. Make a “proactive forbearance” list.

In addition to the stress that comes with having to adapt suddenly to remote work, people are distracted and stressed right now by a number of other factors, like homeschooling, loneliness, worrying about parents far away, or a fear of being laid off, not to mention the public health crisis itself. In a faltering economy, individuals and organizations are wondering how they will survive. It can be tempting to try to work more, even when that simply may not be realistic.

Challenge one another to reassess your goals and priorities. Be candid and clear about what you are going to do, and honest about what you are not going to do. Whole categories of nonessential work must be eliminated to give everyone the time to focus on what matters most — at home and at work. Crucial deadlines can be met only if you let go of lower-priority work. Creativity and innovation are more likely to flow when you are not overburdened and overstressed.

A McKinsey report explains that a major emerging concern of this crisis is that the “current mix of work from home and at-work social distancing… is driving stress and reducing productivity.” You can help reduce stress and improve productivity on your team by clearly identifying the work you’re not going to do.

On the team where I work, we have something we call the “proactive forbearance” list. This is a list of good ideas that we are not going to do so that we can focus on doing a few things really well. Our “proactive forbearance” list now includes a number of things that we used to consider critical. It allows us to be explicit about the things we are not going to do, and to feel good instead of guilty about not doing them.

3. Partnership works better than command and control or absentee management.

Managers must learn to be real thought partners in this crisis.

Managers who have low, almost nonexistent involvement in their team’s work are absentee managers. Some managers have responded to the Covid-19 crisis by going dark. This might stem from a fear of not wanting to micromanage. But even in the best of times, ignoring somebody is a terrible way to build a relationship, a terrible way to lead. People need support from their bosses now, more than ever. They need to reassess priorities, they need help adjusting to new realities.

If the boss is behaving badly, see them as a human being who is stressed out like you. Check in and show that you care. Then explain why their behavior is counterproductive.

On the flipside, bosses with extremely close involvement are micromanagers. Tracking direct reports’ every minute, and constantly scheduling Zoom meetings to manage work that could be done more efficiently asynchronously are just making it harder for people to get their work done and address the needs of their loved ones.

The best managers are thought partners, who empower, enable and encourage their teams to do the best work of their lives. Thought partners take the time to help each person on their team overcome obstacles, make good work even better — and to help them figure out what not to do.

One leader I coach leaves a Zoom channel for his team open all day, so that he’s available to his team whenever they need to discuss something. This is in addition to a daily stand — up that they do over the phone so that they can walk and talk. He decided to do a walking stand-up when several team members complained in the check-in that they had no time to exercise. He neither micromanages, nor is he absent — by checking in and being available, he is able to be a thought partner to his team.

4. Speak truth to power: leaders need feedback now more than ever.

It’s not only leaders who need to step up with compassion and honesty. If the boss is behaving badly, take a moment to see them as a human being who is stressed out like you. Check in and show that you care. Then explain why their behavior is counterproductive.

At Wistia, a video software company, CEO Chris Savage has worked hard to encourage all employees to offer critical feedback to management, including to him. This has created the kind of environment in which people feel comfortable sharing feedback even on painful topics they’d rather not touch, like racially unmindful comments. Chris said that practicing Radical Candor has now become more important than ever. “As we try to navigate these challenging times, we are all facing situations that require incredibly quick decision making and really clear communication. We need strong bonds of trust so that we can move quickly to help our families, friends, co-workers, customers, and community.”

If we respond to every interaction, no matter how small, with all the compassion and candor we can muster, our work and our lives will emerge from this crisis changed for the better.

Kim Scott is co-founder of two consulting companies based on her bestseller Radical Candor & her newest book, Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair.

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