Teuxdeux Blog | Aug 04, 2020

A Guide to Radical Candor

Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott is a book presenting Scott's successful management methods for individual growth and the overall success of a team along with practical suggestions for their implementation in any organization. 

While working on Google's Adsense product, Scott was a direct report to Sheryl Sandberg (now COO of Facebook), who consistently gave honest (though critical) feedback. Her ability to trade feedback, in Scott's eyes, elevated Sandberg's teams and was a major contributor in their success. Scott went on to work at Apple and eventually become a co-founder of Candor, Inc, sharing her teachings on how business operations can work better with radical candor. The radical candor framework has become one of the buzziest terms in Silicon Valley since the book's publication.

Scott has the point of view that people want to do good work–and by not telling them clearly where they are going wrong, you're limiting their potential. And to empower your direct reports to do the best work of their lives, you should be using radical candor in the workplace.

tl;dr? For successful radical candor: 

- Care personally

- Challenge directly

- Understand that you are not your work

- Actively seek feedback and allow space for processing

What is radical candor?

Kim Scott's NYT bestseller, Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing Your Humanity posits that there are four kinds of organizations categorized by whether the teammates:

  1. Actually care about each other or not

  2. Are willing to challenge each other or not. 

The matrix of these two factors plays out like this:


There may, in fact, be successful companies in each of these quadrants. If we believe the movies, many hedge funds, and finance firms on Wall Street run successfully on Obnoxious Aggression. If we turn on Veep, we can see Toxic workplaces, with backstabbing and politics, often run on manipulative insincerity. But most companies want to run an organization where their employees care about one another and each other’s well being. And radical candor is a way to nurture better relationships and more trust among a team.

Radical Candor is tough because when you care about someone, that is when it can be the hardest to give them true feedback. For many, it is much easier to live in the Ruinous Empathy quadrant where you avoid conflict at the expense of growth. 

Radical Candor asks a lot of the team but it returns a lot. The goal is to create an environment where each member of the team knows where they stand and can count on their team members to hold them accountable, elevate their performance, and take part in their career growth. 

Take a moment now and think about your last half-dozen interactions. Were you pushy, demonstrative? Have you ever hurt someone's feelings at work? Then you might fall under obnoxious aggression. Or, were you a pushover? Do you often have a feeling that others around you are loafing on your projects? You might be suffering from ruinous empathy. If instead, you use passive aggression and false promises to get your way–you're likely located in manipulative insincerity. 

It's hard to fall into the quadrant of radical candor without dedicated work on giving good, constructive feedback and challenging directly with actionable goals.

Rockstars and Superstars

Scott explains that while she was at Apple, they had the belief that there are two types of employees a team should be built around: rock stars and superstars.

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A rock star is someone who is great at their job, performs exceptionally well, but is not looking for growth trajectory. They're not there to climb the ladder, they just want to keep doing what they do well. They probably always stay an individual contributor, happy to let other people become managers–even if those people are less skilled than them.

A superstar is someone who is highly motivated to get a promotion and is consistently performing at a level to help them attain that elevated status.

>Superstars are great for gaining new ground in business while Rockstars are much better becoming the expert and going deeper.

Together, rock stars and superstars can create a successful balance of growth and stability for a company depending on the ratio of rock stars: superstars.

What Radical Candor is not.

It's not a simple idea. 

Radical Candor is 'Caring Personally' and 'Challenging Directly, Not Brutal Honesty.' It is not “telling it like it is.” It's not challenging people or putting them on the spot.

Candid relationships are good relationships, both parties feel confident in their standing with the other and they treat each other as human beings–with respect and consideration. 

Why is Radical Candor important?

There are a lot of reasons why one might advocate for radical candor–so let's break them down:

Why #1: Your Professional Development

Your work is an investment of your time. Like any investment, you should be aiming for the maximum amount of return. 

Your professional development evolves in the same way that all development does. To master any subject, you must work persistently in a loop of Lesson -> Practice -> Feedback. First, you learn something. Next, you put it into practice. Then you get feedback on how you did in that practice. That feedback tees up the next lesson and so on and so on.

Because of the nature of startups, working at any tech company guarantees you lots of practice. But practice without guidance is not enough.

For feedback, you cannot rely on managers alone to truly accelerate your growth. They just don’t see enough of your day-to-day work to act as the best source. You must rely on your teammates. The ones who work with you to get the job done. They see and feel things beyond what your manager notices. 

Here is an enlightening Twitter thread from someone who worked at Facebook, discussing how he actively sought out the help of his teammates after a bad performance review from Sheryl Sandberg.

Similarly, if you want to move beyond a good boss to a great boss for your direct reports, you need to know how to give them direct, actionable feedback so that they can go on to do the best work of their lives. Radical candor is the reason Sheryl Sandberg is known industry-wide as such a proven leader. Candid relationships on a team lead to more successful projects and happier employees.

Why #2: Team Performance

Digital products are extremely complex and therefore are a team effort. They are huge and complex but no one but us can see or appreciate any of that size. Radical candor has a role to play here. Candid relationships create a deep trust that is essential for something called “Psychological Safety.”

Google as a company has an extremely engineering-centric and data-driven culture. One of their teams set out to understand scientifically why some teams perform better than others. What are the secret ingredients of great teams? Is it a great boss? Similar points of view? Diverse backgrounds? Google expected the mixture of people to be the primary determining factor, but what they found surprised them all. 

As it turns out, Google found that psychological safety is the top determinant of how a team will perform. The top five factors they discovered are listed below, but seeing five is a bit misleading. The data showed that psychological safety is ultimately the most important of the factors. Getting that right is like getting 80% of the way there.

psych safety

But what is psychological safety? A New York Times article that digs into the story of Google’s data describes psychological safety as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” 

And also, "Psychological safety is ‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

Is it no surprise that the creator of 'Radical Candor' is also a former Googler?

Why #3: Company Resilience

Technology is one of the fastest-paced industries of all time. If any company is going to maintain their expertise, they need to constantly and unflinchingly evaluate themselves and their decisions. A company that buries its head in the sand, or obnoxiously thinks it's right or succumbs to politics, won’t survive.

Candor plays a role here because it asks each employee to question our company-wide way of doing things. It also recognizes that seeing an upcoming change is something that can be done by anyone at any level of the organization. If you see it, we want to hear it. 

Why #4: Product Excellence

Candor isn’t just about elevating a company's people. It’s about elevating the company's work. Getting to a truly excellent product requires a lot of right decisions. From experience, that only happens when there are competing ideas from which the best one is chosen. It is rare that our first ideas are our best ones. Instead those initial ideas provide one with a starting point that they can iterate or change to get to something great. 

Giving candor about the ideas on the table, having the bravery to offer initial ideas (even if one knows they may not be the best), and remembering that you are not your ideas are all ways that you can use openness to improve our chances of making a great product every time.

Receiving Feedback

To help you understand how to place yourself on the 'giving and receiving feedback' spectrum, we've broken each category down to four 'levels.'

Level 1:  I am unable to receive most feedback. 

It is very hard for me to hear critical feedback and when I do, I take it badly. I may: 

  • Become defensive  (e.g., "No, I don’t.")

  • Disagree immediately  (e.g., "I actually think I did a really good job overall on this.")

  • Shrug it off  (e.g., "It wasn’t that bad. It’s no big deal.")

  • Take it too personally.  (e.g., "I actually think I did a really good job overall on this.")

It may not always be my immediate words that indicate my difficulty with feedback. Sometimes, my body language, facial expressions, or overall demeanor show that I’ve been hurt and don’t welcome the feedback. In rare cases, I hold the feedback against the person who gave it.

Conceptually, I know that feedback is essential for my growth, but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to receive it. 

Level 2:  I can receive some types of feedback:  

I can receive candid feedback on certain parts of my performance or my work. These tend to be the areas in which I have the most confidence. When I receive feedback in these areas, I remain calm and objective and fully expect to do something about it. If, however, the feedback veers into an area where I have less confidence or am more sensitive, I exhibit Level One behaviors. My colleagues pick up on this distinction and may steer clear of these more sensitive areas, denying me the opportunity for improvement. 

Be honest with yourself about the areas that make you sensitive and ask yourself if anyone has given you feedback in those areas. If the answer is no, it is likely that your teammates are aware of and don’t feel comfortable addressing those areas. We often think our weak spots are hidden from others when in reality they come through clear as day. In a way that is comforting because it means you don’t need to keep the secret. 

Level 3:  I can receive all feedback 

Take your best shot. I am ready for candid feedback on any part of my performance or my work. Yes, some bits of feedback may sting more than others but I am able to let the feedback giver know that I appreciate it anyway and they believe me because of my actions. Those actions include genuinely thanking the giver for the feedback and often taking steps to improve based on the feedback. It may also include thanking the giver more publicly to show my appreciation and encourage others to give me and their other teammates feedback. 

One way to assess whether you are Level Three is to track how often you are given critical feedback. We are all in need of improvement so a lack of feedback probably means that your teammates aren’t comfortable giving you feedback. If, on the other hand, your teammates regularly let you know ways, small and big, that you can improve, it’s safe to say they assume you are a good receiver. 

Level 4:  I actively seek out feedback and improve

As a Level Four, I can receive all feedback like a Level Three, but I go a step further and make it easier for others, including those who may be less comfortable giving feedback, to give me candid feedback. I do this by actively and regularly seeking it out as well as really listening to it. I am adept at rewarding feedback with genuine gratitude and I almost always make visible improvements to my behavior. Lastly, I don’t assume that I’ve gotten it right. I’m comfortable going back to the source at regular intervals to make sure they feel that I’ve improved as much as I do.

You can tell you are a Level Four if you regularly receive feedback in response to your requests for it. It should be a mixture of mild and more stinging feedback but you’re comfortable with that. Your teammates seem to almost relish giving you feedback because they’ve seen how you’ve handled it in the past and they’re excited to be a part of your professional growth.

Your Personal Way of Receiving Feedback

Not everyone receives and processes feedback in the same way. Some folks like to talk it out immediately while others prefer to step away and think about the information for a while. We should be open with our teammates about how we process feedback and they should be respectful of that. 

If, for example, you like to step away and digest feedback, you can simply say “Thank you for that. I wasn’t aware of it. Let me think on it a bit and follow up with you later to discuss it in more detail.”

Tips for Improvement

Some ideas that members of our team have found helpful for improving their ability to receive candor. 

  • You are not your idea. You are not your code. You are not your design.

    • Those things are separate from you. Feedback on them, in a sense, has nothing to do with you.

      • If you can get yourself to see your work as separate from you, it will be easier for you to evaluate (and tolerate others evaluating) that work objectively.

      • In other words, don’t take it personally!

  • Remembering that everyone on the team is wrong about something at all times.

    • Being wrong means taking risks and it shows a willingness to push it to get to the best outcome.

    • To get to the best idea or product, we need to experience conflict about what is the best idea or product.

  • Give yourself space.

    • When feedback happens say thank you and ask for time to process. It can be much easier to think things through on your own.

  • Access your own work.

    • For instance, prior to presenting your work, you might want to try thinking through what other team members' feedback might be.

      • When presenting your work, observe what comments people raised and compare them with what you expected.

      • Feel free to mention that you thought the feedback might come up and also raise feedback that you thought might come up but didn't.

      • What you don't want to do, however, is try to get out in front of what others might say in order to defend your work.

  • Ask for feedback. This is the best way to get more of it.

    • The key, though, is to show that you can handle it. If your body language shows that you are in deep pain, the feedback giver is likely to become nervous and soften the feedback or discard it altogether.

What if I don’t agree with the feedback?

That’s okay. Not all feedback is going to be 100% accurate. Sometimes feedback says more about the giver than the receiver. What's important is that your teammate or direct report feels comfortable giving it to you and you're open to receiving it.

Giving Feedback

Like with our receiving feedback levels, understanding how you are at giving feedback to others is just as important if you're trying to conquer radical candor.

Level 1:  I do not give feedback

I rarely give feedback of any kind, praise, or criticism to my fellow employees, my manager, the company as a whole, or myself.

This may be because I’m not comfortable doing so. It may be because I don’t care or because I believe it won’t have an impact. It may simply be that I’m not paying enough attention and don’t notice areas for improvement or celebration.

Whatever the reason, the feedback is not there. 

Level 2:  I give positive feedback.

I frequently give positive feedback to my fellow teammates. Sometimes this is generic like “Great job” or “I really love working with you.”

Sometimes, when I’m at my best, it is specific, labeled praise. I say “Thank you for taking the time to review my presentation. It went so much better with your help.” or “I’m really impressed with how quickly you solved that bug.” 

Level 3:  I give feedback to teammates who are good at receiving it.

In addition to praise, I am able to give critical feedback to my teammates and managers. This includes both labeled praise (i.e., I'm able to articulate why I think something is well-done) and critical feedback (i.e., I can communicate thoughtfully about what I think could be improved).

At this level, my critiques are limited to those who I believe can “handle it.” For those people, I give regular feedback and am happy to see them take it. I’m aware that I’m helping them grow and value my role in that growth.

When it comes to those that I deem, for whatever reason, to be less able to receive feedback, I tend to steer clear. I avoid uncomfortable conversations and prefer to just let sleeping dogs lie. 

Level 4:  I give feedback to any teammate

I provide both labeled praise and non-judgmental feedback easily and often. I do this with anyone I work with, not just those I assume can take it. This includes Level One receivers, Managers, the CEO, and people working projects other than my own. I understand that my feedback is essential to my teammate’s growth and the success of the company overall. So, I take it upon myself to pay attention to how they and we are performing and how improvements can be made. When an opportunity for praise arises, I give it in a specific, labeled way. When a critique is necessary, I don’t shy away from conflict. I’m patient with the people receiving my feedback and open-minded when I hear their responses, whether they agree or not. 

The Blockers

Here are some of the reasons why people do not give feedback or are afraid of implementing the radical candor framework:

  • They don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. (Fear)

  • They don’t want to be labeled as “mean” or some other negative thing. (Fear)

  • They don’t think it’s worth the bother. The other person won’t do anything. (Apathy)

  • They’re worried the person will strike back with feedback of their own. (Fear)

  • They don’t notice something should receive feedback. (Apathy)

Getting Past the Blockers

  • Fake it 'til you Make it.

    • Just start by giving feedback on anything. Even if it is all positive. It will get you used to that kind of conversation and it will get others used to hearing feedback on their work and performance. It will feel unnatural at first, but all of a sudden it will come easily.

  • If you catch yourself saying something behind someone’s back, say it to that person next.

    • The first time you do this, it'll be scary. But it's another action that will get less scary with time.

  • If someone comes to you with a complaint about a fellow employee, encourage them to bring that complaint to the employee themselves.

  • Remember that everyone needs to improve at something. For each person on your project team, ask yourself: what one thing could this person improve to make their work or their performance better.

  • Encourage forcing functions that get people to make time for candor on a project. For example, stop/start/continue.

    • Candid relationships are much harder to come by if it is not given the time and space to flourish.

  • Start by critiquing yourself.

    • If you can be candid with yourself and see your own weaknesses clearly, you’ll be more comfortable receiving feedback. That, in turn, will make it easier to start giving feedback.

How Best to Give Candor

Giving Radical Candor is a personal and individualized experience, but there are some good rules of thumb.

  • Give your feedback quickly.

    • Ideally, feedback given close to the actual incident is best because it is more concrete and immediate.

  • Be specific.

    • Give an appropriate amount of detail to allow the person to fully understand the feedback.

  • Give it from a place of caring.

    • Your feedback should be free of judgment about who the person is. You give it hoping that they will improve because it will be good for them, not because (for example) it will be less annoying for you.

  • Know how that individual processes feedback and work with them in that way.

    • If they like to talk it out, be ready to do so. If they need space, offer it before they even ask.

  • When in doubt, give feedback the way you would like to receive it.

    • Imagine yourself on the other side of the feedback and act accordingly.

Further Reading and Listening

Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott

The Radical Candor podcast with Candor, Inc co-founders Kim Scott and Russ Laraway

Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, and Roger Fisher

Interview with Kim Scott by Gretchen Rubin (Author of The Happiness Project)

Radicalcandor.com–the website of Candor, Inc

A summary video of the Radical Candor Framework is available here.