Radical Candor: Improve Your Impromptu Feedback

When you put together “challenging directly” and “caring personally,” you get a simple 2x2 framework. You can use the 2x2 to help you realize even in the heat of the moment when you’re veering off course.

The 2x2 framework explains why Radical Candor is so hard for most of us. One, most people have been told since they learned to talk some version of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” If you want to be radically candid, the very thing you have been taught not to do since they were 18 months old is suddenly your job. Furthermore, most people, since they were around 21 years old and got their first job, at a time in their lives when their egos are fragile but their personas are just starting to solidify, have been exhorted to be “professional.” Too often, that’s code for not getting “personal” with anyone at work. But to give praise and criticism effectively, you have to care personally — to give a damn about the person you’re talking to at a basic, human level.

That’s why praise and criticism are hard, “unnatural acts.” Ben Horowitz said, “Giving feedback turns out to be the unnatural atomic building block atop which the unnatural skill set of management gets built. But how does one master the unnatural?

One of the best ways to make feedback easier is to use the 2x2 framework to remind yourself what happens when you fail to care personally and challenge directly. To help you remember to stay out of the bad quadrants and move toward radical candor, I named each one colorfully: radical candor, obnoxious aggression, ruinous empathy, and manipulative insincerity. These terms in the 2x2 can help you visualize when you’re moving in the right direction, and when you’re going off track. You can do this mentally or you can use a radical candor “Gauge” to help you see how your feedback is landing for others.

Please remember that the names of each quadrant refer to behavior. They are a way to gauge praise and criticism, and to help people remember to do a better job offering both. They are not to be used as labels for people. Ultimately, everyone spends some time in each of the quadrants. We are all imperfect. I’ve never met anyone who is always radically candid.

Often, people trying radical candor for the first time are really surprised at the positive response they get. I often get emails from people like this one:

I just wanted to share this quick exchange I had with a former employee of mine. He was interesting in that he was super strong technically but caused a lot of team issues by refusing to work on certain kinds of things. The result was that he got to do more of the interesting work, leaving “grunt” work for others, which caused a lot of resentment.
I immediately started thinking about how I could reject him in a clever/vague way that went through the recruiter to absolve myself from any hurt feelings here. Then, in a moment of Radical Candor Bravery™, I decided to send a straight-shooter email about why I wasn’t interested in chatting with him and much to my surprise got a really positive response! He actually appreciated it!!! He even used the word “candor” in the response! :)

However, I don’t want to over-promise. Radical Candor IS risky. People often react badly to Radical Candor. Many people I’ve coached have called me feeling that they somehow failed to be radically candid because the employee didn’t take it well. They cried or yelled or shut down. But those reactions don’t necessarily mean they’ve done a bad job communicating. It hurts to be criticized, and people often react badly when their feelings are hurt. If you’re the boss, it’s your job to be sensitive to your employee’s feelings, but also to hold your ground. You can’t control somebody else’s emotional reaction. Your job is to acknowledge those reactions with compassion but without being less clear about what the problem is. When I’ve been on the other side of a radically candid exchange — when an employee resents or blows off criticism that I intended to be a gift — I remember how I have reacted badly in the short term to criticism but appreciated it later on, and that has helped me not back off from what I’m trying to say.

Generally, the bad reaction is just temporary and passes. Sometimes people will be upset by what you’ve said and they won’t get over it, they won’t be grateful later. You’ve got to be tough enough to take that. You’ve got to care more about doing the right thing than about what the person says about you.

At a dinner a friend of mine attended in 2016, Jony Ive told a story about an argument he had with Steve. Jony’s team had been working really hard on a project, and when Steve came to the studio to see what they’d done, he pointed out the deficiencies. Jony didn’t disagree, but he was angry with Steve for being so harsh on his team. They argued for a long time about it. Finally Steve said something along the lines of, “The problem with you is your ego.”’

“What the hell are you talking about?” Jony asked.

“You just want everyone to think you are ‘nice.’ Me, I don’t care if everyone hates me. It’s my job to help each one of those people do the best work of their careers.”

The reason to be radically candid is not to make people like you, or to earn long term gratitude points. The reason to be radically candid is that it’s the right thing to do. And often it is painful to do the right thing. But not being radically candid generally has long term consequences that you don’t even see until it’s too late to fix them.

Radical Candor doesn’t come naturally. But you CAN develop a habit of Radical Candor, and you can teach it to the people who work with you. The world will be a better place if more people are radically candid.

Candor, Inc is building a Candor Gauge you can use to see how your impromptu feedback is landing for the people you’re working with. Sign up here to start using it when it’s ready.