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Radical Candor at Work

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni profile image

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni

Two young professionals at an office couch having a conversation.

Since Kim Scott’s book “Radical Candor” was published in 2017, it has become an international bestseller available in 20 languages. Business leaders and self-improvement experts have been touting it as a must-read, both to be an effective leader and thoughtful communicator. 

Read on to learn the fundamentals of radical candor and how you can start implementing the strategies at work and at home.

What is radical candor?

Radical candor is a management philosophy that guides how you provide feedback with an emphasis on “caring personally while challenging directly.”  

This approach seems simple enough, but there are two things that can make this approach feel challenging:

  • Perceptions about professionalism. Often, being professional is equated with not getting too personal at work. But sharing more of yourself at work doesn’t necessarily mean overstepping boundaries or airing your dirty laundry. Caring personally allows for the type of vulnerability that allows you and your co-workers to have “human” moments, such as a bad day or getting through a tough meeting. 
  • Avoidance of hurting others. Constructive criticism can be hard to give—or receive—but remaining silent and not providing any feedback to preserve someone’s feelings isn’t beneficial either. Challenging directly allows you to respectfully and directly share your opinions. 

To clearly appreciate what radical candor is, it can help to understand what it is not. According to Scott, radical candor isn’t:

  • Obnoxious aggression. This is also known as “brutal honesty.” This is when you challenge directly but without showing you care personally, such as with insincere praise or unkind feedback.
  • Ruinous empathy. This is when you care personally but don’t share necessary feedback to avoid hurting others. This can present as unclear sugar-coating or even silence. 
  • Manipulative insincerity. This is passive-aggressive behavior that is the direct opposite of radical candor—when you neither care personally nor challenge directly. For instance, saying one thing in front of a person and another behind their back. 

An example of radical candor

Scott shares a story about Sheryl Sandberg, her ex-boss at Google to illustrate how radical candor can work: after a meeting, Sandberg asked Scott to take a walk with her and proceeded to praise Scott’s work. But, Sandberg noted, Scott says “um” a lot when she speaks, so Sandberg suggested Scott work with a speaking coach. After Scott admitted knowing about her “um” tick, Sandberg then observed that because Scott says “um” so frequently, it makes her sound unintelligent when she clearly isn’t.  

Everything about how Sandberg delivered her feedback honors radical candor. She was caring and direct, which helped Scott appreciate the critique, as well as why and how she can improve.

The big takeaway from Scott’s story is that providing feedback—however seemingly harsh—can be a grace-filled interaction if you are committed to having strong relationships, at work or otherwise. 

Start practicing radical candor

To be more radically candid, Scott offers these guidelines

  • Be humble.
  • Be helpful.
  • Be immediate.
  • Deliver in person.
  • Deliver in private.
  • Don’t personalize.

Whether you are a manager or a co-worker giving feedback to another person on your team, you want to make sure you do so in a timely, respectful manner that doesn’t make the person on the receiving end feel attacked. That means pulling your team member aside soon after you have feedback to offer and addressing it clearly. 

For example, if you have a team member who doesn’t ask her questions until a project is well under way, you could:

  • Ask her if she wants to grab a coffee or take a short walk. 
  • Let her know what she is doing well in current or past projects that are relevant to her role within the new project. Example: “You’re doing a great job making sure the team is on track to meet our deadlines.”
  • Offer your feedback clearly and succinctly, as well as why you’re offering it. Example: “You ask a lot of important questions, but I’ve noticed that you didn’t speak up when we started this project. And a lot of those questions cause unnecessary delays later and could actually help all of us understand our roles better from the get-go.”
  • Offer her your support. Example: “If it helps you going forward, we can start a shared document with questions from the entire team that can be addressed at meetings or in an updated project guide.”
  •  Invite her feedback. Example: “Would an opportunity for everyone to share their initial questions help you speak up sooner?

Building trust at work

The implicit foundation of radical candor is getting to know your team members so that they feel you have their back. The more intentional you can be in how you communicate, the more successful you and your team can be. 

To lay the foundation of radical candor in your workplace, start by showing that you care personally about your co-workers. Start by offering sincere praise at a job well done or support when you believe you can help. Breaking the ice in this way will make it easier when you must deliver feedback, so that it is received in the spirit you offer it: as a way to help your co-workers do their best work.

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Nisha Kumar Kulkarni profile image

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni is a writer and creative coach in New York City. She helps women living with chronic illness and mental health challenges to pursue their passion projects without compromising their health.

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