Take a moment to consider these facts:
One in four black workers reports discrimination at work, according to Gallup.
Less than 5% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies are women
Nearly 20% of the American workforce experiences bullying
These startling statistics underscore the racial, social, and gender disparities in our modern workplaces. And over the past year, such injustices have been further highlighted by national events and tragedies.
Kim Scott, the author of the New York Times bestseller Radical Candor, experienced this moment as an opportunity to transform our communication, careers, and organizations.
Scott was a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and other major tech companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led AdSense, YouTube, and DoubleClick teams at Google.
Her first book, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, revolutionized the way organizations give feedback. She brought empathy, awareness, and compassion to a taboo and fearful topic for managers, leaders, and direct reports alike.
Now she is back with a new book Just Work: Get Sh*t Done Fast and Fair, which shows how we can recognize, attack, and eliminate workplace injustices to both respects everyone’s individuality and collaborate effectively.
Melody Wilding: What inspired you to write Just Work as a follow-up to Radical Candor?
Kim Scott: When you write a book about feedback, you’re going to get a lot of feedback. And I did. In fact, there was one thing in particular that people told me that really resonated, which is that it’s so much easier for overrepresented people to be radically candid than for underrepresented people.
For example, I was giving a Radical Candor workshop at a tech company in San Francisco. The CEO of that company was a former colleague of mine and one of two black women CEOs in tech. At the end of the workshop, she pulled me aside and said she loved the idea of radical candor and thought it would help her build the kind of culture she wanted. But then she pointed out that even when she would give the kindest, gentlest criticism, she would get slammed with the “angry black woman” stereotype. She also pointed out that she bets it’s a lot harder for me than it is for my husband, who’s a white engineer in Silicon Valley, and I knew this was true.
A few things struck me about this. First of all, I had known this woman for the better part of a decade and I realized suddenly that I had never seen her seem even the slightest bit annoyed even when she had plenty to be annoyed about. It had never really occurred to me the toll that must have taken on her to be endlessly cheerful, to not be allowed to be human with a full range of emotions. It made me realize that I had not been the kind of colleague that I wanted to be. I had been in denial about the kinds of things that were happening. Not only was I denying her reality, I was denying my own reality. So it really made me think, how can we create a better work environment so that we can all just work? That’s what most of us want to do, we want to do great work, and our bosses want us to do great work. Yet, something is getting in the way. I realized, I hadn’t really come to grips with what that something was in Radical Candor, thus, Just Work was born.
Wilding: Can you explain what the term “Just Work” means to you?
Scott: Just work happens when we organize and optimize for collaboration rather than coercion. After all, nobody really wants to be coerced at work, even most leaders don’t want to be coercive leaders. You want to optimize for collaboration while at the same time you want to optimize for respecting everyone’s individuality rather than demanding conformity. I think it’s sort of intuitive that we’re not going to innovate when we’re demanding conformity, yet, very often we do just that.
So what I tried to do in the book Just Work is to explain what moves us in the wrong direction in these two dimensions, what causes us to demand conformity, even when we were not really intending to, and what causes us to create coercive work environments, when what we really need is collaboration. The answer to that is largely workplace injustice. But we need to know how to break this down into its component parts so that we can figure out how to confront each one.
Wilding: In the book, you talk about types of workplace injustices. Can you tell us about each?
Scott: For me, I wanted to believe it was always about unconscious bias, that nobody ever really meant it. But sometimes you’re confronting an actual prejudice. Sometimes what you’re confronting is bullying. So to me, the root causes of workplace injustice are those three distinct attitudes and behaviors: bias, prejudice, and bullying. Each one demands a different confrontation.
If we’re going to figure out the most effective way to respond, if we’re going to prevent this from happening over and over, then there are three other things that happen when you layer power on top of bias, prejudice, and bullying. Bias and prejudice, plus power, yield discrimination. Bullying plus power yields harassment. Then sometimes there are physical violations, they usually happen because of a power imbalance, either physical or positional, those are physical violations.
In short, the six different attitudes and behaviors that combine to create workplace injustice are bias, prejudice, bullying, discrimination, harassment, and physical violations. And it’s really important to disentangle these things.
Wilding: How has our current situation with remote working and the pandemic shaped how these injustices show up? What can we do to deal with them?
Scott: The big thing that is on my mind is what happens when working parents have young kids at home. It’s much harder to get things done. What are we doing as leaders and as individuals to make sure that we are accommodating for people’s new realities?
Two things I recommend are when you’re in a Zoom meeting, you want to make sure that you’re asking people in the first couple of minutes what’s going on for everybody, how’s everybody doing, and give people a few minutes to talk about what’s going on for them. This may feel inefficient, but it’s actually not. Not only does it help you build better relationships with folks, it actually helps you be more efficient.
Somebody might be frustrated because they have a toddler in the next room about to explode, however, everybody else in the meeting thinks that that person’s mad at them or at the meeting. Encouraging people to not hide what’s going on at home, but to talk about it and to support each other is important.
I also think that one of the problems with Zoom is, is that you’re more likely to deal with unconscious bias over Zoom because the texture of real-life bonding is largely gone. You want to make sure to create opportunities, to really talk about what they’re interested in, what they care about, so that you can find those shared areas of interest and really notice each other’s full humanity.
Wilding: What are some actionable ways leaders and managers can make their workplaces more equitable?
Scott: In the case of bias, the thing that I recommend is bias interrupters. Trying to retrain unconscious bias by itself, it’s not going to change things. In fact, it can even be counterproductive because it can leave people with the impression there’s nothing they can do about it.
So what I recommend leaders do is create a phrase with their team. Get the team to come up with the words. Don’t impose words on your team, but have them come up with what you are going to say or do in a meeting when you observe bias, either a bias action or bias language.
The important thing about this language is that it’s something that everyone uses and you don’t want to put all the burden for responding to bias on the people who are harmed by it. Some teams like to throw a purple flag, they actually have props. Then the person, the person who just said the biased thing knows they’ve said something biased. A big part of this is just coming up with a shared vocabulary, but the second part is really important.
You need to make this response a norm, just make it a completely normal feeling process. This is important because when someone points out your bias to you, or at least when someone points out my bias to me, my first response is to feel ashamed or defensive. However when you create a norm of how to respond, basically it simplifies things into two options. You can acknowledge it, thank them, and say you won’t do it again. Or, if you don’t understand, it’s perfectly legitimate to say, “I don’t quite get it. Can we talk after the meeting?” Then the meeting goes on. The idea of the bias interrupters is that this should be happening in every single meeting that you have, but it should only take a second. Once you build stamina for these biased interrupters, they can happen they’ll help everyone to feel comfortable calling them out and still keep things moving in a productive manner.
With prejudice, leaders have to establish a code of conduct because they cannot control what people think. People can think whatever they want, however, it’s not okay in the workplace to just do or say anything you think. You can’t do or say things that destroy the team’s ability to collaborate. This is hard, it’s hard to write a code of conduct, but it’s really worth doing. I gave an example in the book of one because it’s tricky as a leader to establish where that line is, between people can believe whatever they want but they cannot do whatever they want. They can’t impose their beliefs on others, this is why we have HR rules and regulations. This is why we have laws as well, so that people know where the boundaries are.
Last but not least there’s bullying. It is so important for leaders to create real consequences for bullying. Bullying will continue to happen unless leaders create consequences. Make sure that you learn as a leader how to interrupt bullying in a meeting, how to create conversational consequences. You also want to create compensation consequences for bullying. You don’t want to give people a big bonus for achieving results at the cost of leaving a trail of half harmed people in their wake.
Bullying behavior should have consequences on people’s careers. You don’t want to promote the brilliant jerks, it can be tempting to do that, but one of your jobs as a leader is to create a performance review process. That includes not only your results as an individual but your results as a team member. This is part of optimizing for collaboration rather than coercion.
Wilding: Any other advice you’d like to share?
Scott: I would like to share a little bit about how to respond when we are the person being harmed by bias, prejudice, or bullying.
We’ll start with what you can say when you don’t know what to say. Let’s say something has come up and you think its bias, the best way to respond to bias is with an I statement. An I statement invites someone to understand things from your perspective. For example, “I don’t think you meant that the way it sounded” or “I don’t think I can work here when you’re calling me pretty girl, because I don’t think you’ll ever take me seriously”. Usually an I statement sort of has the impact of holding up a mirror for the other person, they’ll usually apologize. Sometimes they’re going to be defensive, however, they’ll usually self-correct if it’s biased.
When it’s a prejudice that you’re confronting, you want to respond with its statement. It statement either appeals to the law or appeals to your company policy. It’s an HR violation or it appeals to common sense.
How do you respond to bullying? You don’t want to use an I statement, you don’t want to draw the person in. You want to push the other person away and you want to make sure that you’re not in a submissive role. It was actually my daughter who explained this to me, she was getting bullied at school. I was kind of encouraging her to say to this kid when you do this, it makes me feel that. She looked at me and said, “Mom, he is trying to make me feel sad, telling him he succeeded as like giving him a cookie.” Wisdom from one-third grader that we can apply in the workplace. When someone is really trying to bully you, you want to say, “You can’t talk to me like that.” Or if it feels like that might escalate the situation, you could try something more gentle like, “what’s going on for you here” or even “where’d you get that tie?” You just want the other person answering the questions, don’t answer the question for them.