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What is radical candor?

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Last editedMar 20212 min read

Radical candor is the name given to a management technique that was first popularized in the book, “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity” by Kim Scott. The title of the book neatly summarizes the principles of the approach – it is a method of managing employees that involves the development of a close and caring relationship. 

The principle behind radical candor is that the closeness of that relationship enables a boss to be genuinely honest about the performance of their employees, even if the feedback in question can sometimes be challenging. 

Radical candor and personal growth

Adopting a radical candor framework for the basis of interaction with employees enables any boss to give them the kind of honest feedback and commentary that is needed to foster genuine personal growth. Some people have misunderstood the nature of radical candor and presumed that it is merely a license to provide unpleasant feedback in a brutally honest manner. 

This is a mistake, however, since the principle of radical candor is that the relationship between boss and employee is good enough for both praise and criticism to be given and received in a positive manner.  

The first aspect of radical candor

The first plank of managing with radical candor involves showing that you care personally. This means treating employees as human beings and accepting that sometimes honest criticism can be hurtful, but that if it comes from a place of caring then it can be used constructively. 

Showing employees that you care about them as a rounded person. Acknowledging that they have a life outside work, for example, will create the conditions that make it possible to create a genuine relationship. 

The second aspect of radical candor

Showing that you care personally creates the conditions for delivering the second plank of radical candor, which is being able to challenge directly. Challenging directly involves telling employees when and where their work isn’t up to scratch, using non-judgmental and caring language. In too many cases, bosses hold back from delivering criticism for fear of the reaction, and a concern that they will alienate members of the workforce. 

A personal caring ethos, however, makes it possible to deliver feedback directly and honestly, without having to disguise the criticism amidst synthetic praise or delay delivering the “bad news”. Radical candor creates a company culture in which employees realize the feedback they receive is always in their best interests. 

The alternatives

The radical candor framework is usually set out as a four-part rubric that outlines the three alternatives to radical candor and the issues each of these alternatives presents. Those alternatives are as follows:

Ruinous empathy

This approach involves too much caring and not enough challenging, and the managers adopting it find it impossible to offer criticism because they might upset their employees. While this may be prompted by a wish to protect the employee, the result is that it stops that employees truly developing their true potential. 

Manipulative insincerity

This approach is adopted by a manager who doesn’t really care about the employee. As a result, both the praise and criticism they provide will be vague and lacking in actionable insights. 

Obnoxious aggression

Obnoxious aggression is sometimes mistaken for radical candor, but it contains all of the challenging behavior with none of the care. Managers acting in this way won’t demonstrate care for the wellbeing of their employees, and contact between the two either doesn’t take place at all or mainly involves criticism. 

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