Leadership Approaches Based on Radical Candor - Honesty at the Office

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We have found that "radical candor" coined by Kim Scott of Google is one of the best ways ways to improve company culture and employee morale.  It involves a mix of challenging employee behavior directly and caring personally for the employee.  While simple, this is difficult to execute and requires a supervisor to place results higher than being liked by his/her direct reports.  It's also uncomfortable at times.

Honesty at the Office through Radical Candor

Several years ago, we wrote a post on the importance of honesty in the workplace, which offered the following tips:

Leave the judgment at the door Clear the pipes Implementation is key Hold employees responsible Communicate the positive AND the negative

Years later, it is still one of our most read content.

Strategies to Implement Radical Candor at the Office

Following that post, Kim Scott of Google introduced the concept of Radical Candor through presentations and her book Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.  She argues that greater candor makes better bosses.  Scott defines two fundamental dimensions of radical candor -- “challenging directly” and “caring personally."  Using those dimensions, boss/employee engagements can be divided into four quadrants based on the level of each dimension involved:

1. Low Challenging Directly/Low Caring Personally -- Described as "manipulative insincerity," this is where the boss doesn't address the problem either because they don't have time or they wish to be liked more than being an effective boss.  As explained by Scott, this is the boss who thinks, “I’m just going to tell him the report was fine because I don’t have the time to explain why it was so bad. Next time, I’ll just have someone else do it.”

2. Low Challenging Directly/High Caring Personally -- This type of behavior can be described as "ruinous empathy," where the boss cares too much to provide needed feedback.  As Scott explains, “We’re conditioned from an early age to avoid hurting people’s feelings. It’s not a bad impulse to protect people’s feelings, but it’s a short-lived protection. You need to rise above your empathy and realize that it’s your own feelings you are protecting, not theirs.”  Telling yourself that "it will work out" or "it is someone else's problem" typically leads to painful results.

3. High Challenging Directly/Low Caring Personally -- This is obnoxious aggression where the boss employs no filter in providing feedback.  Interestingly, Scott says, “I regret to say that if you can’t be radically candid, being obnoxiously aggressive is the second best thing you can do.  At least then people know where you stand, so your team can achieve results. This explains the advantage that assholes seem to have in the world.”

4. High Challenging Directly/High Caring Personally -- This is Radical Candor and it is hard.  Using this approach, the boss communicates directly with care to help a team member improve.  That means not ignoring poor performance and choosing to be liked over results.  This is where real improvement occurs, and is well worth the effort.

Too radical? Can there be too much honesty at the office?  Getting Radical Candor just right.

One final caution about employing the Radical Candor model.  The communication medium matters greatly.  It's best to have these conversations in person so that context is communicated effectively.  Challenging directly can be done easily through red line mark ups to a brief (a favorite attorney teaching method) or a lengthy email, but those communications methods tend not to include an opportunity to communicate the essential second element of Radical Candor--demonstrating high personal care.  Electronic interactions also leave out the context of the communication and can lead to all sorts of miscommunications and misunderstandings.

For more on corporate culture and values based business, read our posts, What Makes an Ideal Work Environment and Advantages of a Values Based Business.


The Culture Counts blog is a discussion of law firm culture and legal innovation, including topics such as effective leadership, employee engagement, workplace culture, ideal work environment, company core values, and workplace productivity.  

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