What BDSM Can Teach Us About Radical Candor, Courtesy of a Dominatrix

“You’re 38-years-old, you’re running out of time for these excuses.” He looked up at me, his blue eyes watering behind his Warby Parker horn-rimmed glasses.

“Like, I’ve spent a lot of time working on myself and my relationship to all of this,” I say with a wave of the riding crop, gesturing to the fixtures on my 4-poster bed, and the various floggers and paddles laid out neatly across my vanity. “You talk a lot of high romantic talk about how you want to find a woman that is in to these things, to marry one, but you aren’t willing to learn anything about a woman that does like these things. You’ve had a lot of time already. If this is ever going to be more than pornography to you, then you need to grow up.”

I unhooked the keys from around my neck and dropped them on his face. “Clean it and leave.” He lifted his upper body off all fours to sit back on his heels, and set to unlocking the cage around his genitals.

In some forms of BDSM play, “chastity” is reasonably common, the idea that one partner can deny another sexual pleasure unless permission is obtained. This kind of power exchange is often aided by chastity devices, in this case a kind of clear plastic ring that locked to another piece that prevented one from touching the shaft of their penis or becoming erect (at least not without a lot of pain). It’s safe, and easy to accommodate in short term sessions like this one, but is clearly not without its own brand of relationship complications.

I had come to find in dating while kinky that so much more was required of me than just doing “what I want” as the dominant partner in my sexual equation. In kink you ultimately are assuming a role or a fantasy, something that is not always “the truth,” but it’s underscored with a requirement of blunt honesty for our comfort zones, limitations and physical safety.

In this case I had to tell this well-meaning but emotionally clumsy software engineer that being with a real person means you’re not just going to get a live reenactment of the fantasies you’ve been jerking off to for 20 years. When absolutely no one in your real life has talked to you critically about your private preferences and that there should be a two-way street for mutual pleasure, it can feel shocking and a little bit mean.

This encounter would flash through my head again when my CEO dropped the words “Radical Candor” in a meeting, causing me to involuntarily frown at the memory of holding out a grown man’s underwear while he tripped around my room scooping up his belongings, grumbling audibly.

“What? I think it’s a good idea,” my CEO said, scrunching up his face with disappointment.

“Yeah sure, let’s talk about it,” I replied, snapping out of the memory of nude man buttocks, “Tell me how you see that being used.”

The latest in Silicon Valley buzzwords, “Radical Candor” is shorthand for being blunt because you care, but I’ve also heard it called such things as “frontstabbing” and “fierce conversation.” Debates scatter across the internet over whether it’s really all that novel, a sound recommendation in the context of gendered perceptions of “aggressiveness,” and whether it unfairly punishes employees with varying styles of communication and learning.

Being a dominatrix for me is my lifestyle and not my job, but nevertheless “Radical Candor,” is clearly a very familiar concept to a group of people who recreationally spend their time dishing out purposefully biting criticisms, corrections, and humiliation. It’s also something I’ve had to do often, as with my bespectacled friend, to stand my ground for everyone’s benefit even when it’s very, very uncomfortable. These communication norms combined with a lot of clothing-optional parties means we tend not to be very shy people, so why does the concept of Radical Candor and its proliferation across professional spaces give me so many feelings?

Is it possible for the sharp snap of a critique to feel good to its recipient? Is masochism something employees should have to embrace to be successful at work?

What is Radical Candor?

Kim Scott introduces Radical Candor in a talk in which she retells a time she met with the founders and CEO at Google, and her then boss Sheryl Sandberg gave her a critique after the meeting that she wasn’t quite swallowing:

“You know, Kim, I can tell I’m not really getting through to you. I’m going to have to be clearer here. When you say um every third word, it makes you sound stupid.”

Yeeowza. Kinda harsh don’t you think Sheryl?

To explain further, Scott asks us to “Picture a basic graph divided into four quadrants. If the vertical axis is caring personally and the horizontal axis is challenging directly, you want your feedback to fall in the upper right-hand quadrant. That’s where radical candor lies.” She says that it was because of the bluntness of this feedback that she actually sat up and paid attention.

Image from First Round Network

So, caring personally and challenging someone directly. That does sound perfectly reasonable written out, and I’m sure most of us can recall a time where we gave a very “unvarnished” opinion to someone we cared about because they were in severe danger of irreparably screwing up, hurting themselves or others. This level of communication is very commonplace in our friendships, families and relationships, like your friend telling you that the person you’re dating is an incurable asshole or your teacher telling you that you have to get your shit together to pass the class.

It’s also a level of communication expected by dominants towards submissives. When people engage in power exchange in kink play, it is usually accompanied by a lot of protocol surrounding communication that is agreed upon by the pair when they start, and not all of it is polite. You really can’t be shy about this stuff, and especially when it comes to consent and safety you may be required to give people a firm rejection, refusal or correction.

“I’m called by my first name, not Mistress and sure as fuck not ma’am. ‘Yellow’ if you are at your limit but ok. ‘Red’ is over limit and the scene ends. I expect you to ‘yellow’ before we get to that point. Can I trust you to do that?”

“Yes Mistress… I mean Ava.”

When honesty turns abusive

Communication tools are just that, one piece of equipment in a full toolbox (and full dungeon toy bag) that one should be employing in the journey to foster healthy human communication. No single tool in my opinion can close a gap for someone who still is learning about communication as a professional skillset, period.

Just as I’d be a pretty crummy Domme if I were barking orders at a submissive if I really actually didn’t give a crap if they came out of the interaction intact as a person, I think that without coupling the concept of radical candor with a broader skill set of empathetic communication, it quickly turns in to a shorthand for the “What? I was just being honest, I’m doing you a favor” brand of assholery.

Without empathy, honesty moves from a virtue to a word in airquotes, “honesty,” aka what happens when someone tells you that you’re uglier than your Tinder profile photos on the first date. It’s unfortunately what also happens in professional environments when people are taught that the critical piece of radical candor is somehow to shock people in to paying attention and not to radically give a shit about the person to whom you are speaking. Cringe with me if you will at this example given in the WSJ about how ad company Deutsch sees it:

“You have to have a thick skin to work here,” says Val DiFebo, chief executive of Deutsch’s New York office. That could be an understatement: The company once distributed T-shirts showing a giant scar with stitches over the heart.

So, this is the culture that you think connotes productivity? That all parts of the employee experience require a thick skin? Breaking employees hearts, is that how we really make them better?

Swaths of research show that shaming a behavior or outcome doesn’t improve performance in the long term, especially in “self improvement” efforts, and I have seen up close what happens when an executive discovers the concept of Radical Candor and thinks that “caring” means “caring about the bottom line” instead of caring about the person to whom they’re speaking. Many unskilled managers like the idea of Radical Candor because they formerly lacked confidence to provide support that their employees need to grow.

In its most unhealthy form Radical Candor makes for a kind of lazy shortcut for some managers to insist that their reports be more like them instead of recognizing their individual value on a team. Most commonly I saw it used as an attempt to clawback their own failures as a manager to create an environment that continuously incentivises feedback and improvement.

Moving towards Radical Empathy

Be it in an office or a dungeon, none of us are mind-readers. Odds are if you’re saying something that feels like a sharp slap to the recipient (and that is not their fetish) there was a whole lot of feedback you should have been offering in other ways up to that point.

People also communicate differently, and part of the work of a manager for me has been to learn from my people how they best receive feedback from different methods like learning by example, from written reviews or edits of existing work, from opportunity to try something on their own entirely and fail. Take it from someone who actually enjoys being mean to willing recipients but who still has to teach them how to best take it: none of these learning methods are coddling or depriving your employee of honesty, they’re just good management.

In many ways the relationships of coworkers and bosses to their reports are the ultimate in power exchange, backed up by the very real economic power that employers hold over the employed. This model can’t work especially if employees fear candor in reverse, afraid that their honesty towards their manager or employer may threaten the income they need to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families.

Maybe even more impactful than radical candor for me is a phrase that has stuck with me through my professional life and kink experiences alike: “Honesty without empathy is cruelty.” I find that proponents of Radical Candor in the workplace will often cite for me a situation that from the outside seems less about the sheer fact that it was truthful feedback, as much as the two people involved seemed to have grown a kind of relationship together that let the report know the critique came from a place of empathy.

“I want you to do well, I feel good when I know you will feel confident in your performance,” it says. It tends to be respectful of vulnerability in that moment, and feeling a responsibility towards the courage that it takes for someone to put themselves out there.

It’s why I had to stifle feelings of guilt when the engineer never showed up at another event. My criticisms were born out of a fundamental respect for what he wanted to be and where he saw himself long term with kink as part of his married life, not just going along to get along in our short-term dating experience. I asked him to assess where he wanted to be, how he was going to try and be different to reach his goal, what would he work on? I hope, I really do, that his exit indicated that he had done some thinking and very fairly decided that BDSM was just not for him. I hope he is happy.

So how do we employ Radical Empathy in our workplaces and relationships? Well it requires a lot of work to give a shit about people, and it’s part of what you should be paid for as a boss (Keep Emotional Labor Paid.) Some key takeaways that have helped me both be a better manager, and a domme who, so I’m told, is a lot more fun to play with:

  • If you expect people to be vulnerable when the going gets tough, demonstrate vulnerability yourself. Be open to bidirectional feedback.
  • Demonstrate the same amount of caring deeply when you are agreeing or supporting directly, not just challenging directly. Go the extra mile to listen to, implement reports ideas and credit them when they work.
  • Employ a vocabulary with your team that helps those that need them find boundaries. “I like your enthusiasm,” is a kind of safeword phrase I have heard someone use to let their cofounder know that while criticism is appreciated, it may not be a project ripe for full review just yet, so reel it in a bit.
  • Recognize and reward empathy and communication as leadership skills. This stuff is not a soft skill, it is a professional skill, one we should be teaching and looking for in those we both hire and promote.

It’s a long road to safe trusting relationships in any context, and I know from my own experience that workplaces are much more difficult spaces to get everyone feeling safe and comfortable than in dungeon play spaces for a wide variety of reasons. I think we have a long way to go before work culture in general fosters these power exchange environments and communication skills in the same way that the kink community has worked really hard to talk about and understand them.

Until then, take the time to try radically giving a shit about someone and their outcomes at your next work meeting or when they’re kneeling with their junk in a Birdlock on your floor. As Kim Scott concludes, at least you’ll know when everything is going wrong, you’ll be doing something right.

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