How to make your work relationships more productive (and fun)

A simple concept from leadership lessons from Google and Apple

Sam Duncan
3 min readJul 13, 2022

We’ve all had to put up with dickheads at work.

A micromanaging boss, a hyper-critical colleague, a snarky middle manager — these people can make your job hell.

And this article won’t help you fix those people. That’s an impossible task.

But we can talk about how to get the most of your work relationships without becoming one of those dickheads.

Funnily enough, that does require criticising people and challenging co-workers when they’re wrong.

But there’s a way to do it that drives results and helps you build better relationships in the process.

Kim Scott, author of Radical Candour, ex-Goole and Apple executive, and consultant/coach to some of the world’s leading organisations and teams, has some tips.

Radical Candour

Great relationships at work are defined by your ability to do two things consistently:

  • Care personally
  • Challenge directly

When these things combine, Scott says, you can “build trust at work and open the door for the kind of commuhnication that helps you achieve the results you’re aiming for.”

Sounds good. But how does it work?

Care personally

It’s obvious that we must care about people to build relationships with them.

So why don’t we do it?

All too often, we leave our human at home.

We turn up as ‘professionals’ instead, throwing a big wet blanket over the possiblity of meaningful connection with others.

This isn’t an easy thing to overcome — to be vulnerable, authentic, and true.

But it is simple, and something you can get better at:

“Caring personally is about doing the things you already know how to do…it’s about finding time for real conversations; getting to know each other on a human level; sharing with one another what gets us out of bed…”

The best bit is, caring personally activates reciprocity.

The easiest way to get people to care about you, is to show how much you care about them.

You might have to take the first step, but soon you’ll find yourself in a virtuous cycle of really getting to know people, asking about more than jus their weekend, caring personally about their lives, and sharing more of yourself in turn.

That’s a good start — but it’s not all that’s required to build great relationships at work…

Challenge Directly

Let’s be real: great relationships aren’t built on high-fives and compliments.

Your best friends and colleagues are e honest with you, pull you up on your mistakes, and push you to your full potential.

This is what it means to challenge directly, and Scott says it can boost your work relationships because:

1) it shows you care enough to point out the things that aren’t going well and 2) you are willing to admit when you are wrong and are committe to fixing mistakes you or others have made.

For the agreeable people-pleasers among us (my hand is up), the idea of criticising your boss or saying no to a new project is uncomfortable.

But Scott warns against being the perennial nice guy, lest fall into two terrible traps.

  • ‘Manipulative insincerity’ — Apple’s Jony Ive once held back when criticising his team’s work. When Steve Jobs asked why he hadn’t been more clear about what was wrong, Jony said “because I care about the team.” Steve shot right back ‘No Jony, you’re just really vain. You want people to like you.’ Recounting the story years later, Ive says “I was cross becasue I knew he was right.”
  • ‘Ruinous Empathy’ — According to Kim Scott, “There’s a Russian anecdote about a guy who has to amputate his dog’s tail, but loves him so much that he cuts it off an each each day, rather than all it once. His desire to spare the dog pain and suffering only leads to more pain and suffering.”

I’ve been both Jony Ive and the Russian tail-chopper.

And I can tell you with certainty, neither persona helped me build meaningful, productive relationships at work.

But you know what does?

Caring personally, and challenging directly.

That, my friends, is Radical Candour.