Radical Candor: The Secret of the Great Leader

How honest should a leader be?  We live in a time where most workplaces downplay hierarchy.  Leaders don’t dress or work much differently than those in their organizations, and a common byproduct of this new ethos is a desire to “get along” and avoid conflict.  And leaders who think this way are doing their team a disservice.

I recently enjoyed this article about a talk given by Kim Scott on the subject of something she calls “Radical Candor”. In short, Kim says that radical candor from a leader to a team  member  “… is possible when bosses are willing to challenge an employee directly at the same time they care personally”.

Here is a great graphic that Kim used in her talk to describe different guidance styles that leaders might lean towards:

Of the three “bad” quadrants, I sense that most of those who I have worked with in my career do care personally about the people they work with, but tend more toward the “low” end of the Challenge Directly axis (based upon my experience, I believe this is a particular challenge among California tech companies because of the culture of tech as well as the culture of California).  It is a tough pill to swallow when we consider that our “nice” leadership style might instead one of “ruinous empathy”.

I wanted to include some great story from my own past about radical candor in practice, but couldn’t do better than a story Kim told about herself, as related in the excellent First Round blog post I linked to above.

She had just delivered her first presentation to the founders of her new employer, Google, and described amazing business progress. She considered the presentation to be a success, but here is what happened afterwards::

But after the meeting, Scott’s boss, Sheryl Sandberg, suggested they take a walk together. She talked about the things she’d liked about the presentation and how impressed she was with the success the team was having — yet Scott could feel a “but” coming. “Finally she said, ‘But you said um a lot.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, no big deal. I know, I do that. But who cared if I said um when I had the tiger by the tail?’”

Sandberg pushed forward, asking whether Scott’s ums were the result of nervousness. She even suggested that Google could hire a speaking coach to help. Still, Scott brushed off the concern; it didn’t seem like an important issue. “Finally, Sheryl 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.’”

I don’t know about you, but at that point I probably would have said “um, stupid?”.

Clearly this example of radical candor could only work if the two of them trusted each other. Since Kim knew that Sheryl cared personally, she took Sheryl’s candid guidance to heart and eventually kicked the “um” habit.

Some thoughts for you to ponder as you think about how you might practice radical candor in your own leadership situation…

  • Radical candor is rare.  It’s called “radical” candor not because it’s invasive or extreme but because it is practiced so seldom. Aside from that, it’s simply active guidance.
  • Radical candor requires courage. What guidance are you withholding from someone you work with? How might you be, if not practicing “ruinous empathy”, at least being overly sensitive?
  • Radical candor requires consistency. If, after a long history of conflict avoidance, you suddenly start dropping big guidance bombs on your team, many of them might over-react.
  • Radical candor is a two-way street. It is not a form of noblesse oblige, but a partnership.  You need to be strong enough to accept candor from your team as well.
  • Radical candor is built upon a shared mission. Providing guidance works best when both people have bought into the broader organizational objectives. This enables a conversation to be framed not as a personal attack, but as a way to course correct as you both pursue a shared goal.

Good luck!