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The Radical Path to Better Feedback
Blending care and challenge for constructive critiques
Effective communication is essential for any team's success, yet being both caring and direct is a rare skill. Threading this needle is challenging on our best day: expressing the truth of one’s feedback in an effective way, while also doing so from a place of support and compassion. Mastering what Kim Scott calls "radical candor" can unlock more honest, constructive conversations.
Kim Scott coined the term radical candor (in her outstanding book of the same name) to describe the optimal blend of caring personally while also challenging directly. This strikes the ideal balance between being too nice or too harsh when giving feedback. Here’s how she explains this delicate balancing act of top-notch communication:
She maps communication styles onto two axes: caring personally (vertical) and challenging directly (horizontal). So you can imagine at the bottom of the vertical axis a low amount of personal care, and at the top a great deal of care. And on the far left, a low degree of challenge or directness, and on the far right, a blunt challenge. This forms four quadrants illustrating common communication types; three of them have pretty obvious pitfalls:
Radical Candor (high care, high challenge): The ideal balance. Direct feedback that comes from a place of palpable caring.
Obnoxious Aggression (low care, high challenge): Blunt criticism without empathy. This is often received as a form of hostility, and puts people on the defensive or otherwise makes people shut down.
Ruinous Empathy (high care, low challenge): Being nice but not direct. This is big trouble for teamwork, as you can no doubt imagine. It doesn’t bring about meaningful results or impactful results for anybody, and worse, it leads to perilous corporate politics.
Manipulative Insincerity (low care, low challenge): This can look like praise or compliments that are either inauthentic, insincere, or just nonspecific, or it can look like criticism that is unclear, unkind, or unhelpful. This is workplace toxicity and is ruinous for team-building and workplace productivity.
Who wouldn't want to have more open, constructive dialogue on their team? Radical candor enables people to grow and work better together.
But it’s not easy to pull off, particularly if the culture of the team hasn’t aligned with this effective communication model. Scott stresses the importance of leaders soliciting critical feedback themselves to model this vulnerability. And when offering feedback, she offers a few key precepts:
Praise publicly, criticize privately.
Focus feedback on behaviors, not character.
Frame both praise and criticism positively.
A natural outcome of more honest, productive feedback is more authentic emotional responses. Even when emotional reactions happen, take that as a cue to respond with more care and honesty, not less. Get curious rather than defensive.
So, if you’re in leadership, and this is a new framework, to adopt radical candor, try asking "What could I do or stop doing to make it easier to work with me?" Then listen intently for the unvarnished truth. Reward candor by taking action on valid critiques. Admit when you're wrong. Prevent gossip and backstabbing by encouraging direct conversations to resolve conflicts.
At its core, radical candor requires humility and vulnerability. The reward for this level of engagement, curiosity, and interaction goes way beyond mere productivity and achievement towards goals. It promotes a level of humanity and authenticity that businesses the world over would do well to instill.
All the best,