How to Make Radical Candor Your New Workplace Norm with Kim Scott, best-selling author behind Radical Candor

How To Make Radical Candor Your New Workplace Norm

Chris Ronzio

October 20, 2020

Radical candor is the “Goldilocks Zone” of feedback. Not direct enough, and you’ll find yourself stuck in the weeds with the person you’re trying to help. But too direct, and you’ll seem like a jerk.

Kim Scott, best-selling author behind Radical Candor, is at the forefront of conversations about empathy’s role in the workplace. And at Training With Empathy, she broke down exactly what radical candor is and how you can use it to become a great leader. Here’s what she had to say:

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What is radical candor?

Radical candor is simultaneously caring personally about someone while challenging them directly. And it works both in your personal and professional life.

Kim’s the first to admit that giving feedback or even just reaching out is difficult. But by avoiding it, your people won’t feel supported and won’t be aligned – especially in a remote setting.

So, imagine your friend is walking around with their pants zipper down. What do you do?

Basically, you have 4 options:

  1. You can avoid telling your friend all together (ruinous empathy) 
  2. You can loudly tell them in front of everyone (obnoxious aggression)
  3. You can tell everyone else what’s going on, instead of going to your friend directly (manipulative insincerity)
  4. You can pull your friend aside and tell them discreetly (radical candor)

But if you care about them at all, there’s only one correct option – radical candor. Any of the other choices and you run the risk of seriously embarrassing your friend or prolonging the situation.

So by pulling them aside quietly, your friend can fix the problem immediately without feeling super embarrassed about it.

Bringing radical candor to the workplace

People do their best work and are generally happier when they have candid, concrete feedback. It’s just a fact. Because candid (and timely) feedback eliminates that looming feeling that people are out to get you. And it also keeps little situations from boiling over.

But to create a culture of candidness, you need to create a feedback loop where everyone has a voice. Not just managers.

At Trainual, we’ve encouraged multi-directional feedback since Day 1. Meaning, if an employee has something they need to say to their manager, a peer, whomever, they can! All we ask is that it happens in real-time, and it’s delivered with candor.

🔥 Tip: Creating a healthy feedback loop starts with everyone having clear expectations! And Trainual makes it easy for your company to set expectations and keep people aligned. Try for free.

But Kim’s the first to admit that this balance isn’t easy to strike. Especially with the increasing pressure to be professional.

The downside of professionalism

In Kim’s opinion, “be professional” is a productivity and trust killer. How can we be professional all the time – especially when working from home?

For example, your coworker’s kid running around the office would’ve been unthinkable in 2019. But things are different with the pandemic, and if a kid walks in during the middle of a Zoom meeting today, it’s now considered normal.

We say hello, ask their name, and give our coworkers a minute to take care of them. Because at the end of the day we’re all in similar situations. We’re working from home with our kids, pets, and partners – and distractions are inevitable.

That’s why reaching out with a little empathy (even if it means not being traditionally “professional”) can go a long way right now. So, how can you be candid at work – without crossing any lines?

4 ways to foster candidness at work

While there is no set formula, Kim outlines a few checkpoints to make sure you’re being candid at work:

1. Ask your team for feedback

Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback! A lot of us shy away from constructive conversations because we’re afraid they’ll blow up in our faces. But if you’re not direct, problems will often repeat themselves. Sometimes forever. 

Kim suggests asking for feedback from your team before they come to you. This lets them know that you’re open to change and want to improve everyone’s work environment. Plus, searching for solutions to make yourself better will encourage others to do the same.

Just make sure you ask in real-time! If you wait too long, chances are good people will forget about it. Or they’ll fester, making the situation much harder to manage moving forward.

2. Be direct about what you mean

“Directness is not rudeness,” Kim attests. There’s a difference between pointing out someone’s faults to make them feel bad and offering constructive feedback so they can improve.

For example, Kim explains that she used to have a Golden Retriever puppy. And because she loved the dog, she never scolded it – letting it run wild. Literally.

And one day, the dog ran out in the street and nearly got hit by a cab. A stranger approached Kim and said, “I can see you really love her. But you’re going to kill that dog if you don’t teach her to sit.” The stranger wasn’t being rude. Just calling out concern for the dog’s safety.

Sometimes, necessary feedback – especially when unsolicited – feels rude. But a lot of the time, the most important conversations are the hardest. They’re the ones where everyone has to be open and honest. And while it might be tempting to sugar coat things, that only makes things worse in the long run.

3. Have the conversation face to face

Most communication is non-verbal. It’s in the tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.

And that’s part of the reason why we’ve all questioned the sincerity of texts, slacks, or emails. Because while they probably are genuine, without the coinciding non-verbal communication, you can’t always tell. And that leaves a lot of room for interpretation (and misinterpretation).

That’s why feedback should happen ideally in-person. But with an ongoing pandemic, that’s not always possible (or safe). So if you can’t be in the same room, at least be face to face – even if it’s over a video conferencing tool like Zoom

4. Respect boundaries

Having radical empathy doesn’t mean hounding your team members about their parent’s divorce. It means coming from a place of understanding.

Especially nowadays, everyone has something stressful going on. And people don’t always want to talk about it. Keep it open and make it personal, but not to the point where either person feels like their privacy is being invaded.

Kim explained, “showing that you care personally is very different from becoming creepily personal. And it’s a fine line because it’s different for everyone – what’s okay to say and what’s not okay to say. Part of showing you care personally is respecting other people’s boundaries and respecting your own.”

Teaching an old dog, new tricks

Now, for the real question: can you shift the workplace dynamic to a radically empathetic one without having to start from scratch?

Yes – you absolutely can! But because we’re being real – it won’t be easy.

Adding radical candor to your workplace will be a lot of intentional and hard work. And it’s never going to be 100% perfect.

Now and again, someone may be rubbed the wrong way, Kim explained. But this is all the more reason to keep having open conversations.

The key is to remember that long term, this will benefit everyone – and make your company an even better place to work. So while the upfront work might feel daunting, it pays off tenfold!

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