Radical Candor: How to Challenge People without Being a Jerk
“The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.”
— Harvey S. Firestone
Feedback is the best gift we can get. Without other people’s perspectives and input, we can’t uncover our blind spots and grow
Unfortunately, jerks surprise their teams but for the wrong reason. Rather than providing actionable input, employees feel confused and disappointed.
The most important thing a boss can do is to focus on guidance. To give it, encourage it, and receive it.
Radical Candor is a simple tool to ensure people receive the right kind of guidance. Honest but also human.
This post is an intro guide to Radical Candor: what is, what is not, why it matters, how to get started, and key watch-outs.
What is Radical Candor?
Radical Candor means challenging people directly while also showing that you care about them personally.
Radically candid criticism is both clear and kind. You don’t soften the truth but don’t want to hurt the person either.
The concept was created by Kim Scott, a long-time director at Google, who built a career of creating bullshit-free zones. She is the author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.
Radical Candor is easy to say, but hard to do. Being kind means caring about what’s best for the person in the long-term. It’s about choosing the right path over the easiest one.
Radical Candor requires delivering hard feedback. For example, to tell people when their work isn’t good enough. And when it is. Or if they are not going to get a promotion (and why). Rather than dancing around or making excuses, you speak candidly.
Being radically candid requires prioritizing to help others even over being liked.
Is Radical Candor the same thing as brutal honesty?
Nope. Brutal honesty is about getting everything out of the system without caring about others. We end doing more harm than good.
Kim Scott refers to brutal honesty as “front stabbing.” We are looking at people in the eye, but still hurting them.
The feedback itself might be helpful, but the intention is not. It usually comes from a mean place. Radical Candor requires being empathetic, not a jerk.
Brutal honesty harms people. Rather than focusing on what they can improve, they shut down.
What are the four types of feedback?
Radical Candor uses a 2x2 to explain the four types of feedback. One axis is Challenge Directly, and the other is Care Personally.
Radical Candor is the sweet spot. You help people grow in a positive, caring way. It means pushing others beyond their comfort zone without being disrespectful.
Most people fail to provide Radical Candor when they fall into any of the other three quadrants.
Obnoxious Aggression happens when you challenge someone but don’t care. It’s praise that’s not sincere or criticism that isn’t delivered kindly. Aggression makes people defensive. Feedback feels like torture, rather than a gift.
Ruinous Empathy happens when you want to be friendly and avoid to challenge people. You provide unspecific praise or sugarcoat the feedback. Ruinous Empathy feeds ignorance. It doesn’t provide people with clear insights to improve their performance.
Manipulative Insincerity happens when you neither care about people nor challenge them. You praise others without being specific or sincere. Or criticize them without being kind. Manipulative Insincerity seeds mistrust. It encourages backstabbing, passive-aggressiveness, and other toxic behaviors.
Why is Radical Candor important?
There’s a feedback gap. We are often too soft or too indirect in the way we provide feedback.
Instead of telling things as they are, we turn a bad moment into praise. It’s easier to say, “That meeting went awesome” than to focus on what people can do better next time.
Another issue is the “Feedback Sandwich.” It happens when managers start praising the employee, then give them the bad news and finish with some positive comments.
As Adam Grant wrote here, “When you start and end with positive feedback, it’s all too easy for the criticism to get buried or discounted.”
Radical Candor is an invitation to stop serving the “Feedback Sandwich.”
Is it possible to be completely honest without hurting someone’s feelings?
Probably not. Every person is different, and it’s hard to anticipate emotional reactions.
That’s why it is crucial to provide feedback from a constructive place and be open to adjusting. Caring about others doesn’t mean walking on eggshells, but you have to pay attention.
Communication is about what people get, not what you say.
Hurting someone with a caring attitude is better than softening the truth. You can recover from hurting someone’s feelings. But it’s harder to recover from being lied to.
Honesty creates intimacy and trust.
How can I practice Radical Candor?
Just do it. Don’t overthink it. Give people actionable, immediate, and constructive input on how they can improve performance.
Don’t make it personal. Rather than ‘judging’ a personality trait, focus on the behavior or outcome. Instead of telling people, “you are too quiet,” ask them to speak up more during meetings.
Turn feedback into an ongoing practice. More and more companies are ditching their annual performance reviews. What’s the point of addressing issues once or twice a year? Turn feedback into a gift by making it an ongoing, engaging conversation.
Practice Radical Candor collectively. As I tell my clients if you want to improve team performance, address issues as a group. Radical Candor is a great tool to discuss how “we can all work together better as a team.” It encourages people to be honest as a group.
Use questions. One of the critical issues when providing feedback is speaking from a place of perfectionism. As a manager, you are providing your perspective or impression. You don’t own the truth.
Turn feedback into a dialogue. Including questions like, “What do you think?” or “Does it make sense what I am saying?” invites people to reflect rather than to react.
Don’t forget the context. Why are you focusing on a particular aspect? What was going on when the person did x? How did it affect their performance?
Provide some background of why certain behaviors matter. Most managers fail to provide context. It confuses peoples instead of focusing them on what needs to happen.
Radical Candor is HIP. It’s Humble, Helpful, Immediate, In-person, Private criticism/Public praise, not Personalized.
Do I need to care personally?
Authenticity is often an overlooked element when giving feedback. Showing that you care is important. But pretending to be authentic when you are not will backfire.
Be honest and empathetic. Don’t just care. Be there. People can detect when someone is not present.
Avoid technical jargon. It’s okay to be human. You don’t need to hide your emotions, but don’t let them get in your way. People can smell from a mile when you pretend to care, but you don’t.
Remind yourself that the person in front of you is human too. Regardless of who’s giving or receiving feedback, we all have emotions and feelings.
Unless you are addressing feedback collectively, it’s better to have conversations in private. Avoid the temptation to give feedback to someone in front of others.
How to create a culture of radical candor?
Take baby steps. Start slow to go fast. Only 1/3 of people think their opinions count at work. There’s a lot of distrust and fear. Creating a candid culture takes time.
Create a shared vocabulary. Kim Scott suggests that you share the approach and the 2x2 matrix in your own words. Establish a shared vocabulary, so everyone is clear on the four types of feedback. And on what Radical Candor is (and is not).
Lead by example. Start practicing radical candor with yourself. Invite people to assess how you, your team, and the broader organization stand.
Invite people to evaluate how you provide feedback. What are your areas of opportunities? Show your team how serious you are by asking for help.
Use Radical Candor to assess how you and your organization provide feedback.
Commit to the journey. Explain why you want to make the change. And that everyone should be patient and collaborative during the transformation.
If someone’s acting like a jerk, maybe they are not doing it on purpose. They just need to realize that and adjust their behavior. That’s the most significant shift. To move from making it personal to focus on improvement.
Don’t expect people to change overnight. Radical Candor is uncomfortable for both managers and employees. You’ll face a lot of resistance. Be ready to adjust.
Find the right balance between caring and challenging. Most people have a hard time challenging others. And, when they do, they usually sound harsher than they mean.
An external coach can provide feedback on giving feedback. And help everyone find the right balance.
Build on existing practices. There are probably many people practicing Radical Candor in your organization already. Even if they don’t call it that way. Use them as coaches or as examples. Identify best practices and see how you can scale them across the organization.
Make it yours. Like any practice or method, there’s no such thing as a silver bullet. Start with your mind open and test different approaches. See what works. Be open to adapt the practice to your organization’s culture.
What reactions should I watch out for?
Feedback can trigger both positive and negative reactions. It could become an obstacle rather a growth accelerator.
There are three key triggers, according to Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen, the authors of Thanks for the Feedback. Each provokes a different set of reactions.
Truth Triggers are set off by the feedback itself. If it’s a little bit off, useless or untrue, we feel attacked or wronged. It makes us shut down.
Relationship Triggers are ignited by the person who is providing feedback. The words are filtered by the relationship between the giver and the receiver. Rather than using feedback for our own improvement, we use it to judge the giver.
Identity Triggers are all about us. What people observe or say about ourselves becomes personal. We feel overwhelmed, ashamed, or under attack. We confuse the part (the feedback) with the whole (our identity).
These triggers can become an obstacle, but also something we must pay attention to. Understanding people’s reactions can help us see feedback as a learning experience, rather than feel threatened by it.
What are the dangers of Radical Candor?
One of the temptations with Radical Candor is to use it as an excuse to give direct, harsh feedback without neither providing context nor caring.
The power of Radical Candor is to both care personally and challenge people directly. You don’t get to do one or the other, but both.
Improved self-awareness is vital to providing effective feedback.
You want to make sure your ego or biases don’t get in the way. Practicing Radical Candor requires to practice it first within ourselves. Learn to be both challenging and caring with yourself before you practice it with others.
Radical Candor is not an intellectual tool. It requires being an empathetic leader. You must put yourself into another person’s shoes. Think what’s valuable for them. Learn to challenge others based on their current status, not your own standards.
Being radically candid doesn’t mean smacking down your team — especially those who your success depends on. If feedback is self-serving, people will feel undervalued or treated as a commodity.
Radical Candor is a two-way street. Start by encouraging others to give you honest feedback. I can’t stress this enough. When coaching teams, I always push the most senior executives to lead by example.
If you want people to be candid and vulnerable, start with embracing yours.
Last but not least, you can’t expect people to embrace Radical Candor without creating a Psychological Safety baseline first. It will backfire.
That’s the temptation when new leadership practices become a fad. Executives jump right into implementation after reading a book or a couple of articles. They fail to prepare the ground.
Fear is a pervasive emotion in the workplace. Create a safe-to-try culture before adopting Radical Candor. Building a safe space takes time and consistency. Be patient. Design the experience with a clear purpose and intention.