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What Is Radical Candor?

April 28, 2020
4 Min Read
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We’re all familiar with the expression, “If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all.” Moms, teachers, everyone advised that you should keep any negative comments or thoughts to yourself.  

That expectation broadens as you enter the professional world. We need candor now more than ever. To be specific, we need radical candor now more than ever. We named dropped radical candor a couple of blogs ago, but we promised to come back.

Pst, before we get started, check out our candor skill guide! It walks you through the do's and don'ts of candor, candid leaders, and the habits to avoid.

What is radical candor?

Up until this point, we’ve covered definition of candor and how it fits into the professional world. Here's a refresher: Candor is the skill to have open, sincere, and direct communication. So, how do candor and radical candor differ? And, what makes it so radical?

"‘You know, Kim, I can tell I'm not really getting through to you. I'm going to have to be clearer here. When you say “um” every third word, it makes you sound stupid.’”

– Sheryl Sandberg, Kim Scott's former boss

What makes radical candor so radical?

Kim Scott, the founder of Candor Inc., a consulting service that helps companies build more radically candid teams, describes radical candor as personally caring and challenging the recipient of candor directly. Scott recalls a specific moment after giving a successful presentation to Google executives, when her former boss, Sheryl Sandberg, asked to take a walk.

Sandberg told Scott about what went well during the presentation and then shed light into areas of improvement. Finally, Sandberg said, "You said 'um' a lot in there, were you aware of it?"

Scott made a brush off gesture and responded, "Yeah, no it's verbal tic, no big deal really." At that moment, Scott describes how Sandberg stopped, looked right at her, and said her needed to be a lot more direct with her.

"When you say 'um' every third word, it makes you sound stupid,” said Sandberg.

Scott said Sandberg's blunt feedback was the "kindest thing she could have possibly done" for her career. It was because of this feedback, Scott trained with a speech coach and essentially booted the "ums" out of her vocabulary.  

That's what makes radical candor so radical. The elements of personal investment and directly challenging the receiver.  

The line between radical candor and just being rude

Let’s take a moment to distinguish the difference between radical candor and rudeness. Scott said that part of Sandberg’s bluntness came from the fact that she cared about her professional development.

“Caring personally makes it much easier to do the next thing you have to do as a good boss, which is being willing to piss people off.”

– Kim Scott, founder of Candor Inc.

Radical candor is a tool that helps guide professionals. It's not an excuse to be a jerk or disrespectful. Part of candor's definition is to be direct, sincere, and straightforward. We still stick by that.

Radical candor focuses on delivering tough feedback. There's no intention of hurting the person, but rather finding room for improvement. In fact, a lack of candor can hurt professionals down the road and create an environment of mistrust and fear.

Finding opportunities to implement radical candor

Remember that phrase from the beginning of the blog, "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all?" Toss it out. We're starting a new company culture, one that embraces radical candor in the workplace.

Take the first step. You can't expect people to change overnight. It'll take time for the culture to reset. It's all about baby steps. Start by implementing #FeedbackFriday where peers take the time to give each other thoughtful and actionable feedback. Once your team starts getting the hang of being radically candid, then you can expand to other days.    

Tell the who, what, when, where, and why. People don't just hop on board without asking all the essential questions. Explain to your teammates the importance of radical candor, the difference it can make on the company, and focus on the professional development advantages. Keep that transparency alive while making this transformation.

It's not a one-size-fits-all. Even though radical candor has a specific definition, there's room to customize this skill. Don't be afraid to test out or experiment different methods of radical candor. It's important to figure out what fits well into your company's culture and how your teams feels about practicing these methods. Remember to be open-minded when getting radical feedback!

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