A brief guide to Radical Candor

A brief guide to Radical Candor

Kim Scott is the author of Radical Candor, a book that describes an approach to thinking about feedback in the workplace.

Before that, she received her MBA from Harvard Business School and her BA from Princeton University. She went on to lead AdSense, Youtube and Doubleclick online sales and operations at Google, then joined Apple to build a leadership program. She’s been a coach at Dropbox, Twitter, and many other technology companies in the valley.

Kims work had a big impact on us at OHNO, and her approach to thinking about feedback was important to us getting on our feet early on. We talk about the concept at lot at OHNO, so I thought I’d explain just how radical candor works.

Why are people afraid to be honest?

Scott distills feedback into four perfect little squares. I’m doing to do the best job I can of explaining how this works. So follow along.

There are four ways to give feedback to someone today. 3 bad ways. 1 good way. Let’s start with the bad. To ensure the analogy sticks, let’s use an example of a restaurant.

1. Ruinous Empathy

Ruinous empathy is the idea that when I’m at a restaurant table, and the waiter asks me what I think of the eggs, I’m actually worried about hurting his feelings. So I stay silent.

“Everything’s fine.”

*looks at the uncooked egg-whites*

“No really, it’s fine.”

The waiter is such a nice, sweet guy, I don’t want to hurt his feelings. By staying silent, I’ll preserve his delicate sensibilities.

2. Manipulative Insincerity

This is where I also stay silent. But this time, it’s because I don’t want to feel bad. I’m protecting my feelings.

There are many times where giving someone candid feedback would make you feel terrible. By staying silent, you’re really protecting yourself from pain at the expense of someone else’s growth and development. I think this is where I fit in when I eat out. I mostly just want to avoid the drama and have a good time. If the meal sucks, my wife and I can just talk about it on the way home. I ideally just want to avoid any kind of backlash from my feedback while I’m there. What if someone spits in my food?

I suspect most customers are truly afraid to give feedback. Restaurants might want it, especially in private, but perhaps they underestimate how much psychological safety is needed to give it.

A diner might think, If I give this waiter feedback about my steak being cold, in front of my friends, will my friends think I’m a douche? Maybe they’ll think I’m too high maintenance?

The list of emotional warning signals go up quickly to protect us in social situations. Staying silent is easy. The only person you’ll hurt, is someone I don’t know after-all.

3. Obnoxious Aggression

Welcome to Trip Advisor. Please place all nasty words in the comments below. I feel I have seen people be incredibly cruel both online and at restaurants (the real world), and the kind of feedback they give here is anything but silent. Some seem to take quite a lot of enjoyment in cutting down people with feedback. This is obviously a terrible way to behave.

It made me think, when people stay silent in person, and then go online to provide the real feedback, are they moving from Ruinous empathy and manipulative insincerity in person, straight to obnoxious aggression online? What is it about being online that gets people so fired up?

My guess is it’s because the psychological safety is at home on your sofa. 

Nobody can hurt me from here. I can say what I want. And because I’ve been stewing about it all day, now I’m really angry.

4. Radical Candor

Finally we get to the right way to give feedback. Be direct, polite and helpful. Provide actionable intel the person can use, and move forward.

“How was everything?”

“Generally speaking, okay. But the egg whites look uncooked, and that made me a bit disappointed. Raw egg whites freak me out.”

A simple take away?

So big deal. Provide actionable feedback. That’s not such a big insight, you might be saying. But perhaps the biggest thing to take away is that most people underestimate the disservice they are doing their co-workers by not being upfront with them. You see it all day long.

Staff will see one of their peers do something incorrectly, that with a quick adjustment, might actually help them grow. But often we just stay silent, we don’t want to hurt anyones feelings.

By looking at giving feedback as a way to demonstrate that you really do respect them, you start to realise how big of an impact you can have on those around you.

One way to kick start more feedback in your team, is to start getting teams together once a week to talk about the problems they see. OHNO can help with this. It highlights the frustrations teams are facing, which is great if you have remote teams. Try it yourself, it only takes a few minutes.

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