14 Nov

When Radical Candor Is Actually the Kindest Feedback

By Christa Skiles 


In my free time – or at least the treasured little free time I insist upon each night before I fall asleep, when the dog has finally crashed from his evening walk and I’ve put the smartphone down for good – I love to read. Most often, my taste leans toward fiction, but I also love a good nonfiction or business book with ideas that keep my brain spinning even after I turn off the lights. 


For me, the latest title on that latter shelf is Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. Scott held leadership positions at companies including Google and Apple before starting her own business, Candor Inc. Her 2017 bestseller generated significant buzz for its premise that clear, concise, caring and candid guidance is the most effective way to build relationships at work that drive productivity, collaboration and happiness.  


Scott lays out a quadrant with two dimensions, both of which she says are critical to providing effective praise or criticism. Radical candor is the ideal landing place at which you have the ability to demonstrate that you both: 


  1. Care personally about someone
  2. While challenging them directly 


It sounds simple, right? I’m guessing many of us think this is exactly how we approach our interactions with colleagues. However, as Scott illustrates, it’s far more likely that the behavior we model falls into one of the other three quadrant areas: 


  • Obnoxious Aggression: People using this technique have no problem giving blunt and candid criticism, but they do so with no acknowledgement that they care even a little about the person they’re correcting. 


  • Manipulative Insincerity: Feedback given with manipulative insincerity fails on both dimensions. It happens when individuals don’t care enough about the person with whom they’re interacting to challenge them directly and, therefore, offer only false praise or criticism. 


  • Ruinous Empathy: This is classic conflict avoidance, when someone tries too hard to find something nice to say, avoiding candid criticism in order to spare someone else’s feelings or prevent tension. According to Scott, “Ruinous empathy is responsible for the vast majority of management mistakes I’ve seen in my career.” 


Individuals often fluctuate among the quadrants – someone who’s obnoxiously aggressive in one situation might demonstrate ruinous empathy in another. The great thing about Scott’s book is that the examples she provides (and I wish there were more of them) are quickly relatable. It’s all too easy to apply the above definitions to relationships throughout your own career or to your communications with co-workers. She’s also devoted the entire second half of the book just to tools and techniques for implementing a program of radical candor in your workplace.  


While the book has obvious insights for anyone who works in an office, it’s definitely written for supervisors, and Scott is clear that it can be difficult to turn radical candor from an individual management philosophy into a systemic company culture unless you have direct buy-in from the top. But, at the end of the day, Radical Candor succeeds because its proposition is so obvious yet complicated to achieve. I would recommend the book to anyone striving to be a better leader and better person, regardless of the title on your business card.