When people do speak up, listen with the intent to understand, not to respond. Manage your own natural tendency to feel defensive. Try saying, “Just to make sure I understand…” and then say it back to them, respectfully. You want to make the person feel heard.
Finally, reward the candor. If you agree with the feedback, this is easy. You fix the problem and let people know. “Thanks so much to Joe for telling me about this problem. Here’s what I’ve done to fix it. Have I gone far enough?”
If you disagree with the feedback, however, it’s a little more complicated to figure out how to reward the candor. Find whatever five or ten percent there is in what the person said that you do agree with and point that out, and then say you’ll get back to them. You’ll want to explain why you disagree with what was said. Give a respectful, longer explanation of why you disagree. Disagreements can be great ways to strengthen relationships—what really destroys relationships is when you make people feel invisible.
Give praise and criticism. After you’ve received feedback, move on to giving praise. We start first with the good stuff before we start giving criticism. It’s important to correct for our innate negativity bias!
Specific praise helps the person and the team understand what success looks like. You might think that praise is equivalent to Care Personally, and criticism is equivalent to Challenge Directly, but that’s not the case; Radically Candid praise and criticism both include care and challenge.
The purpose of praise is to show people what to do more of. The purpose of criticism is to show people what to do less of.
The best guidance I’ve gotten in my career has usually come in impromptu, two-minute conversations. And go humbly into those conversations. The reason I call it candor and not truth is that if I say, “Let me tell you the truth,” you’re immediately defensive because I’m kind of implying I have a pipeline to God and you don’t know shit from shinola. Not a great way to start a conversation.
Be humble and state your intention to be helpful. Say, “Here’s what I see. I’m curious to know what you see. Let’s figure out if it’s a problem, and if it is, let’s work together to solve it.”
Criticize in private, praise in public. It seems kind of obvious but people forget this all the time. One of the tricky things is that, it’s easier to look smart offering criticism than praise. But remember, your job is not to look smart, it’s to help your team improve.
Make sure your feedback is not about personality. Radically candid feedback is not calling someone stupid or a genius because that doesn’t show the person how to stop or repeat what they did. In addition, this focuses on personality versus behavior. Behavior can change; personality can’t. Practicing Radical Candor means you are being specific and sincere.
Both dimensions of Radical Candor (Caring Personally and Challenging Directly) are sensitive to context. They get measured at the listener’s ear, not at the speaker’s mouth. You may think you’re being radically candid, but one person may not have heard any criticism at all, another may have heard it as ruinously empathetic, and yet another as obnoxious aggression. You have to adjust for each individual. You have to be not just self aware, but relationally and culturally aware.
Radical Candor works only if the other person understands that your efforts at caring personally and challenging directly are delivered in good faith.
Adjust your feedback for the person you’re talking to, and also for the culture for where you’re working. I managed a team in Tel Aviv and a team in Tokyo, and Radical Candor sounds very different in Tel Aviv than it does in Tokyo.
If you’re not sure how what you’re saying is landing, pay attention to the person’s response. Sometimes, people will get sad or angry. That’s your cue to move up on the Care Personally dimension to understand why the person is having this response. It is not your cue to get mad or shut down or back off. Meet emotion with compassion. “It seems like you’re upset. How can I help?”
Perhaps the person will brush you off the way I did to my boss. They won’t hear it. This is when you want to move out on the Challenge Directly dimension of Radical Candor. It is your job to get through to people. It is your job to be clear enough for them to understand, while also kind enough for them to hear what you’re saying.
Respond to defensiveness by asking them to repeat back what you said, to gauge whether they understand. You can name how you feel: “I don’t feel like I’m being heard here.” You can say what my boss said: “I can see I’m going to have to be a lot more direct with you.”
As a manager of a team, it’s important to encourage feedback and Radical Candor between people. Don’t let team members talk badly to you behind each other’s backs. Encourage them to go talk to each other directly. If they can’t resolve it, get them to come talk to you together at the same time. Be as fast and fair as possible. Conflict resolution may not be your favorite part of the job, but it is part of your job.
Last but not least, share these ideas and framework with your team. Think about those moments in your life when someone has told you something that stung a little bit at the time, but helped improve your career in the long run. Share these stories with your team. It’s hard to share failures with your team, but when you show grit, it makes it much easier for people to understand Radical Candor and how it can improve their relationships at work and in life.
Learn more about Kim Scott's book, Radical Candor.
Erin Poulson edited this article, which first appeared in Next Magazine, Issue 6.
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