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Does “Radical Candor” Really Work?

Let’s talk about “radical candor” now, before it gets too popular.

Radical candor, also known as “front-stabbing,” is the management “secret” of former Google director Kim Scott, and was recently discussed in Fast Company and the Wall Street Journal. Theoretically, this direct form of critique is meant to prevent the typical workplace passive-aggression, soft-pedaling, and avoidance of tough truths. It’s intended to produce better results for both individuals and the business by cutting to the heart of any misguided, ineffective behavior promptly.

radical-candorMs. Scott is extremely clear about the simultaneous requirement for “caring personally” and “challenging directly.” Unfortunately, most people don’t have an instinct for this combination. As you can see from the graphic (right), the intersection of these two factors is small, relative to everything else — and everything else is a horror show.

The Truth Won’t Set You Free — If You Don’t Know How to Use It

Many people think of caring personally as the equivalent of “being nice.” They assume that challenging directly permits them to be forcefully judgmental and “let the chips fall where they may.” But where the chips fall is often on other people’s soft feelings. And if the recipients of the feedback don’t understand how to change their behavior — or why their previous behaviors, communications, or approaches weren’t desirable — there will be no improvement.

I used to work with a guy who was a strong proponent of something he called “brutal honesty.” Unfortunately, his feedback was not generally well accepted, and he was not well liked by anyone who was in the position to receive his radical candor. Very few people desire to be brutalized, even if someone else thinks it’s good for them.

This fellow’s belief in brutality probably didn’t come only from a desire for business effectiveness. He may have developed it as a way to avoid having his time wasted on things he perceived to be inconsequential or having his personal discomfort triggered by interpersonal messiness.

But while the brutality of the honesty — or the radicalness of the candor — may cause behavior change, there’s nothing about wounding that will necessarily get you the behavior you want.

Necessary Conditions for Using Feedback to Change Performance

If the work environment, organizational culture, or leadership styles don’t already support collaboration, joint success, and compassionate developmental feedback most folks won’t have experience to simultaneously care and challenge. So when an executive suddenly introduces radical candor, many people will just think they’ve been directed to take the gloves off and start slugging.

How shocked most of them will be — and the executive too — when the results turn out to be counterpunching, sulking, and hiding; real issues going underground; and the sprouting of personal and team vendettas.

Move from Radical Brutality to Useful Truth

Candor and kindness aren’t mutually exclusive, but putting them together successfully takes consistent, focused, skillful effort.

So start from the other side of things and work on caring more — about the business, its goals, and the people in it. Work on listening more. That way, you can tailor your feedback to each individual’s context and role within the organization.

Be sure that you position the truth within a clear understanding of the people and your shared expectations. Express curiosity about how and why things go poorly, and establish a strong practice of balanced, meaningful dialog about what’s actually happening and what would be better.

Then you’ll see less pain and more gain for everyone.

Onward and upward,

LK

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