How Radical Candor can make you a MUCH better boss

the radical candor framework

“Radical Candor” is a book, a framework, and a consultancy by Kim Scott, an ex-Google and ex-Apple employee. Some experiences she had while working for Silicon Valley tech giants (as well as running her own company) inspired Scott to want to explore the management aspect of the software engineering industry.

Quite ambitiously, Radical Candor claims to be on a mission of “ridding the world of bad bosses.” Many managers have found it helpful. So what is it about?

The framework

It all started when Scott, then a new face at Google, presented to the company’s top execs about her AdSense team progress. Kim Scott felt like she totally rocked that presentation when Sheryl Sandberg, her boss at the time, called Scott into her office and said:

“I noticed that you said ‘umm’ a lot during the presentation.

“Oh, I know, that’s nothing.” Kim Scott did a brush-off gesture with her hand. “It’s probably just a verbal tic.”

“Well, I know a great speech coach who can help. Google will pay for it.”

“Nah, I don’t think I’ve got the time now. Thanks!” Kim Scott did the brush-off gesture again.

“When you do that brush-off gesture,” said Sheryl Sandburg, “I think I’ll have to be more direct with you.” She put her hands on Kim Scott’s shoulders and looked her straight in the eye. “Each time you say ’umm,’ it makes you sound stupid.”

Kim Scott realized that being stupid is a 'cardinal sin' at Google. “Okay... what did you say about the speech coach?”

That incident made Scott wonder, “What was it that made Sheryl Sandberg’s feedback so spot-on and effective?” She realized that it was two things: (A) her boss cared personally about her, and (B) she delivered feedback in private immediately after the meeting.

The Radical Candor framework, too, has two axes: Care Personally and Challenge Directly. The axes divide space into four quadrants, which means managers usually end up taking one of the four approaches to providing (positive and negative) feedback to their reports.

Radical Candor framework quadrants

Kim Scott gave the terms quite a lot of thought. For instance, it’s not by accident that Challenge Directly has the word “challenge.” It hints at reciprocity, which means that the boss who challenges their report(s) should, in turn, be open to being challenged by them.

The mistake 85% of Silicon Valley bosses make

According to Scott, the biggest mistake people make when it comes to delivering feedback is they fall into the Ruinous Empathy quadrant. She believes that 85% of bosses/managers at Silicon Valley are guilty of that.

The reason behind it? People are afraid to hurt another person’s feelings. Especially if that person is fun and charismatic on a personal level.

In some of her talks, Scott tells a story from the time when she was running a tech startup. The story is about an employee she calls “Bob” and how she had failed to provide much-needed feedback to him before it was too late. Watch her tell that story in the video below:

Why is it necessary to say things before it’s too late? “Criticism has a short half-life. It acts like nuclear material in a sense that, if you pile it up, it will blow up over a relationship like a dirty bomb,” says Kim Scott.

The second biggest mistake is being honest, but not caring personally about the recipient of your feedback. That makes people fall into the Obnoxious Aggression - the so-called “I don’t give a damn” - quadrant.

In her book and elsewhere, Scott explains that we’re taught from early on in our careers that we have to stay professional. It means shutting off your personal feelings and attitudes at work. Not bringing your whole self to work. But that is wrong.

Hence, it’s important to remember that practicing Radical Candor doesn’t give you a license to be an a$%hole. But if you do the “Challenge directly” part without the “Care personally” part, that is exactly what you’ll become.

Delivering feedback - the right way

Here are some more nuances to the framework - how you should use it and what pitfalls you should avoid.

Provide both positive & negative feedback - you should not only point it out to people when they’re doing something wrong, you should also offer them sincere praise when they’re doing something right.

Praise in public; criticize in private - while this may seem a no-brainer, I myself have made the mistake of getting emotional and saying things I shouldn’t have said to another person in front of the entire team. So if you have some critical (negative) feedback to share, do it in private.

Do it in the moment - timing is of essence when you want to deliver feedback to someone. The ideal situation is to briefly say what you have to say during those five minutes between meetings, or immediately after the meeting. The sooner, the better. The worst thing you can do is save it until the following meeting (meetings are not about providing individual critique) or even the performance review (that’s an absolute no-no.)

Do it in person - Kim Scott says that about 90% of your feedback is non-verbal information. The other person needs to feel that you care, and the best way to show that is through the tone of your voice and the expression of your face. If you can’t talk in person, it’s okay to do that via a conference call. The least preferable medium would be email, but it’s still a better option than (A) not giving any feedback, or (B) saving it for much later.

Measure it at the listener's ears - Radical Candor coaches and practitioners stress that “feedback is measured not at the speaker’s mouth, but at the listener’s ears.” At first, that formula was kind of mysterious to me. Until I watched a video, which you can see here. The point is, giving criticism is a process, and you have to stay engaged throughout this process. When you say something, take note of how the listener is reacting and how they are internalizing your criticism. This will keep you engaged, caring, and will help you do the right thing eventually.

Conclusion - how Radical Candor helps, really

At the start of my career, I was guilty of “pinging” my superiors for petty things way too often. And my messages were unnecessarily long/verbose, too. It wasn’t until a more experienced colleague pointed it out to me that I realized I was stealing my bosses’ precious time. When she brought that to my attention, my initial reaction was, “Why does she care about the way I communicate with the bosses?” (And maybe my well-meaning colleague should have opted for talking to me in private instead of writing a PM - that would be a better option according to Radical Candor.)

Looking back, I realize she did me a huge favor - I started communicating more professionally long before I myself became a manager.

The moral of the tale is this: candid and timely feedback helps your employees improve and up their game, and it helps them grow professionally. Like Kim Scott says, “No one wakes up in the morning thinking they want to go to work and do a terrible job.” Very often, all you need is Radical Candor to prevent that from happening.

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