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Listen up: there's a radical new way to give feedback

“Radical candour” is currently doing the rounds as a new HR buzz-phrase.
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Listen up: there's a radical new way to give feedback

25 July 2019

“Radical candour” is currently doing the rounds as a new HR buzz-phrase. What is it? And does it offer anything we haven’t seen before? This article takes a closer look.

What is radical candour?

The origin of the term “radical candour” appears to be a recent US book, Radical Candor. Author Kim Scott defines the term (which is protected by trademark) basically as “getting what you want by saying what you mean”.

This means giving feedback that confronts and challenges the recipient while also making it obvious that you care deeply about the recipient. Note that this is NOT the same as being brutally honest.

The inevitable quadrant

Like many other management theories, radical candour is based around a quadrant. Scott lists four categories in which people provide feedback, and says that radical candour is the one everyone should aim for.

The other three categories are:
  • Obnoxious aggression. Challenging the person without caring about them. It can be unkind criticism or insincere praise (eg sarcasm). Examples: “You write reports badly, you must improve”. Or: “That was brilliant...NOT!”
  • Ruinous empathy. Thinking you care about the person but not challenging him/her, which results in no change. Example: a mere “Thanks for the report” – meaning it was done badly, but nothing is said for fear of hurting the person’s feelings. It is also summed up by the cliché of “if you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all”. The other person may simply fail to register that there is a problem, because criticism is either absent, sugar-coated or unclear. Likewise, any “praise” won’t be specific enough for the person to understand what it relates to.
  • Manipulative insincerity. Neither challenging the person nor caring about him/her. Example: “Your report was good, I made some changes, but keep up the good work”. In other words, the report was bad. This approach may include backstabbing (the real criticism occurs when the person is not around), playing politics and passive-aggressive behaviour. It may be a self-protective reaction to the use of obnoxious aggression.
Of these three categories, ruinous empathy is probably the most common in workplaces. Most people become defensive to some degree when challenged or criticised, and managers and co-workers simply prefer to avoid controversy. The big problem with that is that nothing will change – the employee will continue to do bad reports and others will have to manage around it.

Scott warns against trying to place everyone in one of the four quadrants. We all show traits of each of them at different times. The categories instead are a guide used to identify what is happening at any time.

Radical candour = challenging while caring

Scott describes radical candour as soliciting feedback, making it clear that you really do want to hear it, and embracing any discomfort that results. Its two dimensions are:
  1. challenge directly
  2. care personally

An example of opening a conversation is as follows:

“I enjoy working with you and I want that to continue. However, recently I have had to correct some mistakes you made. Can we work together to overcome this?”

Radical candour conversations can flow in both directions. Managers can also learn a great deal from constructive feedback from the people they manage. There must be an organisation culture where employees can confidently approach their managers, otherwise ruinous empathy is a more likely outcome.

Some basic steps towards using radical candour include the following:
  • Make it clear that you are listening to the other person, with the intention of understanding him/her. The various techniques used in active listening will be helpful.
  • Agree to fix any problem raised in the conversation. Even if you disagree with the other person, find the 5% you can agree with, and start by implementing that.
  • Do it in person, and follow the rule of “praise in public, criticise in private”. Emails or text messages leave too much room for misinterpretation.
  • Stick to commenting on actual behaviour, not personality traits. Apart from making an issue too “personal”, personality traits are much harder to change.
  • If “gentle prodding” isn’t working, dial up the message that the intention of approaching someone is that because you care about him/her, you really want him/her to succeed. But of course it has to be sincere and backed up with action.
  • Be willing to admit your own vulnerability, eg admit when you are having a bad day and make it safe for others to do likewise.

Further information

Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean, by Kim Scott, Amazon, 2017. Visit the website.

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