What Radical Candor Can Do

What Radical Candor Can Do

Ever since Google director-turned-leadership-coach Kim Scott gave a presentation on her philosophy of “radical candor” at First Round’s latest CEO Summit, the notion of giving very direct, honest—even blunt—feedback has been on the rise. Scott, who is now writing a book on the subject, had an early encounter with the concept when she was new at Google and her then-boss Sheryl Sandberg told her after a meeting that frankly, her habit of saying “um” a lot made her sound stupid. Sandberg’s comment might have come off as harsh, but in Scott’s view, it was exactly the right thing to say: It got her attention and motivated her to correct the problem in a way that gentler feedback may not have.

Of course, Google isn’t the only company where such directness is valued. Amazon’s Anytime Feedback tool, which encourages direct criticism, was a highlight of the New York Times‘ controversial report criticizing the company, and Cisco VP of Global Executive Talent Cassandra Frangos writes in the Harvard Business Review that the IT giant’s executive assessment process is designed to deliver “brutally honest” feedback effectively. In today’s Wall Street Journal , Rachel Feintzeig looks at some other companies that are embracing the concept of radical candor:

Kendall Hawkins, senior manager of talent at Kalypso, a Beachwood, Ohio, consulting firm, says the company’s recently launched “culture of candor” campaign helped employees stop trying to be nice all the time and start speaking up about sub-par work or work-life balance issues. The phrase “culture of candor” has become “a safe word,” Ms. Hawkins says, that employees can invoke to make their criticism land more softly, yet some remain scared to be vocal and truthful, she says. “It’s still a challenge.”

At the Canadian offices of staffing firm Randstad Holding NV, leaders placed a new focus on candor because they thought workers weren’t having honest conversations. Wendy Finlason Seymour, a Randstad talent-management executive, says more employees are speaking their mind, but one manager reported the unvarnished feedback “cut me to the bone.” Still, Ms. Finlason Seymour says, the open dialogue was a “gift.” “It’s not there to destroy,” she says but acknowledges, “Sometimes the truth can hurt.”

Of course, candor isn’t the same thing as cruelty. Morag Barrett at the Fordyce Letter characterizes a culture of honest feedback by contrasting “kindness” with “niceness” and “allies” with “supporters”:

Being nice is the realm of the Supporter: tough messages are either not shared, or diluted to the point that the feedback is no longer useful. Being an Ally – or in other words, being kind– is to share the message even if it stings – because not doing so would leave you in a far worse position.

In order for any business to succeed, there must be a voice of reason: someone who is willing to stand up and be a truth-sayer, to challenge the status quo, and to provide the feedback and insights that the organization and individuals within it need to hear.