Radical Candor: Getting Real with Developmental Feedback
Leaders often need to give feedback that can be hard to deliver, as well as hard for those on the receiving end to hear. In her book Radical Candor: How To Be A Great Boss And A Kick Ass Citizen, author, coach and former tech exec, Kim Scott, advises that the more straightforward and honest those conversations can be, the better – not only during the review process, but as a matter of course throughout the year.
In her INBOUND BOLD talk based on her book, Scott drives home the case for straightforward honesty explaining that while the truth can hurt, holding back the truth in a work situation is doing a disservice to your employees in the long run.
Scott’s radical-candor-epiphany came during her tenure at Google when, after knocking a presentation to CEO Eric Schmidt out of the park, Scott’s boss at the time, Sheryl Sandberg, asked her to meet.
Scott assumed Sandberg would be singing her praises (after all her sales were beyond impressive,) however Sandberg pulled Scott aside for another reason. After some complimentary words, Sandberg let Scott know she’d been consistently interjecting “ums” throughout her presentation, and went so far as to offer her a speech coach to help. Scott was completely flummoxed by this. She’d given hundreds of presentations over the course of her career and nobody had ever mentioned the “ums.” When Scott brushed the observation off as just an inconsequential “verbal tic,” Sandberg realized she needed to be far more direct, “When you say ‘um’ every third word, it makes you sound stupid and insecure.” Needless to say, this brought Scott to a full stop.
Sandberg now had Scott’s attention, and, needless to say, Scott went on to get the coaching that helped her eliminate “ums” from her presentations. While it pulled Scott up short at the time, Scott appreciated the fact that Sandberg “got real” with her – helping her to up her game tremendously going forward.
“Getting real” with an employee and putting radical candor into practice can be daunting. Those difficult conversations, as a manager, or as an employee on the receiving end, can involve discussing “ums” in presentations or far more serious issues. However, if the straightforward truth is employed using the best of intentions to support and build up rather than tear down an employee, it builds a strong foundation of trust.
It’s where the “Be A Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity” part of Scott’s title comes into play. It’s about caring for your employees. A key element of the exchange between Sandberg and Scott was trust. Sandberg had regularly demonstrated that she truly cared about Scott (and their entire team) and that she wanted the best for her, so there was already an established trust when Sandberg pulled Scott aside.
Whatever our level in an organization, if we’re lucky enough to have a boss or a colleague who cares – who is willing to let us know how we can improve our performance with straightforwardness, honesty, and positive intentions – it can help us grow professionally, as well as personally, even though it may be hard to hear in the moment.
The caring personally aspect of the ‘Radical Candor’ graph Scott refers to as the “Give A Damn” axis. Scott observes that, early on, we’re told we need to be “professional” in our work, and that, somewhere along the line, “professional” has come to mean the need to, as Scott describes it, “…leave your emotions…leave your humanity…leave the very best part of yourself at home.” Scott stresses the importance of going beyond just being “professional” and bringing your “whole self” to the job which includes “giving a damn”/caring personally. Scott contends, “You’re never going to do the best work of your life if you leave half of yourself…at home. You can’t care personally about someone else with only half of yourself.”
The challenging directly aspect of the ‘Radical Candor’ graph Scott refers to as the “Willing to Piss People Off” axis. Scott points out that a key part of being a good leader is being willing to say things that are difficult to hear – things that could makes a person feel uncomfortable or upset. Scott explains, “As a manager, you have to be willing to say what you really think in order for either your thinking to be corrected or your employee’s thinking to be corrected,” which requires “getting real” and not “beating around the bush.”
The aim, according to Scott is to move as high up on the “Caring Personally”/ “Challenge Directly” axes as possible in order to land in ‘Radical Candor’ territory. Landing in this radical candor ‘sweet spot’ quadrant helps avoid the three quadrants on the lower end of the axes that Scott refers to as ‘Ruinous Empathy,’ ‘Manipulative Insincerity’ and ‘Obnoxious Aggression.’
I’ve long been a proponent of straightforward feedback at work – doing my best to be constructively frank with those who report to me and looking for that same frankness from those to whom I’ve reported. The ‘Radical Candor’ approach involves asking, ‘How can I help my employees be the best version of themselves?’ ‘How can I best let them know how they can improve and move to the next level?’ ‘What do they have to share in response?’ There’s no question that vulnerabilities can bubble up to the surface whenever radical candor is at play, but Scott makes it clear that addressing issues early on is better than letting them go unchecked – which can lead to far greater pain and misunderstanding.
The radical candor I’ve received over the years has helped me to become a better listener. It has pushed me out of my comfort zone, helped me aim for higher goals, and helped me lead with humble confidence. With employees and colleagues, alike, I look at radical candor as an opportunity to share two-way feedback in a spirit of good faith and growth. It’s truth-to-power in a space of psychological safety.
Scott sees radical candor as a “moral obligation” to share the truth as you see it in order to challenge and be challenged in return. While there’s no denying the truth can “hurt,” the truth can also set both the manager and employee free in terms of improved trust and communication – helping to foster far greater success in the long run.
I encourage you to learn more about how you can give and receive radically candid feedback in the spirit of helping others thrive and becoming the best version of yourself. It will change the way you navigate your life and career.