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Acting Like a Jerk by Not Caring Personally is a Radical Candor Fail

What makes Radical Candor radical is that it’s a deviation from the norm, which tends to fall somewhere between acting like a jerk and avoiding confrontation altogether. The purpose of Radical Candor is to create a new normal where guidance is both kind and clear, not to reinforce bad behavior.

This means that if you don’t Care Personally about the person you’re delivering feedback to, you’re exhibiting Obnoxious Aggression, not Radical Candor.

Ever since the book Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity was released, Radical Candor has become a bit of a buzzword, which is exciting. However, it’s often being used incorrectly, which leads to a misunderstanding of the true meaning of Radical Candor.

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Case in point, a recent Wall Street Journal article that depicts obnoxiously aggressive internal tactics at Netflix as Radical Candor, as well as the Silicon Valley episode. In short, Radical Candor means saying what you think while also giving a damn about the person you’re saying it to. This means you have to Care Personally while also being willing to Challenge Directly. If you don’t start with being kind, you’ve already failed.

And if you’re not willing to challenge directly, you’re displaying Ruinous Empathy, and neither Obnoxious Aggression nor Ruinous Empathy are Radical Candor.  In order to practice Radical Candor, you need to do both. If you neither care nor challenge, you’re engaging in what we call Manipulative Insincerity.

Radical Candor is Not Being a Jerk, a Pushover or Passive Aggressive

There is a world of difference between Radical Candor and brutal honesty, or as we call it, Obnoxious Aggression. It’s bad, but Ruinous Empathy can be even worse, and Manipulative Insincerity is the worst of all.

  • Radical Candor is kind, clear, specific and sincere.
  • Obnoxious Aggression  is what happens when you challenge someone directly, but don’t care about them personally. It’s being clear, but not kind; praise that doesn’t feel sincere or criticism that isn’t delivered kindly. Obnoxious Aggression is also called “brutal honesty” or “front stabbing.”Unfortunately, some confuse Radical Candor with Obnoxious Aggression — for example, in HBO’s Silicon Valley. And Dilbert, who mistakes Radical Candor for Obnoxious Aggression.

    Radical Candor is not a license to be gratuitously harsh or to ‘front-stab.’ It’s not Radical Candor just because you begin with the words, “Let me be radically candid with you.” If you follow that phrase with words like, ‘You are a liar and I don’t trust you,’ you’ve just acted like a garden-variety jerk. It’s not Radical Candor if you don’t show that you Care Personally.

  • Ruinous Empathy is “nice” but ultimately unhelpful or even damaging. It’s what happens when you care about someone personally, but fail to challenge them directly. It’s praise that isn’t specific enough to help the person understand what was good, or criticism that is sugar-coated and unclear.Ruinous Empathy is seeing somebody with their fly down, but, not wanting to embarrass them, saying nothing, with the result that 15 more people see them with their fly down — more embarrassing for them. So, not so “nice” after all.
  • Manipulative Insincerity is praise that is non-specific and insincere, or criticism that is neither clear nor kind. It’s the kind of backstabbing, political, passive aggressive behavior that might be fun to tell stories about but makes for a toxic workplace, ruining relationships and ruining work.

    People give praise and criticism that is manipulatively insincere when they are too focused on being liked or they think they can gain some sort of political advantage by being fake, or when they are too tired to care or argue any more.

As people toss around the phrase Radical Candor more and more, it’s important to remember that if you don’t care about the object of your candor, you’re doing it wrong. You’re just being a jerk. I’m not saying command and control can’t work, it works especially well in a totalitarian regime.

But in a radically candid workplace common human decency is something we owe to everyone. We try to find the best people for the job, and we respect all the people and all the jobs. The reason we use the word Radical is that the kind of candor we’re talking about is rare. It feels unnatural to practice it. It flies in the face of the “if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all” maxim that most of us have heard since we learned to talk.

Changing training that’s been instilled in us since we were eighteen months old is hard. But, with playful practice and a commitment to being kind and clear, Radical Candor can change your relationships at work, home and everywhere in between. If you want to learn more about what is Radical Candor and what isn’t, this is required reading.

Because, if you’re not a kick-ass boss, your team likely wants to kick your ass. Want to learn more about how to practice Radical Candor without being a jerk? Get The Feedback Loop, our workplace comedy series and supporting learning materials, starting at $59 for our self-paced e-course.

Kim Scott

Kim Scott is the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity and the co-founder of Radical Candor LLC. A former CEO coach for several tech companies, including Dropbox, Qualtrics and Twitter, she has also managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo and started a diamond cutting factory in Moscow. In addition to Radical Candor, she is the author of three novels and the forthcoming leadership book Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair, available March 16, 2021 from St. Martin’s Press.