Making a Case for Workplace Candor

The truth may hurt, but when it’s delivered with compassion, everyone from employees to managers benefit.

Making a Case for Workplace Candor

Most people are told at an early age that if they have nothing nice to say, they should say nothing at all. But managers who adhere to this advice run the risk of deflating employee morale and increasing turnover — and in worst-case scenarios, perhaps even getting fired.

Here’s the thing: When managers don’t candidly give employees the critical intel they need to improve, they essentially send a message that underperformance is OK. That then places an unfair burden on high-performing employees who must pick up the slack. That, in turn, can lead to resentment and low morale, poor team results and higher turnover as star employees get tired of the charade and bolt for the door.

Compassionate but candid criticism is crucial. Bestselling author and executive coach Kim Scott has a name for it: radical candor.

“It’s a simple idea: Care personally, while at the same time, challenge directly,” says Scott, the author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and the co-founder of consulting firm Radical Candor. “It’s like delivering love and truth at the same time.

“Very often we think there’s a dichotomy between the two, but I believe that’s wrong. If you truly care about someone, you also must challenge them — tell them when they make a mistake.”

Scott got a firsthand lesson in the value of candor while working for Google. After she made an important presentation to senior management, her boss told Scott that while she had done a good job, she also said “umm” quite a bit and her boss offered to hire a speech coach to cure the problem.

After Scott brushed off the suggestion twice, her boss upped the ante by making the point more bluntly. “She told me that when I say ‘umm’ all the time, it makes me sound stupid,” Scott says. “And in retrospect, it was the kindest thing she could’ve said to me because she wasn’t exaggerating. I was saying ‘umm’ about every third word.”

That incident got Scott thinking about why her boss was able to be so honest. It also raised another question: Why had no one ever told her this before?

“It was like I’d been walking through life with a giant hunk of spinach between my teeth and no one had ever told me,” she says.


It’s All About Context

That raises a crucial point about radical candor: It only works when employees know their manager cares about them. Without that key ingredient, praise sounds insincere and criticism falls under a category Scott calls “obnoxious aggression.”

The converse to that is when managers care about employees but can’t deliver bad news for fear of hurting their feelings. Scott calls this “ruinous empathy.”

But when managers can combine both caring about and challenging employees, they’ve entered the radical candor zone.

If managers realize they fall more under the obnoxious aggression umbrella, how do they do an about-face without making their direct reports leery about the sudden transformation? Start by first taking criticism, rather than dishing it out, Scott says.

“If you solicit feedback and respond well to it, they see that you view feedback as a gift,” she says. “And going forward, they’ll now understand the spirit in which you offer them feedback.”

When managers ask for feedback, it’s important to ask questions that can’t be answered with simple “yes” or “no” answers. For example, managers might start by asking direct reports what managers could do to make working together easier.

When it comes to having those difficult conversations, it’s important to first give praise for what employees do well. “This isn’t a complicated process,” Scott says. “After you start soliciting feedback and giving praise, you’re in a better frame of mind, the employees are in a better frame of mind and it becomes easier to offer criticism.”


Two-Way Street

Radical candor also requires two-way dialogue, not a monologue. Managers should be mindful of the fact that they’re not the sole arbiters of good or bad performance. Instead, they should emphasize that they’re not passing judgement, just sharing a point of view.

“It’s better to say, ‘Here’s what I see, and I’m curious to understand what you see,’” Scott says. “You don’t want to sound like you have a pipeline to God, where you know what’s true and what isn’t. You’re simply trying to find a better answer together.

“Like I said before, radical candor is a gift, either because you’re right and you’re giving an employee a chance to correct what’s wrong or you’re wrong and you can fix your own thinking. But this should be more about listening than talking … be humble.”

Listening carefully also helps managers determine how the conversation is going. “Gauge how things are landing and then adjust,” Scott says. “Radical candor doesn’t get measured at the speaker’s mouth, but at the listener’s ear.

“If the employee starts to get upset, move up on the caring dimension. But if they’re not hearing you, it’s time to move up on the challenge dimension.” (Just as Scott’s boss did when Scott needed, umm, a bit more candor.)


Spinach in the Teeth

What about managers who try hard but find themselves still mired in ruinous-empathy mode? Scott says they should take heart in one fact: Most of the time, it’s never as bad as they think it’s going to be.

In most cases, when criticism is constructively dispensed, employees are grateful to know about the metaphorical spinach stuck in their teeth. And if a manager doesn’t tell them but someone else does, it erodes trust. Why? Because the employee then wonders why the manager never said anything.

“One out of 10 times you might have a radical-candor train wreck,” Scott says. “But nine times out of 10, there’s a huge reward — it’s how you build trust and relationships.”

Scott doesn’t sugarcoat how difficult it can be to learn the fine art of candor. She says that from her extensive experience, it’s “seriously hard” for everyone from new managers to chief executive officers.

“We’re social animals,” she says. “For most of human evolution, if you offended people and got thrown out of your tribe, you were dead. So we don’t like to take social risks.”

On the other hand, practicing radical candor is just like anything else: The more you do it, the better you get.

“It gets easier as you build relationships and people know you have their backs,” she says. “It’s hardest when you’re just starting a relationship, but that’s when it’s most critically important, too.

“It’s paradoxical because people think they need to wait (on criticism) and be silent in order to build trust. But silence doesn’t build trust. Communication builds trust. Silence may feel safer, but it’s not.”


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