A leader needs to build and maintain positive working relationships, guide their employees, and give – and receive – feedback. ‘Radical candor’ is a recognised leadership skill that has been achieving a lot of traction since 2017, with the publication of Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.  For developing better relationships with your staff, she advises you to ‘make it personal, get stuff done, and understand why it matters’.

What is radical candor?

According to Kim Scott, who first developed the concept and approach, radical candor is ‘a management philosophy based on caring personally while challenging directly’. In other words, assertive empathy. This doesn’t mean being aggressive; nor does it mean being too ‘soft’. Whether you are giving praise or criticism, radical candor means developing the skills of assertively giving direct, honest feedback or guidance – delivered with empathy, encouragement and compassion.

Kim Scott

Scott was an extremely successful manager at Google; then, at Apple. Her approach – radical candor – is tremendously successful in inspiring people to embrace ‘fierce conversations’ to improve teamworking.

In a Harvard Business Review podcast, Scott says: ‘when you remember to challenge directly, but you forget to show that you care personally, I call that “obnoxious aggression”…  Other times however, we sort of remember to show we care personally, but we forget to challenge directly.  And that, I call “ruinous empathy”.  And of course, the very worse place of all is where you neither care nor challenge and that is “manipulative insincerity”.  And the truth is, all of us bounce between all three of those mistakes on a daily basis.’

Scott advocates three areas of influence to achieve radical candor: fostering a culture of feedback, team cohesion, and collaborative achievement of results.

1. Feedback Culture

Great leadership starts with self-leadership. To develop a culture of feedback, show that it works both ways: demonstrate that you can take it, by inviting your employees to give you feedback, first. Do ensure that you accept any feedback – whether positive or negative – with grace and gratitude.

Encourage staff to see the value in feedback. Scott says, ‘think of that moment in your career where someone told you something that stung a little bit in the moment, but stood you in good stead for the next 10, 20 years.’ Make yourself vulnerable by sharing this personal story.

Choose your words. Asking for and giving feedback can feel uncomfortable. Think how to phrase your question to ask for feedback in natural ways, appropriate to the individual or context. E.g. “Is there anything I can do to make it easier to work with me?”

Wait for an answer. Ask for feedback – and expect silence. Nobody wants to tell you you’re in the wrong, or ‘could do better.’ But don’t fill that awkward silence. Wait patiently. Count to twenty. Eventually, they will tell you.

Listen, and accept – without judgment. Don’t argue, reply or interject. Hear them out to understand their perspective, respecting their viewpoint, feelings or opinion. No need to be defensive.

Respond with grace. Don’t just thank them for their candor – reward it. Find a solution to the issue – take action if you agree. Even if you disagree, accept that there must be something to it; thank them; say you’ll think about what they’ve said and get back to them. Consider the matter and formulate your response to explain why you disagree with them.

Give feedback with the emphasis on praise.  Some recipients are sceptical of the contrived structure of a feedback sandwich: ‘praise – criticism – praise’. But do commence with sincere, specific praise. Since challenge is necessary, make criticism clear, constructive – and kind. But don’t be overly gentle: Scott says, ‘empathy can be a great asset… But it can also paralyze you when you’re so concerned about the other person’s feelings in the moment that you fail to tell them something that they’d be better off knowing in the long run.’ Ensure that praise outweighs criticism, to motivate and encourage.

2. Team cohesion

For a productive, high performing team, building good relationships matters.

Find out team members’ values: what’s important to them – why they do what they do. Knowing this helps you to leverage their motivation, deepening connection, caring and understanding. What are their hopes and dreams?

Know your staff : this helps you to designate roles or projects more appropriately: who is keen for challenge and progression and who wants to maintain their existing position?

Encourage all members to give and receive feedback: this improves relationships and achievements.

Create space: let people to talk openly about issues that concern them, rather than behind people’s backs. Mediate if necessary, but take an even-handed approach, dealing with both parties equally.

3. Collaborative achievement

You can’t just tell people to do things. Show that you care about them as well as caring about the results – and get your team to collaborate. Challenge them to supercharge their performance – together.

Listen. A great leader doesn’t speak loudest. Moreover, a great leader doesn’t just listen to the loudest. Encourage the quietest, thoughtful people to voice their ideas, opinions and suggestions. And listen.

Clarify. Innovative, fresh ideas are often weak or unformed, so help your staff to develop and strengthen them. Discuss and debate them to help to clarify and build them. It might get loud and messy, but it’s all to the good.

Delegate decision-making. Ensure that people more knowledgeable than you make decisions. Build your team’s decision-making potential into a productive force – and encourage buy-in.

Radical candor is a tool and philosophy to improve your feedback, your team and your results. When you practice these principles, everyone will benefit from direct and honest communication; better working relationships and accelerated performance. Be radically candid – and reap the rewards.

Please feel free to download my ‘Leadership Self-Refection and Action Worksheet’ as well as other learning and leadership resources.

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