Radical Candor: How Leaders Can Use It to Manage Effectively

Why employees appreciate radical candor if it’s done right. Here’s how to get the information across without offending them.

Written by Dawn Kawamoto
Published on Jul. 13, 2022
Radical Candor: How Leaders Can Use It to Manage Effectively

Former Google AdSense director Kim Scott vividly remembers a turning point in her career when her boss Sheryl Sandberg gave her a dose of radical candor. 

It began with a meeting room to discuss AdSense. Standing in one corner clad in bright blue spandex pants was Google co-founder Sergey Brin exercising on an elliptical machine and in the other corner was then CEO Eric Schmidt with his nose buried in his laptop. Scott was in the room to update Brin, Schmidt and Sandberg on the status of AdSense and the truckload of new customers it had landed.

“Eric almost fell out of his chair. He was like, ‘This is incredible. Do you need more marketing dollars? More engineering resources?’ I felt like a genius and walked out of the room expecting a high-five or pat on the back from my boss,” Scott told Built In. “Instead, she asked me to walk back to the office with her. I thought, ‘Wow, I screwed something up.’”

Inside her office, Sandberg told Scott all the things she did right with her presentation but then followed it up with this observation.

What Is Radical Candor? 

Leaders must care personally about the person to who they are providing praise or criticism and also challenge them directly.

Sandberg asked Scott if she was aware she said ‘um’ a lot in her presentation. Scott did know this about herself and kind of made a brush-off gesture with her hand. Her boss then noted she knew a great speech coach and that Google would likely be willing to pay for it — Sandberg would introduce her. Scott again brushed it off and said she was too busy.

“She stopped, looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I can tell with that thing you do with your hand that I have to be a lot more direct with you. When you say ‘um’ every third word, it makes you sound stupid,’” Scott said. “Now, she had my full attention.”

While some may consider Sandberg’s comments harsh, Scott felt it was the kindest thing Sandberg could have done for her. She met with the speech coach and learned Sandberg was not exaggerating. She literally did say ‘um’ every third word. 

“It got me thinking, why had no one told me about this before? I suddenly realized I’d been marching through my whole career with a giant hunk of spinach between my teeth and no one had the common courtesy to tell me it was there.”

“This was news to me. I have raised money for three different startups and was used to giving presentations. I actually thought I was good at it,” Scott said. “It got me thinking, why had no one told me about this before? I suddenly realized I’d been marching through my whole career with a giant hunk of spinach between my teeth and no one had the common courtesy to tell me it was there.”

Scott’s situation and others she experienced in her career prompted her to write the book “Radical Candor” and create a consulting company by the same name. 

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What Is the Meaning of Radical Candor? 

Radical candor is a combination of personally caring about the employee while challenging them directly with criticism or praise, Scott said.

The purpose of radical candor feedback is to promote learning and improvement in the recipient. With this self-awareness, they may develop an understanding of themselves or the situation and improve from it, experts said.

Others consider radical candor as a way to be brutally honest, but Scott notes there are differences between the two concepts. A brutally honest approach doesn’t necessarily involve caring how the person might receive the feedback or what the outcome will be. 

“Sheryl cared personally about me, not just as an employee but also as a human being,” Scott said. When Scott first arrived at Google from New York and didn’t know a soul, Sandberg introduced her to a book group. And when her father was diagnosed with cancer, Sandberg insisted she immediately leave for the airport to be with him and assured her the team had her back. But by the same token, Scott knew if she screwed up Sandberg would challenge her directly.

By establishing you care about the person, it helps build trust and ease the direct criticism or feedback you offer. This caring and candid conversation is also known as benevolent honesty, said Taya Cohen, associate professor of organizational behavior and business ethics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

“We often assume that if a person is communicating honestly, it is brutal honesty. Or, if they’re communicating kindly, it’s false hope or false encouragement. They assume there’s this tradeoff,” Cohen said. “I think there is a better approach with benevolent honesty.”

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Why It’s Important for Leaders to Use Radical Candor

For Tom Sanocki, engineering director for Avatar at Roblox, it means a more efficient, productive and growth opportunity for both he and his team.

“I was working with a team member who had worked really hard on a roadmap plan. But ultimately, it wasn’t good enough and didn’t have the right priority set and was just too slow,” Sanocki recalled. “I had a choice. I could have said, ‘Oh, that’s okay,’ and then tweak it later. Or, I could have been direct. I chose the latter.”

In a private meeting, he explained the goals the company was trying to reach with the plan. He suggested they work together to produce more ideas and make it better.

“Ultimately, this helped everyone get better. I learned something, they learned something.”

“They learned how to build a better plan themselves and contribute ideas that I couldn’t have done,” Sanocki said. “Ultimately, this helped everyone get better. I learned something, they learned something.”

He added whenever you tweak things after telling someone the work was fine, your team may begin to feel you are encroaching on their autonomy or are behaving in a passive aggressive way, which could hurt the team.

Although radical candor is an important skill to develop, team leads, managers and leaders may be reluctant to take such action for fear of hurting the other person’s feelings. 

But guess what? Recipients are likely to appreciate the feedback and studies bear that out.

“We underestimate how helpful they may find this communication and we overestimate the potential harm or awkwardness,” said Cohen, who in 2018 released a report on his phenomenon called You Can Handle the Truth: Mispredicting the Consequences of Honest Communication.

The study found that recipients of radical candor on average listed the experience between a 3 to 4 on a scale of 5, with 5 being the most enjoyable. But those giving the feedback expected recipients would rate it between a 2 to 3 on the scale.

Similar results were also found when those giving radical candor comments made predictions on whether candid conversations would result in hurting their social connections with the recipient of the information.

“We don’t fully appreciate how valuable the information can be that we provide,” Cohen said.

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 Useful Frameworks for Giving Feedback

Radical candor operates on two axes. One axis stretches from caring personally to not caring at all, while the other axis extends from challenging directly to silence. They each work on a sliding scale.

If the person receiving the direct and candid criticism is showing signs of sadness or anger, it’s time to adjust and remind them it’s coming from a place of concern. However, if the person appears to be brushing you off, you need to increase the degree of bluntness and pushback, Scott explained.

The two axes of Scott’s model creates a quadrant, with radical candor being the perfect balance of care and challenge. If you wimp out on delivering honest feedback, you begin to slide into the ruinous empathy quadrant box. If you are too brutal and harsh, you will find yourself in the obnoxious aggression quadrant. And finally, failing to challenge directly with little care can land you in the manipulative insincerity quadrant. 

Leaders want to be in the high honesty, high benevolence quadrant. To achieve this, try telling a direct report that you are about to provide feedback because you have very high expectations and that you believe they are capable of achieving those high standards when giving critical feedback.

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Tips for Radically Candid Criticism  

Before dishing out criticism with radical candor (whether you’re in person or remote), leaders should practice soliciting feedback from others and responding to it, Scott said.

She also noted it’s important to praise in public but criticize in private and never make your criticism a personal attack. Sandberg, for example, said Scott’s ‘ums’ make her sound stupid, rather than saying Scott was stupid for saying um, she explained.

Sanocki shares Scott’s views.

“Radical candor isn’t a one-way street, it’s a two-way street,” he said. “The more willing we are to open ourselves up to feedback, the more opportunities we’ll have for easier conversations with others. It kind of breaks the ice when they can use radical candor on me too.”

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Edward Mangini, principal technical consultant with Thoughtworks, follows these four steps when practicing radical candor with his stakeholders.

  • Check in to see if the other person is willing to receive feedback
  • If the situation begins to get heated, pause and revisit the discussion in the following days
  • Caring candor must be recent, direct and respectful
  • Be accountable for your own opinions and perspectives you are giving and individual, even if they have heard it from others before

He added it’s also possible to use radical candor without knowing your teammates or stakeholders very well.

In the consulting world, you typically don’t have a long road of building teams together, so it’s especially important to engage in radical candor, Mangini said.

 

Caring Personally

Caring personally is baked into the DNA of many people but for some it’s not. However, it’s a skill that can be learned and important to have when giving criticism, Scott said. 

She pointed to a former Google executive she worked with, who instilled this trait into a large team he managed. The executive, a former Marine, brought in all his managers from across the globe to attend a training session where they learned how to engage in get-to-know-you conversations with their direct reports and team members.

Managers, for example, would ask employees to tell them about their life starting from kindergarten. While some folks might feel comfortable sharing that much, there are others who are probably a little more reluctant to share. The latter will begin to trust managers who respect those boundaries and don’t pry, Scott added.

 

Challenge Directly

Offering direct feedback can be an uncomfortable task for many managers, who are afraid they will hurt an employee’s feelings. Instead, try framing it in a different light. Consider it a gift you are giving the recipient, Scott said.

Romy Parzick, CEO of Vault, has adopted a similar mindset and now seeks to be fully transparent about the whole issue at hand.

“Before I would offer you a kernel of truth and see how you hear it. Then I would give you a larger kernel of truth. Now, I’ve learned to be fully transparent,” Parzick said. “If you truly care about someone, why wouldn’t you want them to have all the information as early as possible so they can make the choice to improve or change?”

Remembering when someone gave you direct and caring feedback and how it benefited your work or personal life can give you the courage to challenge directly when needed, Scott said.

Feedback triangles can also provide a training ground to practice radical candor, she added. Person A gives feedback to Person B, who makes it as difficult as possible for Person A to give feedback with radical candor. Person C, meanwhile, serves as an observer to gauge the proper ratio of caring personally against challenging directly. The participants then rotate roles until everyone has played each of the three slots.

Delivering radical candor with clarity is key, said Gail Doby, co-founder and CEO of Gail Doby Coaching and Consulting.

“If you’re clear, that person has an understanding of what the expectation was,” Doby said. “As a manager, you have to step back and ask yourself, ‘Did I really tell them my expectations? Did they have a clear understanding of it?’”

And do most managers ask themselves this question?

“They don’t but they should,” Doby said. 

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Common Mistakes When Using Radical Candor 

Caring deeply for the other person but remaining silent on much needed critical candor is a common mistake. Scott knows this and found herself in this situation when she owned a startup.

One of her employees was extremely likeable and popular, but the quality of his work was extremely poor. She shared a few vague comments about improving the shape of his work, but nothing changed.

Ten months later, Scott called the employee into her office and explained she was firing him because of the quality of his work. The situation had come to a point where Scott was afraid this employee’s inadequate work would result in her losing her best performers, who were increasingly getting frustrated cleaning up their co-worker’s work, which in turn, was making them late on delivering products on schedule.

“When I finished explaining to him where things stood, he looked me right in the eye and said, why didn’t you tell me this earlier?,” Scott said. “I had no good answer for him.” Scott said.  

He then went on to ask why no one, including his teammates, told him of this problem and added that he thought everyone cared about him.

“It was possibly the worst moment in my career. I made myself a solemn promise I would never make that mistake again and do everything in my power to help other people avoid making that same mistake,” Scott said.

Another common mistake is delivering radical candor via a sandwich framework. The compliment, criticism, compliment sandwich-style feedback is ill-advised because it can leave the recipient confused as to your point or how much weight to give the criticism or praise. It can also leave them feeling the compliments were insincere because they had nothing to do with the criticism, career experts said.

In other cases, if the compliments are overly positive, then the recipient may not hear the criticism buried between the two compliments, Cohen explained, noting it may be more beneficial to separate compliments in one discussion and criticisms in another.

Feedback that isn’t actionable or within the employee’s ability to control does little benefit to the recipient, said career experts.

“You want to say something to somebody quickly and effectively but if they’re not in a space to receive it you can do damage, as well.”  

“If you say, ‘You did a bad job on this product and it failed,’ that’s not something that is actionable and if it’s not actionable, it tends to result in people closing off and they don’t tend to improve,” said Andrew Brodsky, assistant professor of management at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Another mistake is not being mindful of their tone, or the environment in which they’re giving the radical candor feedback, said Allison McConnell, operations manager at Clearbridge Business Solutions. Also, not understanding how the person will really receive the information, she added.

“You want to say something to somebody quickly and effectively but if they’re not in a space to receive it you can do damage, as well.”

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