Applied Leadership Series
Radical Candor: How to Create Win-Win Situations in Workplace Leadership
Written by Kate Webster, Founder, Breaking Through Barriers, and Peg Rowe, Managing Partner, Tiara International LLC.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. — Maya Angelou
Imagine feeling extremely satisfied after your team presentation, only to be told by your boss that she was less than thrilled with your communication style stating: “When you say um every third word, it makes you sound stupid.” This actually happened to Kim Scott. An employee of Google at the time, Scott took her boss Sheryl Sandberg’s critique to heart and, in her upcoming book, coined Sandberg’s direct and blunt guidance as “radical candor.”
Radical candor is a nuanced concept designed to help leaders improve workplace performance through communication. It unseats the unhelpful adage “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.” Recently, however, it’s become confused with trends such as “front-stabbing” or confronting a “mokita.” These trends encourage individuals to provide direct and sometimes painful critiques of ideas or behaviors to a colleague, who, in turn, is expected to defend him or herself or make changes.
We at Tiara International would agree that it’s important to provide clear guidance to others, as opposed to sugarcoating what’s wrong so feelings don’t get hurt. When we are too nice or avoid direct communication, the situation often remains unaddressed and unresolved, which is not in the best interest of the individual or the business. However, directly confronting colleagues such that they feel put down or demoralized, then going on the defense creates a lose-lose situation. In these cases, bosses don’t take responsibility for the impact of their words, and people aren’t provided the opportunity to learn, grow, and improve. This is not radical candor.
Instead, radical candor encourages leaders to combine direct critique with deep concern of the success of their people, communicating outside of meetings, one-on-one. According to Scott: “Once you become a boss, it’s your job to be equally clear about what’s going wrong, and what’s going right.”
Radical candor succeeds because you are not just challenging an individual directly, but also caring personally about the individual. This moves beyond a lose-lose to a win-win situation.
Tiara International’s model of effective leadership inherently includes radical candor to create the win-win situations Scott has imagined. Based on the model, the steps leaders can take to practice radical candor are: Awareness, Intentionality, and Impact.
According to the Tiara Model for True Leadership, awareness is essential. When leaders are self-aware, they can connect to their gut and sense something needs to be said, that some truth needs to be spoken. Leaders can then hit their own pause button to assess the facts and gain clarity on what their role is in the situation. Included in this awareness is a curiosity in the others’ point of view. They can take responsibility for their own emotional reaction and choose to take the best action, if needed.
In addition, self-aware leaders are conscious of their communication style on the spectrum between passive and aggressive. In a heated situation, do they tend to passively keep quiet or aggressively overreact? Leaders who are aware are more in charge of their emotional reactions and can create the space for candid and honest dialogues at the appropriate time.
One of our clients, a leader in a large utility firm, became frustrated that members of her team would continually approach her with problems, rather than well-thought out solutions. When this happened, she’d jump in and, with rapid-fire questions, take over the conversation as if it were an inquisition. She’d articulate what she saw as the best solution and overtly steer the team in this direction. When coached on the concept of awareness, she saw how her behavior was impacting her team and the ways this needed to change to help them grow. She discovered that instead of jumping in with detailed situational questions, she would instead start the conversation with: “Give me the headline of the situation as you see it. Do you have a solution or do you need my help in finding one?” By shifting accountability to the team members and clearly identifying her role, she was able to turn every conversation into a leadership opportunity.
Once leaders are clear about the conversation they need to have and issues to be addressed, they are intentional about the outcome. Leaders approach conversations outside the boundaries of having to be right and proving their point. They have the intention of finding a solution that includes the input for both parties.
Along with asking how to solve the problem, another key question for leaders to ask themselves is, “How do I want the other person to feel?” This comes from a place of caring, as outlined in Scott’s concept of radical candor, with a clear intention of wanting the other to be a successful team member.
A client for a large transportation firm was told by her superiors that her feedback was overly critical and that her team was fearful of presenting the real challenges. The irony was that she was usually spot on with her feedback, but she lacked understanding of how her comments impacted others. When coached to think about what her intention was for the comments and what she hoped to convey, she was able to communicate the message in a way that allowed the other team members to actually hear it. She started to recognize how her comments and her intentions needed to be heard in tandem.
Leaders, once clear on their emotional reaction and intention for the conversation, can then move toward a solution. When thinking about the conversation ahead of time, leaders focus on what impact they want to have—wanting the direct report to feel positive even if it is a difficult and painful discussion. After the conversation, the Tiara Model for True Leadership encompasses a “1-2-3 Debrief” that helps leaders assess a real rather than perceived impact on others. All parties in the room discuss: (1) What worked—gaining clarity on aspects of the conversation that worked well; (2) What didn’t work—assessing what was missed and didn’t go as expected; (3) What’s the learning—mining the learning which comes from what did and didn’t work.
Many leaders skip this final step of assuring that the communication was effective for all parties. Additionally, it is important to confirm that this step is not positioned as “now what did I just say?” A managing partner in a law firm told us that he always ended his conversations with associates with that exact phrase. His intention was excellent, he was aiming for clarity so the impact could be realized; however, it was patronizing at best and most often left the associates feeling demoralized. By shifting the questions to this 1-2-3 collaborative debrief, he was able to not only empower the associates, but he was also able to grow his confidence in their learning and ability to handle similar situations in the future.
Sandberg’s radical candor was the gentle yet direct nudge Scott needed to kick her um habit, and Sandberg also helped a report better position herself in the workplace. When leaders are self-aware, have inclusive intentions, and are conscious of their impact, they can use radical candor to create positive win-win solutions.