(this is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry. Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)
I recently highlighted this rather terrific post by Jessica Rose. It kind of off-handedly introduced a notion we might call “HR Debt” – the organizational analogue of technical debt.
Coincidentally, a day later, I then walked into a client session where the issue was, in fact, fixing up a team that had been badly structured and poorly lead: we spent an hour sorting out the pain, cost and general difficulty of getting things set to rights. The notion of “HR Debt” was immediately helpful. Good!
We might describe technical debt as the literal cost (time, attention, real money) of avoiding doing things the right way. In the short term, the company saves money by, for example, not fixing a legacy architectural issue, by “hard-wiring” a piece of code, or just not fixing known bugs (feel free to provide your own list).
Our new term, HR Debt, is exactly analogous: by putting off dealing with a problem employee, or dysfunctional team, the organization saves disruption in the short term, but pays, every day, in the time and attention the team is putting in to make things work. As Jes puts it:
“Having your team build informal processes to work around bad actors creates an environment where additional time and energy costs are included in all team activities”
Not only that, but when the time comes to fix it, just like technical debt, the cost is far higher than it would have been originally: people need to be moved, or fired, teams rearranged, salaries re-worked, relationships repaired.
So what to do? Well, Radical Candor is a toolkit for saying hard things so that they are heard. If we boil Radical Candor down to its essence, it is a model for confronting and dealing with difficult conversations well. It encourages us not to drift into “Ruinous Empathy”, where our HR Debt will continue to accumulate as we avoid fixing people problems. It asks us to “just say it”, whilst respecting the humanity of the person on the receiving end.
The concept of “HR Debt” gives us a way of estimating the cost of staying in “Ruinous Empathy”: how many management hours will be dribbled away by patching over poor behavior? how much money will be spent on a team which we’re pretty sure will have to be reworked? how much would we save over time if we took on the hard conversations now?
So we can look at Radical Candor as a toolkit for reducing HR Debt – not just doing the right thing, but saving money, time and the precious attention of the oganization.
Useful models that fit together! Have to love that!
(btw: roughly coincident to writing this post, I signed on to work with the Radical Candor Team as a speaker. So hit me up if you’re interested in a Radical Candor talk or training)
I’ve been watching a Netflix documentary series called “Last Chance U”, which is basically a reality version of “Friday Night Lights”. It follows a season of football for a community college in the south, where winning and losing can be the difference between a Division One scholarship and a chance at a new life, or a trip back home to the certainty of nothing much at all.
There’s a lot of yelling (mostly by older white guys at younger, impoverished black men, which has its own problems), and I wondered at the point of it. Ostensibly it’s to motivate, to uncork those last few drops of energy, inspiration — to force the players to find the magic that will drive them to play above themselves.
But there’s a lot of anger and frustration in the yelling. And I was struck by the similarity to scenes in my history where a desire to push a team to some kind of limit came out almost as a fury. I have indeed at times long ago been a table-banger, and a yeller. Not often, but enough to make me wonder at it.
Here’s the thing: intensity is great. Barriers fall, problems dissolve, the world starts to move. Communicating your own intensity to a group of people in such a way that it *transfers* is not only incredibly powerful, but also a blast and a rush. You can see the energy rise. You can feel possibilities become certainties. Hence table banging. Hence yelling.
But we often learn intensity early in life as a side-effect of much less constructive emotions. We learn to work hard, with terrific focus, to keep from disappointing ourselves, or our parents — to keep our future bright and in view, to stay away from the nasty serrated edge of failure.
So the intensity is learned as a side-effect of fear — we get shit done because we can’t imagine not getting it done, we drive ahead because we can’t bear not doing so.
And then that intensity gets us recognized — she gets things done! — and we end up responsible for a group of people, and we are terrified that they might not get it, might not respond. We know how to make things move, but do they? Fear goes quickly to anger. And we bang the table.
We don’t need anger to communicate intensity. We can communicate intensity through vision, through courageous action, through direct and passionate communication.
Not to spoil Last Chance U too much, but in the end, the fear and anger behind the yelling spills far too far over onto the field, and the team is disqualified from the playoffs. The old white guys go on to next season. The players (some of them), of course, lose the chance for college places and a decent life.
The energy behind the communication has consequences.
How will you gradually peel your intensity away from anxiety, fear and anger? How much better will your working life be, and that of your team?