On Radical Candor™ in the Workplace

Some time ago, I came across an article highlight of a video entitled Radical Candor — The Surprising Secret to Being a Good Boss.  It still resonates with me for identifying candidness and honesty as important pieces of leadership that are often lacking in our field.  In the video, Kim Scott, former classmate and colleague of Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In and Google fame, describes her theory on management-provided guidance: how to give, receive, and encourage it. She makes an important distinction between guidance and criticism, highlighting a type of guidance she coined “radical candor” that is used to create honest and open workplaces that thrive.

Scott gives an example from her past experience with Google in which Sandberg pulled her aside following an important and successful presentation meeting. Sandberg attempted to express her concern on Scott’s repeated use of “um” during her presentation. Scott brushed the comment off and rejected the idea of a speaking coach provided by the company. Finally, Sandberg said, “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.”

So often, our culture instructs us to be ‘nice’, which we often interpret as only praising one another, and perceiving criticism of any kind as impolite or worse—malevolent. Scott’s example clearly illustrates why radical candor is important. Sandberg had already showed Scott that she cared personally for her in various ways throughout their relationship, which made her criticism easier to stomach.

Scott has developed a handy graphic of X and Y axes, with X being the “willing to piss people off” axis and Y being the “give a damn” axis. In this chart, the top right quadrant is where bosses should live – in the magical combination of both caring personally and challenging directly. In this quadrant, caring for employees and illustrating that softens the blow of criticisms.

A quote from a movie I have seen more times than I’d like to admit to goes: “Attitude reflects leadership.” Let’s face it; engaging with one another can be challenging, and the employee-employer relationship is filled with uncomfortable conversations. But just think about the alternatives. Burying our heads in the sand fosters an environment of insecurity, politics, and manipulation that can be difficult to un-learn. Leaders must push for open environments allowing employees to make mistakes and, more importantly to learn from them through honest conversations expressed in humility. A more simplistic illustration highlighting the same principle: I have food in my teeth, I want to know – please tell me!

Terran Wilson,  Assoc. AIA

Terran Wilson, Assoc. AIA