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Radical Candor, a concept coined by Kim Scott, can help you love your work and the people you work with. Radical candor is the act of giving direct feedback to someone in a way that pushes them to grow and improve. It requires two things:

  1. Being specific and sincere when giving praise
  2. Being clear and kind when giving criticism

Importantly, it means actually giving both praise and criticism, because, in combination, these things have the power to strengthen relationships while driving better results.

What are the key features of radical candor?

In order to achieve radical candor, you need to include two key ingredients in your feedback: caring personally for the person and challenging them directly. These two things work together, and trying to deliver radical candor without actively implementing both can lead to horrible results. 

Here is what happens when you deliver feedback that is lacking one or both of those key ingredients:

Ruinous empathy means caring personally but not challenging directly. Despite your best efforts to be kind, your lack of direct honesty causes problems, and ultimately breaks the trust you’ve been trying to build.

When you create false reassurance for people it can lead them to fail.

Here’s an example: You asked someone to complete a task, but it was full of basic errors. Instead of sending the work back to them, you fix the mistakes yourself, and tell them, "Thanks for working on this! It looks great!"

This is sometimes our default position, because we have been taught our whole lives that if we don’t have something nice to say, then we shouldn’t say anything at all. We need to undo this training, and realize that giving feedback propels growth in the people we care about.

You may find yourself drawn into ruinous empathy when you’re keen to encourage someone, and therefore avoid direct critique. However, by not offering critique where it is required, that person may miss out on an opportunity to learn and improve.

Obnoxious aggression means challenging directly but not caring personally. In this case, you may have skipped the work of building a baseline of rapport and trust with the other person. The lack of trust and respect from the other person is likely to mean that they disregard the critique you offer, even if it is valid.

Here’s an example: Jill has a reputation for putting her own needs first, and has not taken the time to get to know any of her co-workers. As a result, they find her standoffish and aloof, and they don’t trust her intentions. Jill gives Emily legitimate feedback on work that she has done, but she dismisses it because, “Jill is rude and doesn’t understand my situation.”

The hard part about this is that Jill does care, but finds social interactions awkward, and doesn’t know how to show that she cares in an effective way. In this case, Jill needs to work on building relationships, so that people trust and listen to her.

You’re unlikely to set out to engage in obnoxious aggression—but it can sometimes emerge when we are stressed and pushed for time, especially if that coincides with first meeting a person. Aim to center yourself before those early interactions so that you can bring your best self to the situation.

Manipulative insincerity means not challenging directly and not caring personally. In this scenario, your behavior can become poisonous to those around you. The other person becomes aware that you don’t care, and your feedback is hard or impossible to understand and process. The result is that you end up being seen as self-interested and manipulative.

In all three of these cases—ruinous empathy, obnoxious aggression, and manipulative insincerity—we make ourselves part of the problem. 

Ultimately, the kindest thing we can do for anyone else is to help them grow. This is best achieved through clear, direct, and compassionate feedback. Simply put, because we care so much, we need to aim for radical candor in all of our interactions.

At times, and particularly when first “trying” it, offering feedback with radical candor can feel daunting, if not downright terrifying. You may worry about hurting your students’ feelings, or coming across as negative or over-sensitive. You may be concerned about how the other person will react.

As you find the courage to give feedback with radical candor, remember that, like all things, it will get easier the more you do it.

How to achieve radical candor

Step 1: Build the foundation

First, we have to work on achieving care in our working relationships, while building up the courage to challenge directly. Feedback is measured at the listener’s ear and not the speaker’s mouth, and how you are heard is a direct result of the relationship you have built.

Trust is fundamental to every good working relationship. Trust must be earned, and is very easily broken. Other than trust, the key to building healthy relationships depends on who you are building a relationship with. 

Explore what a good relationship looks like for them by asking the question directly in your initial interactions. Ideally, ask that person to share their specific preferences and expectations, so that you can work on building the right relationship with them.

If you are able to build this strong foundation, it’s more likely that your feedback will be well received and acted upon. 

Here are some tips for how to care personally and challenge directly:

Care personally:

  • Use one on one time to build trust and establish a strong foundation.
  • Take an active interest in their lives by finding out what is important to them, remember key conversations and comments (make notes if you need to!)
  • Be aware of the other person’s workload and learning style and be mindful of their priorities and processes.
  • Listen carefully.
  • Don’t assume that everyone is like you and avoid imposing your style or approach onto others.
  • Be aware of how you come across to others, and if in doubt, ask a trusted confidant for feedback.

Challenge directly:

  • Say what needs to be said, without beating around the bush or using euphemisms.
  • Make sure your feedback is offered in real-time, or, if that’s not possible, as soon as possible.
  • Prepare the key points you want to address. This might only take 2 minutes, but it’s worth taking whatever time is needed to be clear in your own mind about what you need to say. Practice, if it helps.
  • Challenge behaviors and not people. For example, say “What you said made you seem harsh,” rather than “You are harsh.”
  • Don’t guess about the other person’s intentions. Instead, focus on how their actions were perceived or received. For example, say “It made me feel like my input didn’t count,” rather than “You don’t value me.”
  • Aim to resolve any conflict directly with the other person wherever possible. 

Step 2: Give feedback with radical candor

According to Kim Scott, HHIIPP is the key to delivering radical candor:

Radical candor is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person—in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise—and it doesn’t personalize.

Humble

When delivering your feedback, be curious, firm, and direct—but bear in mind that you might be wrong. Support your feedback with clear data or logic, but be open to push-back, and be open to listening with intent before you agree or disagree.

Helpful

Be as clear as possible about the feedback you are giving, and how it will help the person or the situation. But don’t do their work for them—you don’t need to have all the answers. It’s often useful to state your intention to be helpful. For example, you could say, “I’m going to tell you something, because if I were in your position, I would like to know so that I could fix it.”

Immediate

The closer to the event you are able to give feedback, the more you and the other people involved will remember the details. You won’t have to access hazy memories on either side to process the feedback being given. And you save yourself the burden of remembering to do it later.

In person

There is context that you are able to provide if you give feedback in person that can’t be done through written communication or through a third person. Also, you have the advantage of observing, and responding to, the other person’s reaction. True in-person contact isn’t possible via written feedback—so be mindful of the limitations this presents.

Private vs public

When giving feedback in person remember: praise is often best given publicly; criticism is always best given privately. Public criticism can trigger a defensive reaction, and reduces the chance that your feedback will be heard and acted upon. Public praise can encourage others to emulate the action or behavior being praised, and can cause a multiplier effect.

Don’t personalize

Make sure that you give feedback about the work that has been done, and not about the person doing the work. “You’re great at presentations” is far less valuable than “That was a great presentation because...” 

Whether you’re praising or critiquing, give details and be specific—even if you are tempted to skip over the details because they make giving feedback more painful or awkward.

Step 3: Receive feedback in ways that encourage future radical candor

Here are some behaviors that will help you to be open to the feedback you receive.

Don’t react defensively, even if the feedback makes you feel attacked. Getting defensive will make it harder for that person to give you feedback in future. As a side note, if someone’s feedback does make you feel attacked, be sure to tell them. At the same time, you need to listen to, acknowledge, and understand their feedback—even if they get the delivery wrong.

Don’t make light of positive feedback you receive. Be thankful that someone has taken the time to notice what you are doing, and to acknowledge you. Getting positive feedback can feel awkward. If that’s the case for you, acknowledge the time someone has taken to recognise you simply by saying “Thanks! I really appreciate your feedback,” or something similar.

Don’t demand specific examples if the person giving you feedback can’t give them to you. It’s okay to ask for them, but demanding will likely make the person flustered and less likely to offer their feedback next time. Try and think of an example yourself, and ask if it is relevant to what they are saying.

Listen carefully to what is being said. Ask questions to make sure you understand, and then acknowledge the feedback given. This applies regardless of whether the feedback is “good” or “bad,” or whether you agree or disagree with it. You don’t have to agree with the feedback, but you do have to work to understand where the other person is coming from, and—in the case of conflicts—what your own contribution to the situation might have been. Always listen with an open mind.

Key Takeaways

  • Radical candor is the act of giving (and receiving) praise or criticism out of a genuine care for the other person.
  • Offering feedback can fall into three quadrants other than radical candor. These three—ruinous empathy, obnoxious aggression, and manipulative insincerity—are ultimately destructive of trust.
  • Essential ingredients of radical candor include: thoughtful consideration, careful listening, care for the other person, trust, and humility.

Interested in learning from an experienced UX designer? Our UX Academy offers 1-on-1 mentoring, rigorous curriculum, and unparalleled career support.

author avatar

Mandy Kerr

Designlab

Director of People Ops

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