Kim Scott has redefined the concept of candor in her book “Radical Candor – be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity.” Her take on total openness is based on two main principles and helps leaders foster high performance in order to achieve ambitious business goals. While the desire to have others think well of us is deeply ingrained in us—in particular, we desire this from those above us in the hierarchy—candor must not be a hierarchical issue, it should be lived in all directions.


Yes, it’s always easier to say nothing rather than risk jeopardizing the relationship with others. But that’s not what high-performance teams are built on. If, up to now, you’ve considered getting drunk together or driving go-karts for hours the only way to maintain team relationships, let me offer you an alternative. 


What does radical candor mean?

According to Scott, radical candor on the job is based on two principles: “taking personal care of employees” and “challenging each other.” When you care about your employees and are able to build trust based on this genuine interest, effective feedback giving and taking prospers. Employees are more likely to accept praise or criticism. At the same time, mutual trust also enables your employees to tell you honestly what they really think about your leadership behavior. This creates a culture of open exchange from different perspectives which ultimately benefits the entire company.


Principle 1: caring personally

Perhaps this makes you think of the already outdated concept of servant leadership. In fact, there are certain similarities. Only when you take a real interest in a person as a whole can a solid basis of trust develop. Engaging exclusively over work-related issues is not enough. It is essential to get to know each other on a human level too, and to learn what is important to your counterpart.  


Trust often emerges precisely when employees notice vulnerability in the leader. Model this behavior by showing your vulnerability to your employees. Admit when you are having a bad day, or when you made a mistake. And, at the same time, create a safe space for others to be vulnerable. 


The opposite of caring personally is constant, grueling criticism. Although it feels obnoxious, this at least has the benefit of letting employees know what their manager expects so they can get results. That explains why this behavior still helps some managers succeed. Oddly, when bosses demean or publicly embarrass employees they often get great results in the short term, but leave a trail of bodies in the long run. 

The worst kind of humiliation happens when one person knows another person’s vulnerabilities and uses them to target them. Almost nothing erodes trust faster than using what you know about another person to hurt them.    


Principle 2: challenging directly

“The source of all that is decent in man is that our faults are correctable. We are capable of improving our defects, through discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion to show how experience can be interpreted.” —John Stuart Mill

This statement is meant to illustrate the need for mutual demand: on the one hand, to do great work, and on the other hand, to build excellent relationships. Openly and honestly sharing each other’s perspectives and assumptions, and thereby allowing a discussion to develop, shows a willingness to admit mistakes or incorrect assumptions, and to correct them. Sharing with employees both when their work is good or not good enough also is a form of caring about them.


Challenging others and encouraging them to also challenge you helps build trusting relationships. It shows that you care about addressing the aspects that are not going well, but also those that are. You demonstrate that you too are willing to admit mistakes and committed to correcting them.

A leader should not mind being wrong. To err is human. What is important, is to create a culture of open communication that encourages and allows for continuous improvement. 


6 ways to enable radical candor as a leader

We’ve had a look at the theory, but how can you achieve this kind of openness as a team leader? Here’s 6 ways to foster radical candor at work:

  1. Share your stories of when “caring personally” and “challenging each other” have not been successful
  2. Start by asking for criticism before you give it
  3. Know your employees’ motivation
  4. Continuously work on your 1-on-1 conversations
  5. Give feedback, both appreciative and critical
  6. Make time to evaluate: What’s working? Do more of it. What doesn’t work? Don’t do it.


Do you also want to develop this culture of radical candor and openness in your company and become a kick-ass boss? Write us to get support—we’re happy to help!