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Is “Radical Candor” the best way to approach to feedback?

Written on 
December 11, 2019

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Giving and receiving feedback can be a minefield. If a colleague asks for your honest opinion – no holds barred – do you worry what you’ll say if it lands awfully, or at what point honesty just seems rude? No one likes hurting other people’s feelings, but without honest feedback it’s impossible to grow, to understand where we’re doing a good job and where we need to improve. Sincere feedback is a gift… even if it doesn’t always seem like a desirable one. This is the basis of the “Radical Candor” feedback approach, but is it really the best way to approach feedback?

What is “Radical Candor”?

The term “Radical Candor” was coined by former Google and Apple employee Kim Scott. Now a CEO coach for some of the world’s biggest tech companies, like Twitter and Dropbox, Scott uses the Radical Candor tool to teach executives how to better manage their employees. What Scott learned during her years as a boss was that to truly help her employees, she had to challenge them directly – something that we’ve been hardwired not to do. So she formulated a new approach to feedback.

Radical Candor is about being honest with people but communicating with care. Harsh criticism can obviously hurt, so this candor is something that must be navigated carefully. Many managers avoid giving blunt feedback, and perhaps for good reason: nobody wants to be seen as rude, and harsh criticism can easily make someone doubt their skills or performance. But Radical Candor isn’t about only giving blunt feedback; it’s about giving blunt feedback while showing you care about the person you’re feeding back to.

Feedback is only effective when it’s purposeful and meaningful – when it actually helps someone improve, and when it’s given for the sole purpose of helping a person do better. For this reason, Scott calls feedback “guidance”. Remember that many people baulk at the term “feedback”, which they might associate with criticism, but the word “guidance” suggests someone who’s leading them and helping them – someone they can trust, who genuinely cares.

The pitfalls of honest feedback

Put simply, according to Scott’s guidelines, Radical Candor is “caring personally” while “challenging directly”. It’s always remembering that you’re talking to a human being with feelings. Being professional doesn’t mean leaving your humanity at home. Being frank and honest but speaking with care is the best way to manage people, according to Scott – but is this actually true? Is such honesty always constructive… or can it be destructive?

Consider that most of us have probably been stung by negative feedback. If you ask someone for feedback on a presentation you’re actually pretty happy with, but they come back with a whole list of criticisms… well, that doesn’t feel good. Negative feedback can make you doubt not just your knowledge and capability, but your wider perception of yourself too. You might feel foolish for thinking your presentation was good enough. You might become stressed at the thought of bettering it. You might feel disheartened, hurt and embarrassed.

These feelings are natural, but they’re an example of the potential pitfalls of honesty. What works for one employee doesn’t always work for another, and what one person can take on the chin, another may feel deeply hurt by. But this is where Radical Candor differences from simple honest feedback. The key difference is that Radical Candor is always rooted in care. Think about the times you’ve received criticism from someone you know cares about you – a parent, sibling or friend. The feedback might sting briefly, but it will soon pass ¬– because you know it’s coming from a good place.

Navigating Radical Candor

When you have someone’s best interest at heart, you want them to get better. Traditionally managers veered between keeping silent altogether to avoid confrontation, or what Scott calls “Obnoxious Aggression” – where managers delivered criticism harshly, without taking any time to show they care. Radical candor falls in between, providing a “happy medium between the blunt, harsh management of the 1980s and the touchy-feely compassion of the 21st Century.”

Scott points out that not being honest with someone, because you want to spare their feelings, can actually do far more harm than being blunt. She calls this “Ruinous Empathy” – where you conceal what someone should know because you don’t want to hurt them. The only alternative to “Ruinous Empathy” and “Obnoxious Aggression” (other than “Radical Candor”) is “Manipulative Insincerity”: disingenuous praise, backstabbing, passive-aggressive behavior. These are, clearly, definitely not things any half-decent manager should do.

When used correctly, Radical Candor can create a new normal for giving feedback – one where the guidance doesn’t reinforce bad behavior and is clear and compassionate. “If you speak with radical candour, then you’re going to help people get feedback in a way they can act on,” says Sally Maitlis, professor of organisational behaviour and leadership at the University of Oxford. So what does Radical Candor actually look like?

Scott encourages managers to remember the acronym ‘HHIPP’ when trying to put Radical Candor into practice: “Radical candor is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person — in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise — and it doesn’t personalize.” It might take a while for Radical Candor to be embraced by everyone; after all, it requires us to forget the idea that “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But then again, few things in life worth having come easy – and Radical Candor is no exception.

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