Radical Candor

It’s that season again, where confusion abounds, anxiety is high, and frustration is available to all! Nope, not talking about spring…it’s performance evaluation season (cue the applause and jubilation)! 

In a recent survey I conducted with a school on campus, here were some of the descriptors about performance evaluations: ‘waste of time,’ ‘doesn’t help me grow,’ ‘not helpful in helping me advance my career,’ (and my favorite) ‘listed events that I was hearing about for the first time!’  

Why isn’t this time of year more celebratory? More anticipatory? More collaborative? My take – we don’t know how to provide feedback that is both honest and respectful. In short, we are in dire need of some “Radical Candor.”   

Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. How to be a Great Boss Without Losing Your Humanity is essential reading for anyone who manages ANYONE. This obviously includes the workplace but this approach maybe used for parents, siblings and friends. Radical Candor marries genuine care for the other person with direct feedback.     

Scott challenges the assumption that in order to work in a professional setting, we need to leave our full selves at home. Instead, bringing your full self to work fosters humanity, caring and vulnerability. Being vulnerable starts with the manager – this IS part of the job, she attests; showing your full self, admitting mistakes, asking for feedback are all parts of creating a caring and trusting relationship with your team. 

Achieving “Radical Candor” involves approaching accountability conversations by: 1) GENUINELY “caring personally” about the other person and 2) “challenge directly.” Scott writes about how to challenge directly. In an attempt to  “soften” the message when we are challenging someone, we may layer our direct feedback with a compliment, then the critique, followed by another compliment.  This is called “sandwiching” and only leaves the recipient confused.  Scott also suggests eliminating the phrase “don’t take it personally, but…” as part of your feedback because it’s not demonstrating true caring; we know our critique may be hard to hear, so telling the recipient to not feel that way is a guaranteed path to defensiveness and harm to the relationship.   

Think of the last time you received feedback – whether it was a compliment or a critique.  If you didn’t have trust in them, their feedback likely flopped. If you had trust in that other person, you most likely received the compliment or critique well. Trust is the essence of “caring personally.”   

Radical Candor describes three traps leaders fall into when giving feedback:  “Obnoxious Aggression,” “Ruinous Empathy,” and “Manipulative Insincerity.” These are all behaviors commonly used to give feedback. Scott asserts all result in stagnation and dissatisfaction for everyone involved.  

First, let’s look at “Obnoxious Aggression.” Scott says that this behavior is direct but it misses the mark on caring. Instead, the feedback comes in the form of an insult, or belittling, demeaning jabs. “I just tell it like it is; I’m an honest person,” is a phrase I hear a lot in my role as an Ombuds when working with visitors in challenging relationships. The problem posed by this approach is that feedback can be used as a weapon under the guise of honesty. The thought, “I’m just being honest – you’re an idiot!” is not helpful, is not  behaviorally specific, and is not kind. This approach also has the potential to create defensiveness in the person you’re “coaching.” 

The next trap is “Ruinous Empathy,” which keeps the leader silent or avoidant for fear of hurting the other person’s feelings.  Your job as a leader includes development of your people, helping them grow, and helping them see their blind spots. This cannot be achieved if you are too afraid of hurting their feelings. Scott says when your employees know you care about them, they will know your concern and feedback is coming from the right place. 

Last is “Manipulative Insincerity,” the behavior of silence driven by our insecurities and the need to be liked. Instead of providing honest feedback, we tend to stay silent, worried the person will think poorly of us. Scott argues that “Radical Candor” is all about caring: “Give a damn about the people you challenge.” This means caring less about how the other person will  perceive us and more about helping that person grow and develop. Think about the last time you had food in your teeth and no one told you. How much, now, do you trust those around you to have your best interests in mind? Saying nothing leads to mistrust.   

We all need feedback to help us be better and do better. Radical Candor’s effectiveness is in the delivery of authenticity, the building of trust, and the kind of balanced truthful feedback that is both caring, constructive and honest.

By: Lisa Neale
Associate Director, University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office

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