Practicing Radical Candor in Driving Mindset Shift and Behavioral Change Across an Organization
Our weekly Future of Work Virtual Roundtable Series recently hosted Jason Rosoff, CEO and Co-Founder of Radical Candor, a management consulting company that helps people improve relationships at work. Its goal is to help individuals develop as leaders and to empower them and their teams to do the best work of their lives. The company is the incarnation of the best-selling book by the same name, written by Radical Candor Co-Founder Kim Scott (pictured).
Below is an excerpt of Jason’s presentation with some key takeaways about how offering honest feedback at work is the best path to individual and organizational success. To experience Mursion’s virtual reality simulations and see for yourself how this platform can support your own business to achieve its goals, schedule a demo today.
“One of the reasons why we enjoy this partnership with Mursion is that our goal ultimately is behavior change and we understand that in order for behavior change to happen, not only do people need to understand the framework, but they need to understand the personal relevance of it. I think we, over the course of our training, do help people to establish that, but let’s talk about the framework for a couple of minutes and then how we think about rolling it out.
Radical candor, I like to say, is simple, but not easy. It’s an idea that when applied, we’ve seen both first hand, meaning as practitioners of radical candor ourselves, as well as through the work with other companies, can help people build stronger relationships and just do better work collaboratively.
We all want to find ways to be more than simply professional at work. We want to remember that relationships are really the currency by which great collaborative work gets done, and so we want to nurture and build those relationships. For us, moving up on care personally is really about recognizing the value, the humanity of the people around you, and honoring and respecting that, even when you have to have a conversation that might be uncomfortable or difficult.
We want to remember that relationships are really the currency by which great collaborative work gets done, and so we want to nurture and build those relationships.
Moving Beyond the Superficial to Real Behavioral Change
It’d be lovely to be able to stop there and say that’s all you need, you just need to care about each other and everything will be great, but we know the altruism of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. I think there are a lot of things where we do really care about each other and we don’t necessarily have the intent to harm, undermine or otherwise get in a way of good work, but we do, and so we need to be able to talk about these things.
That’s why we need other dimension, the challenge directly dimension, which we lovingly call the “willing to piss people off” dimension. We call it this for a very particular reason, which is often the thing that gets in the way of us challenging other people directly is that it’s really uncomfortable. This is like a positive, adaptive trait for humanity. We’re harmony seekers. On average, human beings seek harmony, and that makes us unwilling to even take the chance of upsetting that harmony.
Often, leadership boils down to the willingness to take a small amount of social risk for the potential of a large amount of social gain. For a lot of us, this is not something that starts when we’re learning to be professionals, this starts much earlier. This starts when we’re learning to talk. Many of us have been given this message, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’
In addition to that, there’s other social cues that we get throughout our lives, and these may vary by culture of origin, they may vary by regional culture, and they may vary by race, gender, and ethnicity, but there are lots of messages that the world sends to people that it’s just not OK to say things that might upset the balance, might upset somebody else, but we need to be willing to do that if we’re going to be effective.
That’s what radical candor is. It’s a combination of caring personally on the one hand and challenging directly on the other. Something that can help keep us motivated when we find ourselves worried about the emotional investment.
That's what radical candor is. It's a combination of caring personally on the one hand and challenging directly on the other.
The Limitless Value of Care Combined with Challenge
When we challenge directly, but we fail to care personally, we call that obnoxious aggression. This might also be called brutal honesty. This is probably the most common misconception about radical candor is that they’re equivalent, that obnoxious aggression and radical candor are equivalent.
What we’ve realized what psychology teaches us is that the moment we start associating these behaviors with personality, the moment we attribute these behaviors with personality, we start to see them as fixed, as unchangeable. That’s exactly the opposite of what we want. We want to use this framework to describe behavior and to think about how we can change that behavior to get us to a better place.
Next is where we fail on both dimensions, where we fail to care or to challenge, and we call this manipulative insincerity. The extreme version of manipulative insincerity is backstabbing, is actively undermining someone else for our own gain or not, but a simple version of this that happens very often is the false apology, where you’re in a disagreement with somebody else, but you’re out of steam for that day, and so you wind up saying something like, ‘You know what? You’re right. I’m wrong. Go ahead and do the thing that you said you wanted to do when you came in here.’
What we need to recognize is that’s neither helpful to that person, especially if you have information that tells you that they are in fact doing something that is incorrect or might be harmful, nor is it clear.
The most common version of this, though, that appears in the workplace is talking about people instead of talking to them directly. We have nice ways of saying this and not so nice ways of saying this, but the version that I hear all the time is water cooler chatter. This also appears in what many of us have experienced as the meeting after the meeting, where you get together to discuss all the things that happen in that meeting, but the person who most needs to hear it is never invited to that conversation.
We just want to recognize how unproductive those things are. There’s a minor value in being able to process what it is that’s going through our heads, but if that doesn’t turn into positive action to try to resolve the situation, then we should recognize for what it is, which is at the very best, not helping and in many cases, actually hurting relationships and our ability to get work done.
Then last, but not the least, we have the situation where most people make their most regrettable mistakes, which is where we do care very deeply, but we fail to challenge directly. We call that ruinous empathy. The whole idea of ruinous empathy is when our concern for the other person paralyzes us, it causes us to be really unclear or not to act on their behalf. A way to think about this is to think about the difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy is really about feeling and experiencing, understanding deeply the emotions of another person.
All Empathy Is Not Created Equal
From a psychological perspective there are two types of empathy, there’s cognitive empathy which is at an intellectual level, understanding what someone else is going through, and then there’s emotional empathy, which is actually feeling what the other person is feeling. These are really important developmental skills and they’re often one of the best ways for us to develop a connection and for us to decide to act on someone else’s behalf, but sometimes, it’s too much. The understanding is too much and that causes us actually to act against someone’s interest.
I like to think of compassion as empathy plus action.
Compassion, on the other hand, I like to think of as empathy plus action. That’s really what we’re going for. The combination of those things is really about compassionately acting on someone else’s behalf.
Why does this matter? It matters because something that we know is that great teams are built on a culture of honest and open communication. This is correlative, not causative, meaning that it’s very hard to run an experiment and prove that high-quality feedback leads to better performance, but it is really easy to see that the highest performing teams have in common, a culture of honest, direct, and caring feedback. The reason why that matters for us is that it can both be a tool of improving relationships. We start to see these conversations happening more frequently with a higher degree of quality.
How You Can Practice Radical Candor
That’s what radical candor is. I want to give you a quick, very brief overview of how we think about rolling this out, because I think when most people think of radical candor, they think of a boss giving feedback to an employee, but that is in fact, not the place that we encourage most people to start. We encourage most people to think about this framework as a compass that can guide behavior, but when we actually work with them on behavior change, we often encourage them to realize that cultures of radical candor start with a willingness to solicit feedback, especially leaders soliciting feedback from their team members.
We think about how to and through our live training experience, actually give people very concrete guidance as to exactly how to do this, which boils down to some very simple things. Which are learn how to ask some better questions. When we’re soliciting feedback, we’ll often say something like, ‘Do you have any feedback for me?’ We’ve all had the experience of just the crickets start to chirp after we ask a question like that, so we need to learn to ask some better questions.
We need to learn to ask some better questions.
Then we need to learn to listen and respond effectively. I think one of the best things that leaders can do with the feedback that they’re receiving is actually talk about it. Be public about what it is that you’ve heard and what you are doing to change it.
Next, we do need to learn how to give feedback better. Essentially, I think this means learning to hold in our minds, the care personally and challenge directly at the same time. Often that boils down to just being clear about our intention and being willing to see and hear the other person’s reaction to what we are saying and being willing to adjust our approach.
Praise vs. Criticism
Importantly, we train people not only on giving criticism, but also on giving praise, because unfortunately, even though we know from a developmental perspective that praise is actually far more important than criticism in terms of improving overall performance, when we’ve surveyed the companies that we work with, we find that the ratio of praise to criticism is often one or less. Meaning they’re often happening about the same amount, which is a pretty good outcome for most of the organizations that we work with or criticism is happening far more often than praise.
The effect that has on organizations is that, the way I think about it is praise is your accelerator and criticism is your brake. We have a bunch of people running around hitting the brake all the time. Very few people finding and identifying and helping people invest in the energy of what is actually working, of what is producing success. We recommend a really balanced approach to both of those things. In fact, we recommend that if things are going well, that your ratio of praise to criticism should be greater than one.
I think one of the reasons why praise gets short shrift in the world of feedback is that we think that praise and recognition are equivalent. From our perspective, it should include some amount of context and observation of what happened and the results or impact of what that was and of that behavior.
The structure is exactly the same. If you can’t structure your praise in that same way, where you’re offering a context, some kind of observation, and a result, you haven’t thought about why that action that that person took is developmentally valuable. We encourage people to actually spend the same amount of time preparing their praise and their criticism.
Finally, we think it’s really important that people learn to gauge other people’s reactions. If we’re going to treat this, to invest in this relationship, it’s actually really important that we pay attention, not just to what we’re saying, but also to what the other person is saying in response to it. This should be a dialogue, not a diatribe. Gauging is all about understanding that the how someone receives our feedback is more important than how we intended it.
The reason why is if our goal is to be helpful, we need to be aware of how the other person is reacting. Our goal is not to control it, but it’s to be aware of that reaction, being willing to adjust our approach in order to make our perspective sharing, in this case, as optimally useful to the other person as possible. If someone is getting really angry or really upset, instead of us getting really angry or upset in response and instead of us having a symmetrical response, we want to focus on de-escalating the emotion in that situation, not by ignoring it, but by actually paying attention to it, accepting what is happening, and to trying to find a way to be helpful.
The Practice of Empathy
What we’ve realized is that a live training experience, as great as we can make it, it’s totally insufficient. Live training is really, we think of it as a catalyst for behavior change, we do not think of it as the source of behavior change. Instead, what we have worked with organizations on are ways of creating opportunities to practice on an ongoing basis. That’s how we wound up getting introduced to Mursion.
Now, in some cases, organizations are paying for coaches for people, so they actually are having ongoing conversations, but in a lot of places, that’s impractical, especially if you want to do it at scale. That’s one of the things that excites us about working with Mursion.
We had these questions about, how do we make it safe? How do we make it realistic enough to be helpful? Because one of the things we hear all the time is that people are just tired of the random scenario-driven thing and in large part, because they don’t feel like the person who is playing the other side is skilled enough to actually respond in a way that feels natural and realistic.
Then last but not least, how do we make this successful and timely so that you can actually practice it when it feels most relevant? Because most of the individuals who go through training are not deciding when that training happens. They may or may not have an instance where they need to practice these skills for a long time where it would be optimally useful. The idea of working with Mursion is about extending the reach of this, both in terms of number of people that can get this kind of practice, as well as the time in which people can practice.”