Tent Talks Featuring Alison Gretz – Navigating the Tightrope of Radical Candor: Leadership, Conflict, and Collaboration

Tent Talks Featuring: Alison Gretz
Alison Gretz
Facilitator & Executive Coach
Design By Design
Alison has led teams of individuals in problem-solving and creating solutions for the real world in both boot-strapping start-ups and large Fortune 100 companies. She firmly believes that her leadership philosophy and coaching approach combined create environments where people can discover, make sense of what’s in front of them, and progress forward with momentum.

In this Tent Talks session, we’re excited to welcome Alison Gretz, a seasoned executive coach known for her dynamic leadership across various large enterprises and start-ups. Alison will explore the concept of radical candor, a crucial tool for navigating complex professional relationships and resolving conflicts. Drawing on her extensive experience in marketing and digital arenas, she will share personal anecdotes and insights on how radical candor has shaped her approach to team leadership and problem-solving. Attendees can look forward to learning about balancing empathy with directness, and how to effectively employ radical candor in high-stakes situations.

The discussion will further explore Alison’s strategies for teaching and implementing radical candor, especially for leaders new to the concept. She will discuss the importance of open communication, idea sharing, and addressing blocking issues in creating a collaborative and productive work environment. This session is particularly relevant for professionals seeking to enhance their leadership skills and foster honest, constructive workplace relationships. Join us for a thought-provoking conversation that promises to offer valuable takeaways for personal and professional growth in the realm of effective leadership.

Session Notes

Session Overview

In this insightful Tent Talks episode, Alison Gretz, a seasoned leader in the design industry, shares her unique leadership philosophy and how it has positively impacted her team dynamics and conflict resolution. Alison emphasizes the importance of viewing leadership roles as partnerships and coaching opportunities rather than positions of command and control. She discusses the application of Radical Candor, a concept by Kim Scott, in her leadership approach, highlighting the balance between honesty and sensitivity in team communications. Alison also explores strategies for fostering open communication and encouraging team members to engage in difficult conversations.

Leadership Philosophy and Conflict Resolution:

  • Leadership as partnership and coaching, rather than command and control.
  • Importance of facilitation and understanding team dynamics.
  • Encouragement of dissenting opinions and open communication.
  • Navigating personal styles and conflicts for team betterment.

Applying Radical Candor:

  • Foundation of trust and caring for successful application.
  • Four communication styles: obnoxious aggression, ruinous empathy, manipulative insincerity, and radical candor.
  • Emphasis on caring genuinely and addressing issues directly.
  • Personal growth through feedback and clear, kind communication.

Balance in High Stakes Situations:

  • Foundation of trust and caring is crucial.
  • Importance of considering the receiver’s perspective and readiness.
  • Direct and clear communication for effective understanding.
  • Strategies for feedback and creating a supportive environment.

Adapting Leadership in Diverse Teams:

  • Application of design skills to stakeholder relationships.
  • Importance of aligning goals and building trusting relationships.
  • Strategies for dealing with tough relationships and disagreements.
  • Emphasis on inclusivity and understanding different perspectives.

Encouraging Open Communication:

  • Creating safe and approachable spaces for team members.
  • Importance of facilitation across different work environments.
  • Strategies for anonymous feedback and enforcing a no-asshole policy.
  • Support for team members in preparing for and debriefing after difficult conversations.

Notable Quotes:

  • “Leadership is about partnership and coaching, not command and control.”
  • “Radical Candor requires a foundation of trust and caring.”
  • “Navigating team dynamics demands honesty, sensitivity, and a strong foundation of trust.”
  • “Encouraging open communication involves creating safe spaces and supporting team members through challenges.”

Session Transcript

[00:00:37] Chicago Camps: Your leadership philosophy plays a crucial role in creating healthy and productive team environments. Could you share an instance where your philosophy particularly helped in resolving a conflict or disagreement within your team?

[00:00:50] Alison Gretz: I think of leaders, especially in design as coaches and partners, which is very different to maybe some of the leadership we all experienced growing up in this industry for people were very command and control and you had to do what your boss says. And I’m really the opposite of that in 99. 9 percent of situations where my philosophy is about seeing any individual in my organization or as a partner, as a partner, someone who I can be in a community with solving big problems.

And where needed be a coach, sometimes be a manager where needed, sometimes be a mentor if we’re needed or a sponsor to get them to where they need to go. And the most important thing about that, I think, is facilitation and realizing who’s in the room with you, how you’re facilitating that space, both in one on ones or broader meetings, and then how you’re thinking about that total team dynamic, too.

I think designers can always see the big picture in the concert of parts, and that’s where, as a leader, that’s really shown up for me. I think in my leadership career, I’ve led probably 500 or so people in my orgs or even directly, and I’m not everybody’s cup of tea, not everybody’s my cup of tea. I think when you can start with that foundation of just humanness and then respect and this openness to other people’s points of view, something I really like to do is ask for dissenting opinions in a meeting, and that’s part of facilitating, but it’s also part of inviting in those other perspectives.

Sometimes a very candid conversation needs to happen where you can get on the same page with that team member. That, hey, maybe our styles are even in conflict at times. So how do we supercharge each other rather than sabotage each other? And I love putting the elephants like that out into the space so that you can navigate them together versus it be something that has to fester.

And again, I think in different leadership styles, people aren’t really open to that. And sometimes it can catch people off guard, which is then when I need to modulate again, my approach so that it suits them. And then there’s times where as a manager, or you have certain responsibilities, sometimes you really need to address that quickly, or you can let it become more trusting over time. You have to choose how you’re going to approach each of these personal situations for the betterment of the team and the work.

[00:03:21] Chicago Camps: Can you share with our audience a bit about the Radical Candorapproach created by Kim Scott and then how you apply the principles in your leadership?

[00:03:31] Alison Gretz: I’ll do my best to verbally walk through primary two by two quadrant thing that Kim champions. Before you get into the quadrant with anybody and think about applying this, at the foundational level, it’s that foundation of trust in order to be able to employ Radical Candor and to have these dialogues.

What she observed and what she proposes in both her book and her talks is really four ways of communicating with people on an axis of how deeply you care genuinely and care personally about that person’s success. Thanks. And, how directly or non directly you can challenge, provide feedback, get the elephant in the room out there.

And we’ve all had the sort of command and control bosses who just blurt things out incredibly directly, sometimes cruelly. You can clearly tell they don’t care about you, and that’s in the lower right of this quadrant, and Kim calls it obnoxious aggression. And that is probably the worst boss we can all imagine.

And we’ve all experienced that. Or at least I did growing up in advertising and corporate environments, right? Plenty of those. The direct opposite from that though is something that I see quite a lot of designers hang out in. Which is not the healthiest for teams. And that’s ruinous empathy. And that’s where we are so deeply rooted in caring that we don’t address issues.

We just try to be nice, we try to keep everybody happy, and then we’re not actually pushing through those problems that make all of us better as humans, team members, creators, etc. And we can hang out in this space for a long time because difficult conversations are difficult and we don’t want to do that or we don’t feel comfortable doing that.

In the lower left, so very low caring and very low directness, you then have manipulation and insincerity. And those are the people you might work with who only call you when they need something, or they’ll say something to your face and then have a different meeting about it behind your back. They are in this icky place that breeds mistrust, so also not good.

The thing that Kim proposes and that I’ve really adopted is when you care genuinely about the people that you’re working with, and you’re able to address things directly so that they are clear. And therefore, kind in the long run, that’s what she would define Radical Candor. And I teach all of my managers, every leader who’s worked with me on this topic about addressing the elephant in the room, finding the right time and place, the right way to say that message so that the individual who’s receiving it can receive it.

And that then you both can have amazing growth, the work gets better, they’re propelled towards their ambitions and goals, because you as the manager, the leader, are able to take sometimes really little things out of their way. Especially if they’ve been getting feedback in an indirect way for years and don’t know why they’re stuck in the same spot.

I find Radical Candor, when done with caring and not in that obnoxious aggression space, to really be an unlock for me. And all of my teams. Now, do I think I’ve always been brilliant at being radically candid? No, I think in my early career, I definitely heard the phrase bull in a china shop quite a lot.

And as a woman, you’re really not allowed to be a bull in a china shop, right? You’re being too assertive, too aggressive, all those things. But what Radical Candor, the book and the talk unlocked for me was a way to think about it that really aligned with my values of caring and empathy and kindness.

But, catch myself and adapt my muscle of addressing the elephant in the room, or like, just going for it. I.e. bull in a china shop. But do it in a way that I made sure that the environment I was creating around the receiver was a lot better, and a lot more effective, and a lot kinder, really.

[00:07:38] Chicago Camps: Radical Candor demands honesty, yet sensitivity is key in team dynamics.

How do you maintain this balance, especially in high stakes situations or when dealing with sensitive issues?

[00:07:49] Alison Gretz: This is where it’s tough, you have to start balancing with your values as a human and as a leader and the trusting relationships that you have. So to me it all comes down to that foundation of trust that you have with an individual or with your entire team or organization.

And you have to do, I think, everything you can every single day to stay in that place of caring, so that when the tough situation, when the sensitive things come up, there’s no question that that’s where you’re coming from. So this is really a walk the walk, not a talk the talk type of framework and application.

I also like to lean into Brene Brown’s Strong Back, Warm Heart, where you’re like really standing rooted in what you believe in, and you have strong boundaries, all those things, but you’re approaching it with warmth, too. I think, like I was saying earlier, you have to be thinking about the receiver. And how you’re trying to be, or at least for me and my leadership philosophy, as an inclusive leader, not everybody is going to understand the words the same way, the tone the same way.

They might need to talk about something several times or even hear it in writing to truly be able to understand it. So I think it’s about really designing that environment for whether it’s feedback or whether it’s a tough conversation about how that person is going to be able to receive information and even asking, hey, I want to get into something that could be a little more sensitive. Is today a good day to do that? Or do you want to come back in a couple days around this topic and giving the receiver some options and some control in any of these situations?

And even though I’ve described myself as a bull in a china shop and somebody who’s radically candid, the lesson that I’ve learned, especially over the past five years as you start really, I’ve been at VP levels and dealing with executives, is that you have to be so much more candid and direct than you think you need to be to even push my comfort zone in terms of being clear, direct, candid, to really be understood.

And so that’s a muscle that I really try to help people learn as well as be open to feedback when I get it wrong and mess it up. Because sometimes I’m not in the best place to provide kind yet candid feedback. And that’s something that as a leader too you have to build that muscle of knowing your own signals for when you’re going to be in the right place to have this conversation as a leader versus as all the feelings that could come up for you as well.

The other major tip I would give to anybody is if you need to talk to someone and it’s a good thing, say quick chat good thing in the email invite, right? Because people will invent all the stories. And so the clearer you can be about if it’s like something good or no big deal, however you can signal to that person, it’s gonna, it’s fine.

This is not a big deal. Or if it is a bigger deal, say, have a 15 minute kind of pull aside and say, Here’s what I want to get into, but I don’t want to do it today. I want us both to think about it. When would work for you?

And even though that might be triggering for some, I think Sometimes it’s like you gotta pick what’s maybe gonna work for as many people as possible and then adapt to those situations where that person, because you have this foundation of trust, and they know that you are coming in from a caring standpoint, can say, Actually, Allison, like, this sucks.

I need you to just rip the band aid off and tell me exactly what you’re thinking right now. Or, sure, let me go and process that and we’ll come back. Is our one on one next week okay with you for timing?

I teach a framework actually in my leadership accelerator on how to speak to executives. And reading the room, what’s the headline? What do you actually need from them? Or are you doing a show and tell? Because unfortunately, and now having sat in a couple of those higher positions, your days are not your own. You’re context switching every 15 minutes. The kindest thing a team member can do for me is give me the headline and tell me what they need from me.

And that is how I can be most helpful. I think about that with anybody now, it’s, you have to have empathy for that person’s day, context, cognitive overload, and cater to that. And it might not feel the best because you want to show all of the process and all of the work that you’ve done, but there’ll be time for that.

And you should have that in your back pocket. But give them the headline up front and tell them, here’s what I need from you in this next half hour.

[00:12:27] Chicago Camps: You’ve led diverse teams across various functions. How do you adapt your collaborative leadership style when dealing with tough relationships or disagreements in those different contexts?

[00:12:37] Alison Gretz: I think about this in a lot of imperfect ways maybe, but it’s about applying your design skills to that stakeholder. We’ve all got difficult stakeholders in any aspect of life and work and people who are just different to us. They have different goals, objectives, and we are literally taking up some of their time or they’re taking up some of our time, right?

So we have to design for our user, which in that moment is that stakeholder. And again, it comes down to the headline. What do they need from this interaction? What do you actually need from this interaction? And then all of the detailed stuff is underneath that, that you can get into if you need to. But you really have to design for those interaction moments.

And then if we zoom out a bit from the specific meeting, it’s also about thinking, okay, what is my relationship going to be like with this person? Who from my team, or just me, needs to have a trusting relationship? Or can this be more of a negotiated alliance type relationship, or is this just not going to be a close thing, but we have to make sure that we’re not sabotaging each other’s efforts, right?

So that’s more about aligning on goals, objectives. I always try to build a relationship. My favorite piece of advice when you’re getting into conflict with someone, and it’s harder now with so much virtual work, but my favorite piece of advice is to take them out for tacos. Because everybody loves some kind of tacos.

It’s generally pretty good from a dietary inclusion standpoint, take them out for tacos and try to address the elephant in the room. And that’s where you can employ some of this Radical Candor or other frameworks like situation, behavior, impact, and say, hey, I am probably reading way too much into this, but I’ve noticed our styles are super different and sometimes we’re grating on each other. What do you think about that?

And put it out there because then you can start to tackle the problem and what you need to do together to be successful versus have it fester and then read into every single email you get from that person that what is their tone saying, all the underlying things.

And then the last thing I would say is sometimes there’s just going to be people who are hanging out in that obnoxious aggression spot who you’re not going to get along with. But you have to end up working with, and I think putting on some horse blinders and just focusing on your goals, the work that you need to get done, and then in some ways setting some boundaries around respectful conduct, that’s going to be the way to go, and then trying to minimize your team and your contact with that person as much as possible, if they truly are at the bottom of the quadrant.

It’s just very unlikely that this is going to be the first time that person is hearing that they have this effect on other people, because we all have some level of awareness and there are very different awarenesses of these things.

I think anyone in design, research, creative field, highly attuned, we are more attuned than the average co worker. So we’re going to read into these things, and that’s sometimes where we have to give ourselves a check, and this is a coaching practice, too, of saying, Okay, what is the evidence actually telling me?

Where am I inventing or creating a story around this and giving it more meaning than I need to? And if I was to just dial those down for myself, would everything actually be fine? And I think sometimes as well, and this goes back to neurodivergence, it could be neurodivergent and then you slightly adapting to them and just not taking anything as an assault or as an aggression towards you is also being inclusive of some other people’s ways of being.

Not everyone’s going to be warm, smiley all the time, and they may come from even different cultures, that’s just not the way. The part of being inclusive is also just accepting that, but then dialing down, I think, our meaning making of that thing.

And this is not easy. I do not excel at this. It’s something that I love therapy and coaching and all the things to just help you bump into other humans at work with less stress.

And it’s all coming at a pace that it didn’t used to come at too. I’ve had to learn this for myself because I immigrated to the States about 20 years ago from Britain, from Scotland, and I landed in the Midwest, which is a very, people say Minnesota nice, but it really means they’re not being direct with you.

And I was a bull in a china shop, right? I had to learn that the words they were saying were not actually what they were thinking. And I was just taking the words as words, right? And it took me a long time to realize, oh, there’s all these different kind of factors; I think I am more on that abrasive scale.

But that is so dialed up when you’re surrounded by Minnesota nice that you have to modulate it a little bit and be aware of the extra impact you might be having on people.

[00:17:48] Chicago Camps: In fostering open communication and idea sharing, what strategies do you find most effective in encouraging team members to speak up and engage in difficult conversations, particularly when they might feel hesitant or uncomfortable?

[00:18:03] Alison Gretz: I think this goes to the practice of being an inclusive leader and it is so difficult when you have hybrid environments, virtual environments, in person environments, even all at once and you’re having to learn how to facilitate across these different things. For me, it’s about making the space as safe and approachable as possible and helping people build that muscle over time, right?

Because they need to know you, they need to know that it’s as safe as possible as a workspace can be. And they need to just know that they can provide input in lots of different ways. So that might be making sure you’re designing in thinking individually and then sharing together. It might be making space if you’re leading a phone call, a phone call.

I’m using air quotes for people who are in different places, whether they’re on the phone or in a different conference room. I always like to have a delegate if there are multiple conference rooms and virtual and all the things. Try and have several delegates helping you out lead those things or even to filter right so people want to provide anonymous feedback. That’s fine. Send it to these people. They’ll keep it anonymous.

I also have a no asshole policy that I really try and uphold on my team, and it’s an expectation of anyone leading with me. And this doesn’t mean that they have to be perfect at modeling all these things and they can find their own way to do it, but I want them to have the space to be building those muscles and my team members to be building those muscles as well.

So that means I have an open door policy, I have office hours where anyone, anyone, literally anyone can come and grab time for coaching or preparing for difficult conversations. That’s going to be something I always offer. So you don’t have to think, oh, I’ve now got to walk into these difficult conversations and do it all alone.

No, sometimes it takes prep, sometimes it takes coaching, sometimes it takes practice. And then also a place that you can safely debrief and say, How did it go? What do you want to do differently next time? Or sometimes you do need a leader to come and sit in with you, and that’s totally fine too. But I’ll always ask, hey, how did you go talk to this person about that already? Before I would jump in and mediate any kind of conversation or conflict.

You can say like, what do you need from me today? Do you need me to just listen as you vent? Do you need me to coach? Do you need me to give you advice? How do you want me to show up for you today? And I did have a team member once say, Alison, I don’t want coach Alison.

I want you to tell me what to do, and I loved that because it just showed that I had created a safe space for them to get what they needed from me.


Event Details
Navigating the Tightrope of Radical Candor: Leadership, Conflict, and Collaboration
February 19, 2024
3:30 pm
February 19, 2024
4:30 pm
Tent Talks Featuring Alison Gretz: Navigating the Tightrope of Radical Candor: Leadership, Conflict, and Collaboration In this Tent Talks session, we’re excited to welcome Alison Gretz, a seasoned executive coach known for her dynamic leadership across various large enterprises and...


April 2024