A popular article circulated not too long ago speaking to the notion of radical candor: honest, potentially uncomfortable feedback in the effort towards providing effective guidance and growth.
And while many people long for guidance and growth, many squirm at the idea of discomfort inherently related to critique and criticism. In this piece, Kim Scott experiences her boss telling her outright something she didn’t expect to hear:
People I spoke to shared their enthusiasm for Scott’s talk, all for unfiltered candor. Of course, our weaknesses should be exposed and improved upon—being coy about such matters helps no one.
I am not here to argue the validity of radical candor. Kim Scott and the article above details the use-case very well. What I am prepared to pontificate upon, however, is the specificity of candor’s use as a tool fit for specific circumstances, specific times, with specific sets of parameters for effective delivery and outcomes. First and foremost, radical candor really only works well when there is trust.
Candor Comes with Trust
Recently, during training practice, our Muay Thai coach reminded us that learning to know our partners was paramount to success in our overall martial education. That training was another form of relating and communicating, and like any other process of relating, we should use the appropriate skill-sets and our emotional intelligence when necessary.
If you’ve read my other work, you know I see similarities between training martial arts as I do with the design process.
When two trainees with longstanding relationships are paired up, they are able to understand the nuances of their relationship. They can go harder, faster, with less overt communication. They know that when caught with an attack to next time put the appropriate guard up. Because there is trust, there is an opportunity to be vulnerable for the learning. Both partners are able to handle each other's heavier attacks, and even accept when they get caught with one. This not only indicates respect, but also shows how progressive disclosure of techniques can be used as a training tool. A practitioner therefore also learns to coach and coax skills out of their partner.
But our coach reminded us that when training with new partners, the moments between the strikes needed to be filled with words. A new partner may not understand our exact intent, the meaning behind our demeanor. Establishing the skill to intuit a partner’s movement is still in development. Our coach asked we develop empathy, learn emotional intelligence, and develop self awareness to help our partners develop technical proficiency while we ourselves were building our own.
This same mode of thinking applies with conversations and communication on design teams, especially from seniors and leaders. Radical candor comes with caring personally, not solely on challenging directly, and this is something people easily forget.
That is to say, it’s not just what you say, but also in how you say it. This is important, specifically as it relates to leadership communication. Addressing deficiencies and areas for improvement are a means to an end. At least they should be. Curt honesty is one thing. Unabashed arrogance is another.
Discerning the difference offers the winning stroke.
Efficacy when relating between human beings is directly proportional to the level of trust shared between the two parties.
The Heavy Overhand Right
While the article was certainly a great one and Scott’s talk inspiring, most readers I spoke with focused on radical candor as a ticket to rationalize chronic critique. But if we review the narrative closely, Sandberg began by addressing her criticisms towards Scott’s performance with subtlety. It wasn’t until Scott brushed off these repeated attempts that Sandberg came in with something a little heavier: communication’s heavy overhand right.
The reason radical candor was crucial in Scott’s situation was that Sandberg had tried multiple times to get the point across without avail. This is akin to lightly tapping our sparring partner’s openings to let them know they can use some attention for improvement. When that doesn’t work, something a little more heavy-handed may.
Some may argue the sacrifice of efficiency on Sandberg’s part with not going straight to the heavy overhand. And while I would agree there may be more efficiency with being outright about such matters, I draw back to the analogy used above with training: efficacy when relating between human beings is directly proportional to the level of trust shared between the two parties.
Radical candor is feedback’s heavy-handed right punch. Whilst training our sparring partners, every now and again, we need the heavy overhand to gain their attention, especially if they are with opening large enough to warrant something so overt. A seasoned practitioner knows, however, that landing a heavy overhand repeatedly at our partners without the context to frame it only frustrates rather than instructs. It obfuscates when it should inform. Rather than allowing our partners to learn and adjust, it injures and maligns.
Radical candor has a time and a place. Candor does not give license to forgo respect. Applying our overhand rights at the right cadence demonstrates our ability to communicate appropriately as well as doing so effectively.
Avoid the Wide Swinging Haymaker
Radical candor is a useful tool, and as Scott points out, is a moral obligation. However, in discussing radical candor, people glossed over the “Obnoxious Aggression” mentioned in the piece. A part of leading, whether a martial arts student or a team of designers, is the regard to caring personally for the individuals, their growth, and the collective output of the relationship.
Used without assuring personal care, or used too often, candor becomes less a fine-tuned tool and more of a sloppy haymaker; the technique of choice for obnoxious aggressors.
Sloppy haymakers, while effective in a certain fashion, are less than ideal for long-term relationships, let alone mentorships. They are clumsy, messy, and leave a lot from which one must rebound.
There is a better way.
With Great Candor Comes Great Responsibility
Radical candor is not synonymous to unbridled criticism. Having said that, it has its important uses, as detailed in Scott’s talk. There are many communication tools at our disposal when critiquing a mentee or providing feedback to our colleagues and clients.
So let’s recap:
A well executed heavy overhand right (radical candor), and an easier-yet-unwieldy wide swinging haymaker (obnoxious aggression) are not the same thing.
How does one begins to understand the subtitles between the two? I have two suggestions:
Candor is not about you solely knowing you. It isn’t about how you are able to poke holes into someone’s professional constitution. It’s knowing how to throw a clean critique with maximum focus and maximum impact when necessary. It’s first and foremost about helping make your partner better and therefore the whole design team and process (or sparring partner and training) better.