Improve Relationships, Teams, and Communication with Radical Candor

by | Sep 8, 2022 |

“Care personally, challenge directly.” These are the basic ideas that management coach Kim Scott suggests for being what she calls “radically candid,” a method of being honest and compassionate, especially when it comes to giving feedback. Her book Radical Candor is aimed at corporate managers, but most of its advice is applicable to any relationship.

Honesty is about more than simply not lying when asked a direct question; it also means speaking up when there’s a problem or when you disagree, and, in many contexts, giving frequent, clear, direct, specific praise and/or criticism. Scott explains that honesty builds trust and results in better business outcomes, and compassion creates a friendly work environment and strong bonds. The same is true for personal relationships; honesty with your spouse, for example, will lead to a much happier, stronger relationship. Drawing on her experiences at companies such as Google and Apple, as well as stories from people she’s worked with, she illustrates both the positive results of being radically candid, and the negative results of failing to be.

Scott presents a matrix for categorizing feedback (and much communication generally):

In the bottom left corner is the most dishonest and unhelpful type of feedback: “manipulative insincerity.” When a person only says what he thinks will get him ahead, regardless of the listener’s emotions or the truth, disaster tends to ensue. For example, praising your boss’s terrible new product idea so that he’ll like you will not only destroy trust in your feedback, but it could lead to a financial loss for the company and wasted time and effort for the whole team.

More common is what Scott terms “ruinously empathetic” feedback. This occurs when someone is too concerned about his listener’s feelings to tell him the truth. The speaker cares personally, but is afraid to challenge his listener, which typically results in poor outcomes for everyone involved. Scott shares the story of when she was afraid to tell a well-liked employee at her startup that his work was not up to par and, months later, had to fire him. He was totally blindsided, and the rest of the team had grown to resent him by then. Had she brought up the problem when she first became aware of it, it could have been corrected. Her empathy for him was ruinous for him and the team.

Of course, sometimes people are the opposite: ruthlessly blunt, without regard for others’ feelings. This is what Scott calls “obnoxious aggression,” and she says that it can be effective at work for getting things done, but often stunts relationships and sours the working environment.

The ideal, then, is radical candor: caring personally and challenging directly. Caring personally means taking into account the listener’s emotions and context when giving feedback, and being tactful. But this mustn’t get in the way of being honest—challenging directly. As she notes, honesty and debate are invaluable for correcting problems, discovering knowledge, and refining ideas. She recounts how Steve Jobs, Apple’s notoriously quality-oriented cofounder, was known in Silicon Valley for “always getting things right”—not only because he was a genius, but because he insisted people debate with him when they thought he was wrong. Jobs was absolutely furious if he found out an employee had backed down about something when the employee was right and he was wrong.

Scott points out that some people wait until they’ve developed a relationship with someone else to try to be honest with him, but that creates a shaky foundation that lacks trust. Being radically candid from the start, by contrast, is a great way to build relationships on solid ground. Psychologist Dr. Ellen Kenner tells of how she refused a gift from a new neighbor because it was too extravagant and she didn’t yet know the woman offering it. Though it was uncomfortable in the moment (who wants to refuse a gift?), the two built a strong and lasting friendship after that, and the neighbor told Dr. Kenner, “You know, I can always trust you, because you always tell me the truth.”

Radical Candor discusses the importance of building a culture of radical candor in your team at work, but many of these principles apply in personal relationships as well. For example, Scott talks about the importance of rewarding candor to encourage it. She recounts an instance of a team she led in Japan that was hesitant to give her constructive criticism (criticism of one’s superiors is traditionally frowned upon in Japanese culture); when she insisted, one employee told her the tea could be better. A small criticism, but Scott rewarded it handsomely: Not only did she ensure better tea was purchased, she wrote the employee a thank-you note and made sure everyone knew the tea was better because he’d spoken up. More substantial criticisms followed as the team saw their candor would be genuinely appreciated. Although these specifics may not apply in most contexts, genuinely appreciating a person’s honesty, especially when it’s uncomfortable for him, will encourage more of it.

Radical Candor puts a laser-focus on a virtue that’s absolutely essential for personal happiness and gives valuable advice for implementing it, especially at work. For more trusting relationships, higher quality work, and clearer communication and thinking, try being more radically candid.

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