Radical Candor: The Art of Giving Feedback

A bad leader is hard to ignore. Perhaps you can think of an entire list of ways they made you feel uncomfortable, undervalued, unwelcomed, or underappreciated. And if you interact with them daily, it becomes even more difficult to put aside visceral, negative reactions.  

In order to become a great leader — something I strive for each day — author and psychologist Kim Scott believes in practicing what she refers to as “radical candor.” The idea of radical candor does not grant permission to be brutally honest. Instead, it entails the process of sharing your humble opinions directly, rather than talking badly about people behind their backs. This, from my perspective, is a recipe for becoming a formidable and respected leader. 

Why Is Radical Candor Important? 

The premise of Scott’s concept (re: radical candor) can best be represented by the saying we were all told as kids: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The intentions behind this childhood phrase, while simplistic, are good, and even as I’ve grown older (and debatably wiser), I can still apply its primary lesson of kindness. The concept of radical candor is perhaps a more sophisticated take on the same phrase, taking a deeper dive into the ideals of compassion and caring. 

Being open and honest in expression, while also being genuine and caring at your core, is the intent of radical candor. As I see it, the second aspect is the most important part — if you challenge your colleagues without caring about their success, you are putting yourself at risk of displaying what Scott describes as “obnoxious aggression”— one of four quadrants that Scott says we are all guilty of vacillating into from time to time. Though the ideal quadrant is radical candor, obnoxious aggression (surprisingly) isn’t a terrible place to reside. Normally, the words “obnoxious” and “aggression” have negative connotations, but when you break down what this phrase means within Scott’s philosophy, it makes sense. After all, at least know how you feel. 

The least desirable quadrant to be in, according to Scott, is “ruinous empathy.” This is when you care too much about offending or hurting someone’s feelings. Here, you are more concerned about backlash or negative feelings than you are about the positive effect of good feedback. This differs from “manipulative insincerity” — the final quadrant — where it’s easy to observe individuals assuming a persona that communicates “I’m doing my job and don’t care what others do or think.” While you should aim to keep things professional, you shouldn’t become some sort of emotionless robot and relinquish all personal feelings.

The Art of Giving Feedback with Radical Candor

At its core, radical candor is about giving meaningful feedback. And in order for feedback to be received as meaningful, it should be non-personalized, humble, and helpful. Here are some of my best feedback tips I’ve learned through the years with each of these three in mind.  

Non-Personalized Feedback

Delivering feedback that is specific yet non-personalized can be confusing. In order to not become the obnoxious aggressor that Scott describes, we have to care about the person, right? 

The difference is in the language you use. For example, choosing to say “the proposal you submitted demonstrated lazy writing and makes it look like you don’t care,” instead of “your work is lazy and you obviously don’t care.” By using non-personal language and focusing feedback on the specific task or situation (in this case, the proposal), the feedback has a better chance of being seen for what it is — a well-meaning critique with an opportunity for improvement.

Remain Humble 

Respect is another major characteristic of radical candor and is exceptionally important when giving feedback. It’s important to remember that respect is an attitude that needs to be consistently earned. When it comes to feedback, you can’t dish it out if you’re incapable of positively receiving it. Before giving out critique, ask others to give YOU radical candor.

Remember that the elimination of disrespect doesn’t equate to giving respect. Understanding and appreciating where a team member is coming from helps you cement a solid base of trust between each other and throughout the entire team. As Scott puts it, “Being willing to disagree because you care is the greatest sign of respect you can show others. Ignoring others by ignoring the truth is not.”

 Being Helpful

No one is capable of thriving in an environment that is solely focused on the things they’ve done wrong. While it’s important to call out negative behaviors, you have to be sure you’re calling out the positives even more so. This isn’t to say you need to compliment people every single time you interact, especially if they haven’t earned the praise. But as long as it’s honest, there is no such thing as too much positive feedback. 

Being a truly great leader means caring for others’ success. Giving feedback and instilling radical candor is not about calling out flaws and demanding perfection, it’s about learning, growing, and becoming better versions of ourselves. While ignorance may be bliss in some cases, as Scott shares in her Ted Talk, if you notice an opportunity for improvement in someone’s work, then you’d be doing them a disservice by not sharing. We need to ask ourselves, “Why wouldn’t we want others to improve?”