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What Kind of Radical Candor Do You Practice?

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By Steve Moran

Once in a while, I read a leadership book where the message really clicks. In most cases, it goes like this: "there is this 'ideal outcome' you want", usually some form of a well functioning organization. The book then goes on to outline a concrete workable path to get the desired outcome.

This is exactly what got me so pumped up about Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor. Then, when registering for last year’s LeadingAge Peak conference, I discovered that Kim was delivering the keynote speech, allowing me to indulge in a little hero worship.

The speech was tremendous and I approached her afterward to see if she would be willing to do an interview with me. She said yes. Thus began a year of gentle stalking. We could just never quite find a date that worked for both of us. After a bunch of months, I gave up, not wanting to be a jerk (at least not too much of a jerk).

In the late fall, as we started working on Empower -- the Senior Housing Forum Women in Senior Living initiative -- I gave it another try, thinking that since Kim thrived for a couple of decades in Silicon Valley, which is about as male-dominated as it gets, she might have some significant insights.  

I hit pay dirt. She is currently working on a book on women in leadership and more broadly about diversity. The bulk of our conversation was about that topic. While editing the video from our interview I realized there were really two narratives. The first about Radical Candor and the second about women and diversity. You can watch this portion of the interview at bottom of the article.

Radical Candor in the Workplace

While a great book, Radical Candor as a title completely unexpectedly turned out to be a problem in that “Radical” was intended to mean frank, but compassionate honesty. Unfortunately, Radical Candor too often was perverted by some people as permission to be mean. When it was exactly the opposite. 

This Dilbert cartoon represents THE WRONG WAY OF THINKING ABOUT IT. It is not candor at all but “noxious aggression”.

DILBERT © Scott Adams. Used By permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.

Since Dilbert, Kim has released an updated version of Radical Candor that addresses this misuse of the term.

The Reality of Radical Candor and Why it is So Cool

The fundamental idea behind Radical Candor is that as human beings we all struggle with collaboration. There are mostly two extremes.

  1. The first is a kind of brutal frankness that hurts people, relationships, and, ultimately, diminishes the organization.

  1. The second is that members of the organization are so nice and polite that they let things slide or cover for someone’s challenges. As a result, problems don’t really get solved or dealt with much, which means they multiply.

    If that person you are being nice to is really struggling, you are doing them a huge disservice when you let them continue to struggle. They deserve either help pushing past the struggles or they need to be turned loose allowing them to find a place where they can be successful.    

    Ultimately being compassionate to someone struggling is often the meanest thing you can do.

Radical Candor When It Works . . .

When Radical Candor works right there is high trust, high honestly,  mutual accountability and inspiration. It is a combination of caring and challenging that breaks us out of that false dichotomy between being too nice and being effective.

When it is working well you will feel safe in seeking criticism from your colleagues so you understand what they are thinking and why they are doing what they are doing. This criticism needs to be peppered with more praise than criticism. Part of what makes this all so hard is that when you offer criticism you look and feel smart. When you offer praise, you feel silly or foolish or pandering and maybe even weak.

Done right, it will be transformative to your organization.


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