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The Candor Boomerang

Marc Murphy, CEO at Atlatl Software, wrote us recently with this great feedback story, and a great new term to start using.

Had a great candor moment this week that I wanted to share. I called it a candor boomerang…

Marc met with a manager on his team and had a great, candid session. Marc shared some feedback with the manager. When he finished, the manager said, “Now can I share some feedback that I have for you?” What came next was some of the best feedback Marc has received as a CEO, and it made an immediate impact.

So proud that we are building an organization that is open to the candor boomerang.

We love this story and this new term, the candor boomerang! People can feel that it is pretty risky to offer feedback to their boss, and it’s so powerful when they feel comfortable turning the table. As a boss, are you creating a safe space so your team can share feedback with you?

For tips on this, check out our articles about how to get more feedback and how to take feedback well.

Have you experienced a candor boomerang? Share your story with us!

Tell Your Team Why You’re Using Candor Coach

Our new Candor Coach app for iOS will help you become a Radically Candid manager by coaching you through three types of quick, in-person feedback conversations with your team members.

When you get started, it can help to let your team know what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. Here’s an email you can tweak and send to get everyone on the same page.

——

Dear Team,

I’m starting to use an app called Candor Coach that will help me get better at asking for and giving feedback. I’ll be working on this through quick, face-to-face conversations with each of you.

I’m doing this because I want to improve as your manager, help us achieve great results as a team, and have fun working together.

Feedback is critical to our success as a team

The purpose of feedback is to help us achieve more success as a team. I want to know what I can do better, and I want to let you know when I think you’re doing something great and when I see a way for you to have more impact.

I want to build a culture of feedback

I want to get better at Radical CandorChallenging Directly and showing I Care Personally. I also want you to feel comfortable challenging me. My goal is to make feedback a habit, like brushing and flossing, instead of like getting a root canal.

What’s in it for you

Feedback will help everyone. I’ll get better at being your boss. Together, we’ll achieve more. We will all grow professionally, reduce guessing games, and have more fun working together.

Please let me know if you have any questions!

Sincerely,
Your Boss/Manager/Leader :)

Video: A Ruinous Empathy Story

Kim shares a story about a time that she describes as the worst moment of her career. She learns a hard lesson after being Ruinously Empathetic with one of her employees for a period of several months. Although she Cares Personally and tries to be “nice,” her lack of Direct Challenges causes issues for her, for the employee, and for her whole team.

Watch her story:

 

Listen to episode 4 of the Radical Candor podcast to hear Kim and Russ discuss this story and provide tips for avoiding Ruinous Empathy.

Have you found yourself in a position like this one? We’d love to hear your story! Reach out in the comments below or on Facebook.

What to Do When You Disagree with Feedback

Helen Rumbelow recently wrote an article about Radical Candor. I really enjoyed talking with Helen, and was so happy that she immediately understood the difference between Radical Candor and Obnoxious Aggression.

Reading Helen’s article, I also realized that I haven’t talked nearly enough about what to do when you disagree with feedback you get. By not explaining this clearly enough, I have given Helen the impression that pretty much all you can do when you get feedback is to say thank you — or as she put it with great good humor, “Thank you, sir, can I have another.” By the end of the article, she does say she’s found a way to say thank you and mean it.

But her words make me realize that in general, I talk too much about giving feedback, and too little about getting it. I was worried I gave Helen the idea that the only reply to criticism is to say thank you, that she wasn’t “allowed” to say so if she disagreed with it.

You Don’t Have to Agree with Feedback

One of the hardest things about getting feedback is not to react defensively. Defensiveness in the face of criticism a perfectly natural response, and we should forgive ourselves and others for having it. At Candor, Inc. we emphasize that when soliciting criticism it’s helpful to “listen with the intent to understand, not to respond.” This helps reduce your defensive reaction, and gives you the information you need to decide whether or not you agree with the feedback.

The next step we recommend is “rewarding the candor,” but we haven’t talked a lot about how to do that if you disagree with the feedback.“Rewarding the candor” does NOT mean just taking it. Sometimes you WILL disagree with feedback. In that moment, just listen and understand… disagree later. It’s almost impossible to disagree without sounding defensive if you disagree too quickly.

But, you can and should tell the person that you disagree. If you just say, “Thank you for the feedback” through gritted teeth, you seem Manipulatively Insincere. Better to take the time to explain why you disagree. Once, a CEO to whom I’d offered criticism told me the next day, “I reject that feedback — but I love that you told me what you think! Do you want to hear why I disagree?” Of course I did — and I actually felt better about my coaching of him after that because he’d been so totally open to criticism before that moment that I wondered if he was really hearing it.

Rewarding the Candor does not mean just taking it. It’s about showing that you are grateful to the person for being willing to criticize you.

What to Do When You Don’t Agree

Sometimes you are going to get some feedback you disagree with. You don’t want to be defensive. But nor do you want to feel muzzled. If you use Radical Candor — if you state your position in a way that challenges directly and shows you care personally — both you and the person who gave you feedback will be able to come away from the conversation feeling you heard their feedback, were grateful for it, and were considerate, not defensive, in the way you explained your point of view.

Here’s my advice for what to do when you disagree with feedback:

  1. Check your understanding.
    Repeat back what you think you heard, and say, “Did I understand correctly?” or “Did I get that right?” This is a good opportunity to show you care about the person, and what they think.
  2. Take your time.
    Ideally, in the moment, just focus on listening and understanding. If you disagree, ask for some time to think more about the feedback. Taking more time will also help if you are mad or feel like it will be hard not to get defensive in the moment.
  3. Find common ground.
    Even if you don’t agree with everything that was said, find some aspect that you do agree with, and share it with the person.
  4. Discuss your disagreement.
    Let the person know what you don’t agree with and why. Ask to discuss both your thinking and theirs. This is where you need to employ both your “challenge directly” and your “care personally” skills.
  5. Commit to a course of action.
    Even if you can’t come to agreement on everything that was said, work together to find and commit to a course of action. Russ Laraway did this perfectly when he got some feedback from his direct report Elisse. He disagreed with it. They discussed it for a couple of minutes. Then Russ said, “If we have data, let’s do what the data says. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with yours.” The data proved Elisse right. At Apple, we summed this up as, “Listen, Challenge, Commit.”

One thing that can help you react with Radical Candor is to think about criticism as a gift. If somebody gave you a shirt that was the wrong size, you’d say thank you because they cared enough to buy you a gift. But you wouldn’t have to wear the shirt in the wrong size just because someone gave it to you. If the shirt came from a person who’s going to give you more gifts in the future, you might tell that person what your shirt size is, or risk a lot more shirts in the wrong size.

Think of criticism as a very specific kind of gift. There are two ways in which it can be a gift. The person can be pointing out a problem that, now you’re aware of it, you can fix. OR, the person can be pointing out a problem that is not actually a problem. Now that you are aware of what they think, you can give them an alternative point of view and perhaps change their mind. If you never disagree with criticism, then you’re not taking full advantage of the gift.

When criticism is offered in good faith, it’s a gift. It may not be the gift you wanted, or even the gift you needed, but the very act of giving it is an act of caring. We have found from personal experience and from clients that thinking about criticism in these terms often proves useful in developing the skill of receiving it.

6 Tips for Taking Feedback Well

Have you ever noticed that when it rains, everyone shows up to work talking about how everyone else can’t drive in the rain? Have you noticed that no one is showing up saying they themselves can’t drive in the rain? I gotta believe that some of those complaining about others’ poor driving, must also be driving poorly and the target of others’ complaints.

Well, here at Candor’s Global Headquarters we get asked a lot some version of “how do you talk to people about accepting feedback better?” It reminds me a lot of people driving in the rain – they can see clearly when others are messing it up, but it’s sometimes a little bit harder to see it in ourselves.

Personally, I’m terrible at taking feedback in some circumstances and really good at it in others.

For example, if someone is junior to me or if I ask for feedback from anyone, I am very excited to get it. I love it. I don’t care how harsh or how scathing. The praise doesn’t go to my head and the criticism doesn’t get me down. I can hear the feedback so clearly, am super interested in it, and it somehow feels like a problem solving session – a discussion taking place in my prefrontal cortex, which is the problem-solving part of the brain.

Conversely, I am not good at hearing feedback when I get surprised. This morning, Kim, my co-founder, approached me while I was reviewing one of our podcast episodes to give me some feedback. For a variety of reasons, none of them good in hindsight, I felt my defenses surge. The feedback was actually not even particularly critical, but the circumstances – the interruption, the fact that I wasn’t in that moment thinking about that particular thing, and the fact that I had already reached a similar conclusion – all somehow conspired to set off my internal alarm bells. I didn’t let on that I was having a defensive reaction, and used a simple technique (label and re-appraise – see below) to move out of threat response and into critical thinking. Crisis averted, but it doesn’t change the fact that my threat response went off first and I had to work to suppress it and engage in the conversation.

So what can we learn from this? Am I just some super defensive guy, or am I pretty normal?

I’m going to guess that it’s much more normal for people to manifest a threat response to critical feedback than it is not to. Otherwise, critical feedback wouldn’t be so hard. So, I’ll say “normal,” and we’re all in this together. I want to share a few tips to help you take feedback better so that you can be the change you want to see in the world.

Tip 1: Prepare Your Mind and Ask for It (Alternate “Buckle Up”)

For starters, ask for feedback much more often. Funny thing… I talk to many, many companies every week, and they all communicate some version of their leaders not giving enough feedback and giving almost no critical feedback. It’s no mystery that giving feedback is hard. Imagine how much easier it would become if everyone just started asking for it?

We wrote a blog post awhile back on how to ask for feedback. I won’t rehash that article here because I want to focus more here on the mindset of receiving feedback versus the tactics of asking for it.

When you ask for feedback, you get to set the terms – timing, mindset, even content. You can get your mind right and ready to hear tough stuff. So much of hearing feedback well is preparing yourself to hear it. Say to yourself, “buckle up, you’re about to get some criticism, and feedback is a gift so let’s go.” If it helps, you can even use your best Stuart Smalley voice, because doggone it, people like you.

Also, I promise, the more you ask for feedback, the better you get at taking it. My son is a competitive gymnast. Gymnastics is an extraordinary sport with many attributes, but one way to describe gymnastics is that you fail 100s of times at something before you finally succeed, and everyone one of those 100s of attempt will include a brief piece of corrective feedback. The gymnasts are not explicitly asking for the feedback, but they do expect it after every repetition. They gymnasts nod and try to incorporate on the next attempt. Like anything, they practice getting feedback and then get good at it.

When you ask, you communicate two things: 1) you want the feedback and 2) you are ready to hear it. Two massive obstacles that feedback givers tend to stress over.

Most important, though, the act of asking allows you to be proactive/puts you on the front foot and allows/forces you to prepare your mind, which in my opinion is the highest leverage activity available to help you hear feedback well. Imagine if in my example with Kim, I proactively grabbed her to talk about this topic that she hit me with. I go into that conversation saying “what do you think?” ready to hear her, ready with my own theory, ready to solve a problem rather than allowing myself to be surprised.

Of course, it’s impossible to never get surprised by feedback, and we must all work on getting ourselves into a mode when feedback is offered, but I think that starting to more frequently ask for feedback helps you get the feedback you need and helps you get it with the right mindset to be able to truly hear it and take it on board.

Tip 2: Don’t Get Mad Get Curious

In our article about how to get feedback, we talk about listening with the intent to understand and not respond… or cross-examine. How you react in the split second someone starts to give you critical feedback is a crucial moment. Fly off the handle and you will set your relationship back months. Calmly listen and manifest as curious, and you can advance your relationship by weeks! Yes, I do believe there is more damage inflicted by a defensive reaction than upside realized from a good one. There’s one simple phrase that if repeated (I mean this literally) in your brain over and over, you can help yourself to react well to the feedback.

Don’t Get Mad, Get Curious, a handy little phrase coined by Fred Kofman in Conscious Business. Just keep saying that in your head.

Don’t get mad, get curious.

What does this mean? If you get deeply curious about the feedback you are receiving, it starts to feel more like a problem to solve. Humans like solving problems. Bonus: this is a problem to solve where the subject is something else humans love: themselves. Sentiments that can really help:

  • “Ooo. That is interesting. Tell me more about that.”
  • “Ak! I didn’t realize that by saying that thing that way that I was upsetting the other team? How can we tidy things up there?”
  • “Oh my gosh, that is so interesting that is how I’m showing up. Of course I don’t mean to, but am I understanding correctly that you see X, Y, and Z?”

Tip 3: Label and Reappraise

I love David Rock’s book, Your Brain at Work. He covers a lot of ground in the book, but the central theme is the SCARF model, a set of social threats (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness) you are likely to experience in the workplace, or even in life. Those threats of course are far less dangerous than, say, being chased by a lion, but to your brain, they feel about the same.

One of the coping mechanisms he tees up is Label and Reappraise. As you start to feel an emotion, or threat, label that threat (give it a name) and then reappraise it (assess it again in a different way). This is a way to actively “switch” your mind out of emotion and threat and into problem solving and critical thinking. As Rock describes, your limbic system (the system that deals with threat response and emotion) and pre-frontal cortex (the part of your brain that is involved with thinking and problem solving) do not actually work together. These two systems compete for resources, for glucose and oxygen. The biggest problem is that it’s been an evolutionary necessity for much longer to have an excellent threat response than to have great problem solving skills. So the limbic system is in the largest, oldest, most efficient part of the brain, and it easily dominates the competition for resources. This is why it’s so hard to think when you’re scared, for example.

So when you label a threat or emotion, you put yourself in a problem-solving activity. You have to search for the right way to describe this emotion you’re having. In the case of my conversation with Kim this morning, it was simple: defensive. “You’re being, defensive, Russ” – step 1 achieved. The reappraisal step was similarly simple, but not easy. “She’s got your back, like she’s had for a decade, and this is actually a topic we both care about deeply. She’s just trying to be helpful.”

I don’t mean to make this sound magical, but this is all exactly true. Within seconds we were laughing about this topic, violently agreeing with each other on the things we’re going to change to achieve the results we want. A simple action plan hatched, collaboration achieved.

Tip 4: Don’t Rely on Being Your Own Worst Critic

“I’m my own worst critic.” You hear this a lot, don’t you? Maybe even in your own head? It’s some version of “I don’t really need much feedback because I’m my own worst critic.” If I’m being honest, this is actually something that runs through my head a ton, but it’s wrong. Here are some of the common phrases that folks think and say:

  • No one is tougher on me than me.
  • No one has a higher standard for me than I do.
  • I am extremely self-aware.
  • I am likely to see my mistakes long before anyone else does

There are a bunch of problems with this mentality, even if some of those things seem true.

Let’s start with this. Rory McIlroy is, at the time of this writing, the #2 golfer in the world. I chose Rory because among the top 10 PGA Tour golfers in the world, he’s the closest thing to a household name.

Rory McIlroy has at least 2 coaches, a swing coach and a putting coach. Don’t you think Rory McIlroy is hard on himself? Can’t he videotape himself and analyze his own swing? Isn’t it likely that to have become the #2 golfer in the world, he has much higher standards for himself than 99% of humans?

But he still needs a coach. Said differently, HE PAYS PEOPLE TO GIVE HIM CRITICISM despite his standing as the second best golfer in the world.

You’re a pretty good employee, but almost certainly not the #2 employee in the world. No offense, it’s just statistically unlikely. Would it ever cross your mind to pay someone to criticize you?

Great news. You don’t have to. Your company does that already. They pay your manager and your peers and your team to criticize you.

I think the insight here is that how we show up at work is complex. Our own version of that might be very accurate because of our high standards and high self-awareness, but it’s almost certainly not entirely accurate, and more likely, a lot less accurate than we think.

You have to believe that getting feedback from people around you can advance your thinking, add texture, add depth, make you just a little bit better. Use those high standards you have for yourself to say, “they are so high, I even want the tiny little things that only the people around me can add.” Here’s a way to enable this thinking:

Write down in a private notebook, the names of the people you work most closely with each week. Maybe 5-10 people at most. For each person, write down three things that you theorize they might be able to help you with. You don’t have to act on this just yet; mostly, you are embarking on a process to convince yourself that the folks around you really do have something to offer.

For example, my teammate, Elisse, is a very structured and clear thinker. I have filed away in my brain that I can always count on her to help me structure and clarify my thinking and my writing. My list might look like this:

Tip 5: Stop Trying to “Get an A”

Related to the mindset that “I’m my own worst critic” is the idea that when you are receiving feedback, you are trying to get an A.

When I was in the Marines and attended The Basic School with 250 fellow 2nd Lieutenants, we had a pejorative term for the over-participators. We called them “spring-butts”. The basic insight is that when you answered a question in class, you were expected to stand up, introduce yourself, and then ask the question. Out of the 250 lieutenants, there were some guys who just couldn’t help themselves, spring-butts to the core, and it felt like they were “trying to get an A” even though that interaction had nothing really to do with your evaluation in school.

When you are self-aware, be mindful that while you’re receiving feedback, you are at risk of over-participating and manifesting like the person who is “trying to get an A.” Curious, engaged, writing things down — all great behavior. On the other hand, interrupting, and even nodding in anticipation of the next sentence can make it seem like you are not really listening. You run a risk of of showing up like “you’re telling me stuff I already know.”

This one is a little bit counterintuitive, because I know when I’ve been in this mode, I’ve been thinking in my head, “Yep, got it. Agree. Agree. Agree. I am so damn self-aware, check me out.” All of this is a form of affirmation bias – “I already see this thing this way, and this feedback affirms it,” when the opportunity is to listen and advance your thinking rather than affirming it.

So, instead of just agreeing with the feedback giver, interrupting them with your “yeps” and “totallys” or seemingly impatiently anticipating each new sentence, try to advance your thinking by just listening quietly. When they sound done, as always, check for understanding. “So, what I think I hear you saying is that if I were to change A and B, you think it would help me in X & Y ways? Do I have that right?”

Simple. But not easy.

Look, I’m with you. I will often have given myself the feedback weeks before someone else would even think to. Let’s agree this self-awareness is generally a strength, but it becomes a weakness – and frankly an arrogance – when we allow our belief in our ability to self-assess to get in the way of hearing new assessment from those around us.

Tip 6: Follow up

I would argue that the definition of taking feedback well is showing that you understood the feedback and that you plan to do something about it.

Take a moment in the conversation to communicate a couple things:

  1. I heard you. This is achieved not by using the actual phrase “I heard you,” but by repeating back what you think you heard. Something like, “OK, lemme recap what I think you’re saying…”
  2. Here’s what I will do. It need not always be the case that you will take the feedback on board. But it should ALWAYS be the case that you will take some action, even if it’s just to think about the feedback and follow up in a week with an action plan. Communicate your intentions. “Well, thanks – you’ve given me a lot to think about here, and I appreciate that. Do you mind if I take a week to digest this and come back to you with how I’m thinking about taking action?”

I’d like to highlight that in the conversation it’s only natural for you to be mentally assessing the quality of the feedback and the quality of the delivery. Let’s acknowledge two things: 1) feedback and delivery quality will be highly uneven and 2) you are probably more primed to reject the feedback than to hear it. Try with all your might to hold your feet to the fire that your objective in this moment is not to assess the feedback or the quality, but simply to understand it. You can evaluate it later when you have some time to reflect.

After the conversation, of course, you must follow up. Proactively put that topic on the agenda for your next meeting with that person and discuss your insights and some things you are planning to do to improve. Heck, it might even be the case that you’re planning to do nothing. In some cases, that might be the most appropriate thing, but taking the time to say “I really thought about this, and I’m not sure there’s a lot of action for me to take right now. Will you just help me keep an eye on this and I’ll check back with you in two months?” Then you darn well better follow up in 2 months.

The point is simple – most people find giving critical feedback hard. No one really loves doing it, and we’re definitely not doing it for our health. It’s important to give the feedback giver some kind of payoff or else you’re likely to stop getting feedback.

Remember: the purpose of criticism is to help people improve. To improve your work and improve your behaviors. If you improve your work and your behaviors, you will find more success. It’s in your best interest to get as much of this as possible, not to avoid it or cut it off.

Aggressively ask for feedback, treat the feedback like a problem to solve around your favorite topic (you), and proactively follow up on the feedback. Be the change you want to see in the world. You can be the one to catalyze a culture of feedback.

Radical Candor is NOT Brutal Honesty

We have learned something really important from the way that the press sometimes covers Radical Candor. And we want your advice on how to communicate this idea more clearly. We want to learn to describe Radical Candor in a way that is not open to misinterpretation: too often press articles assert that Radical Candor is the same thing as brutal honesty, as front-stabbing, or that it is some sort of license to be a jerk. It is none of those things!

Too often, Radical Candor gets illustrated with cartoons of people who are clearly being maniacal jerks. Every time something like that happens, all of us at Candor, Inc. feel a little sad for a moment. But once we get over feeling sad, we realize that we are not communicating clearly enough, and this helps us improve. Of course, it’s also true that people sometimes write what sells rather than what they actually think, or what they heard. But, in the spirit of listening with the intent to understand rather than to respond, we would like to figure out how we can communicate more clearly rather than to complain about click bait! There’s no reason why an accurate representation can’t be as clickable as an inaccurate one.

In short, we need some Radical Candor on Radical Candor :)

Radical Candor is Caring Personally and Challenging Directly

The whole point of Radical Candor is that it really is possible to Care Personally and Challenge Directly at the same time. We CAN break free of a false dichotomy that leaves too many people feeling they have to choose between being a jerk and being an incompetent. That’s a terrible choice, and nobody has to make it. In fact, if you really care personally about somebody, you will tell them if you think they are making a mistake — and when they are doing something great.

Radical Candor happens at the intersection of Care Personally and Challenge Directly. Care Personally means that you care about the other person, not about whether you are winning a popularity contest. Challenge Directly means that you share your perspective and invite the other person to do the same.

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 and helpful.
Obnoxious Aggression is mean but may be helpful. Obnoxious Aggression is also called “brutal honesty” or “front stabbing.”
Ruinous Empathy is “nice” but ultimately unhelpful or even damaging. It’s 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.
Manipulative Insincerity is a stab in the back.
radical-candor-framework

The whole point of Radical Candor is that it really is possible to Care Personally and Challenge Directly at the same time.

What Caring Personally is NOT

Caring Personally does NOT mean getting all personal with somebody who wants privacy. I once worked with a man who had a terminal illness. Work was the only place where nobody had to know about that, or ask about that. The best way I could Care Personally about this man was to protect his secret, and never once ask him about his health. We focused on the work.

Caring Personally also does NOT mean over-sharing personal details of your life with those around you who may not want to hear them, who may be made uncomfortable by them.

What Challenging Directly is NOT

Challenging Directly does NOT mean you can assume that whatever you think is “the truth” and therefore should be shoved down people’s throats.

Challenging Directly does NOT mean you are right. You may be wrong. In fact, you should expect and welcome a reciprocal challenge.

The “direct” in “Challenge Directly” does NOT mean to be brutal. It means to share your (humble) opinions directly, rather than talking badly about people behind their backs.

Challenge Directly is does NOT mean just saying whatever nutty thing pops into your head…

What Caring Personally IS

Caring Personally is at its core common human decency. You don’t have to have a deep personal relationship to have this as your point of departure. But if you work closely with somebody — if for example you are somebody’s boss — you need to begin to develop a positive human relationship with that person.

Caring Personally is inherently about thinking of others, putting their success and needs ahead of your own. At its best, it is not about being loved; it is about loving.

To Care Personally, one must move at a pace that doesn’t make the other person uncomfortable. The fox in Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince described what I’m talking about most beautifully. You can read the scene here.

little-prince-fox

From The Little Prince by Saint-Exupéry

What Challenging Directly IS

Challenging Directly is giving people the kind of heads up that underlies basic human decency.

Imagine that you were working on a construction site and you looked up and saw a man cutting an iron beam — but sitting on the wrong end. When he finishes cutting he will plummet eight stories to his death. Challenging Directly is sort of like saying, perhaps yelling even, “Hey, you’re on the wrong end of that beam, you’ll plunge to your death if you keep cutting!” Of course you’d do that, and right away, right??

But there is no reason that moving quickly has to mean moving disrespectfully. It’s not going to help the guy to preface your warning with a “Hey, moron!” And, it could be that you don’t understand what he’s doing, and he’s actually not about to plummet to his death….

Challenging Directly is first and foremost humble. It’s tempting to say that “Caring Personally” is about love, and Challenging Directly is about truth. But there is a problem with the word “truth….” Which gets me to why we call it Radical Candor, not “brutal honesty.”

Why It’s Called “Candor”

We chose the word Candor over Truth or Honesty very consciously.

There is nothing humble about the Truth. There was a Jesuit missionary a colleague of mine met in the Congo in the early 60’s.

“It’s important always to tell the truth.” The missionary then looked heavenward. “But who knows what the truth is?”

I always think of this Jesuit when somebody says to me, “I’m going to tell you the truth.” How are you so sure you know what the truth is? Are you sure I don’t have a clearer idea of the truth??

We chose the word Candor because, to us, the word has more of a “here’s what I think, what do you think” connotation than the words “truth” or “honesty” do.

Why It’s Called “Radical”

Why did we choose the word “radical?” Here’s a definition of Radical: “(especially of change or action) relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.”

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. Often when we started sharing early versions of the Candor materials with people, they called what we were talking about “brutal honesty” or “tough love.” Words like “brutal” and “tough” indicated it was OK to be a jerk. But we are trying to rid the world of bad bosses, and so we are second to none in our adherence to the No Asshole Rule! So we don’t like those terms.

I had the opportunity to present this linguistic challenge — how to describe in two words communication that is fundamentally kind even though it’s natural to worry it might be interpreted as “mean” — to Dan Pink. Dan has a genius for communicating big ideas in a couple of words. We were riding together in an elevator, and somewhere between the lobby and the fifth floor Dan Pink exclaimed, “Radical Candor! I would read a book called Radical Candor!”

We need your help — some Radical Candor on Radical Candor, please!

It’s important to clarify that Radical Candor is not “Brutal Honesty.” It is not “front-stabbing.” Radical Candor means Challenging Directly while also showing that you Care Personally. We are not sure why cartoonists keep illustrating it with some maniac yelling at others. That’s certainly not what we are trying to say!

How can we convey this message more clearly? We’d love to hear your thoughts — or see your drawings!

My 2016 Whoops the Monkey

Two of my goals in starting Candor, Inc. and also in writing Radical Candor are to help others learn from my mistakes, and to encourage leaders to be open about the mistakes they make. There are several benefits to being self-critical publicly. One, you show that you know you’re not perfect, and this encourages others to criticize you when you’re making mistakes you may not be aware of. Two, you show that it’s not the end of the world to make a mistake or to be wrong. This encourages the kind of risk-taking that is essential for innovation. Three, by criticizing yourself, you begin to create a culture of feedback that helps everyone improve.

criticize-yourself

This kind of self-criticism is the goal of a great technique I learned about from Dan Woods when we worked together at Capital Thinking in 1999 (!) called Whoops the Monkey. We introduced the idea of Whoops the Monkey in our article about encouraging feedback between the people on your team, but I’ll explain it again briefly here.

Whoops the Monkey

Bring a stuffed monkey to your next team meeting. (Works well at a small team, though it works with up to 100 people too, I’ve found.) Then, ask people to stand up and share a mistake they’ve made in the past week. Let them know that anyone who tells a story gets instant and automatic forgiveness. And the person who tells the best story, as measured by loudness of applause, wins “Whoops” for a week.

Starting this process and getting people comfortable with sharing their mistakes is extremely valuable for creating a culture of feedback and learning.

The first time you try this, you’ll need three things:

  1. A stuffed monkey. The more ridiculous the better. I recommend this flingshot screaming monkey for just $6.78.
    flying-whoops
  2. $20 to put on Whoop’s head. You may need to do this the first couple of times you try the exercise. It’s not that your team is so desperate for money they will confess mistakes for $20 they’d otherwise hide; it’s just that the $20 offers them plausible deniability for playing along with your ridiculous game.
  3. And of course, a story about a mistake of your own.

To help you understand what I mean by a story of your own, I thought I’d share my biggest Whoops of 2016. Here’s my story:

My Biggest Whoops of 2016

I could have hired Howie Fung, who now leads Product at Candor, fully six months before I did. And if I had, not only would we have made faster progress on the Candor Coach, the whole team would have been happier. It’s so obvious in retrospect that I should have given Howie an offer as soon as I met him that it’s embarrassing I didn’t. But the biggest mistakes we make are often obvious, often painfully obvious, to those around us.

The interesting thing about this mistake is that, not only did my whole board tell me I should hire Howie right away, but feedback I’d gotten over and over throughout my entire career could have helped me avoid screwing up if only I’d been listening better. At pretty much every job I’ve had since 1999 people have told me I am not a product person. So when I set out to turn a management philosophy into a product, the very first thing I should have done was to hire a great product person. And yet I didn’t…

Why did I not know what was obvious to those who knew me well: that I am not a product person. Why did I not know that if I wanted to translate my vision into a reality I would frustrate the hell out of the engineers I was working with unless I had a great product person?

The first person to tell me I was not a product person was Brad Felix. This was 2000, and I’d recently started Juice Software. Brad told me we needed a Product person. He found Jared Smith’s resume on Monster.com. In an interview Jared Smith explained to me what a Product Manager did; I still didn’t understand what product management was or why we needed it, but I liked Jared a lot, so I hired him. Jared too told me I wasn’t a product person.

After Juice, Jared and I went to Google in California, where Susan Wojcicki told me I was not a product person. Like Brad’s and Jared’s, Susan’s words lingered somewhere in my consciousness — Kim, you are not a product person — but didn’t fully penetrate.

Then, when Russ and I started Candor, Inc, I explained to two great engineers, Andrew Catton and Ben Matasar, that I knew exactly what we needed to build, and that I just needed a few engineers to sit and build it with me. Andrew said, “I have never seen a great product get built that way. But I love what you are trying to do, so I hope you are right!”

My husband then joined the chorus, warning me that I am not a product person. The next voice was that of Shona Brown, who chairs our board. She suggested I consider hiring a product person. “But I know what we need to build!” I exclaimed. She laughed. “If you listen to half my advice I’m batting above average as your advisor.” Freud says there is knowing without knowing. I knew I should listen to Shona without quite knowing it. To convince her, or myself, or both of us that I had taken to heart what she said, I interviewed a few product people, including Howie Fung.

Howie was the perfect person to lead product at Candor. He’d led product at WikiMedia and then built an app to help improve the way that people give feedback to each other. But here comes the ‘without knowing’ part of knowing without knowing. I didn’t make Howie an offer because I’d decided that I could lead product for us. Howie, during an interview, gently suggested that a book is not a product requirements document. “Of course, of course!” I agreed. I knew on one level he was right. But at another level, I didn’t know. “It’s too early for us to hire somebody to lead product,” I told myself, and Howie. “I just need to sit with our engineers and crank the early prototype out.”

Once again, knowing without knowing.

Wrong! That we needed a product leader was obvious to to others, but still not to me.

Hearing Feedback, Learning, and ACTING on it

It was into this fertile ground that some criticism from our investors at Homebrew, Hunter Walk’s and Satya Patel, fell. I was proudly showing Satya a prototype of what we were building and he told me, “I get what you are doing, and I’m more excited than ever by it. But you’d get much further faster with a great product person!”

Satya’s words hit their target. His words ringing in my ears, I called up Howie Fung again, told him I’d made a terrible mistake not making him an offer the first time I met him, and begged him to join Candor. Luckily he did. I owe him, big time.

And I owe Satya, too. And all the other people who’ve told me I’m “not a product person” over the years. Giving Satya all the credit for helping me see the error of my ways is a little bit like ignoring view through conversions and paying attention only to that last click :) It was thanks to not just to Satya Patel, but also to Hunter Walk, Shona Brown, Andy Scott, Andrew Catton, Ben Matasar, Susan Wojcicki, Jared Smith, and Brad Felix–and probably also to a dozen others whose feedback I’m not remembering consciously right now, that I finally picked up the phone and called Howie.

The progress our engineers have been able to make in just a few short weeks since Howie started has been nothing short of remarkable. Sometimes, when you find just the right person to collaborate with, it’s like getting a mental prosthesis. You’ve been having ideas that feel clear to you but, frustratingly, you can’t explain them correctly to others. Then you meet your mental prosthesis, and this person can translate. Not only can the person translate, the person adds ideas that are better than anything you’ve thought of before.

When Howie started, it was like getting such a mental prosthesis. Suddenly, we were all moving much faster than we had been before. Howie challenged the way we’d been thinking, and that made a big difference to the product. He also is a supportive colleague who cares about each person he works with. He’s had a huge impact on the happiness of everyone on the team. The engineers report feeling both much happier and more focused than they were before he joined. I have started sleeping again; personally, I am a lot happier. If I had really and truly listened to the feedback I was getting in interviews, in the boardroom, and even in the bedroom, and then acted on it you’d already be using the Candor Coach, you wouldn’t have to wait till March!

Thank you to all the good people who gave me good feedback along the way. And thank you Howie for joining us even though I didn’t move as fast as I should have! 2017 is officially going to be the year not just of Radical Candor (the idea that changes your thinking about management), but of Candor Coach (the Product that will help you change your behavior)! I am so excited to unveil the Candor Coach we are building to you in March.

In the meantime, though, try to avoid my mistake! Do a better job hearing feedback faster than I did.

Tips for Avoiding My Mistake

  1. Knowing is not enough. Listening is not enough. You must act on feedback. When you hear the same thing from different people, don’t start dismissing it as “I know that already,” and then reassuring yourself that since you know about the problem you are not in denial. If you keep hearing the feedback, it means there is a problem you haven’t fixed — you haven’t acted. It’s not enough to be aware there is a problem. If you haven’t taken steps to address it, you are knowing without knowing. (For more great advice on recognizing denial in yourself, read Richard Tedlow’s excellent book, Denial.)
  2. If you don’t really understand a job, it’s easy to assume you could do it without really understanding what you are getting yourself in for. You need to be especially open to feedback. Often people dismiss jobs they themselves have never done arrogantly (as I did with my “slide monkey” moniker). If you catch yourself doing this, watch out — you are probably in big trouble. As you advance in your career, you’re more and more likely to find yourself leading a team that does a job you yourself have never done and don’t fully understand. When you feel a sense of superiority, you are not likely to ask for feedback, and you are at most risk of making a big mistake. Whenever you catch yourself using insulting terms for teams, roles, people, you need to go eat a big piece of humble pie. Only when you’ve fully digested it will you be in the right mindset to ask for feedback, listen to it, and act on it.
  3. To help others feel comfortable giving you feedback, think about what your biggest screw up of 2016 was, tell the story to your team, and introduce Whoops the Monkey to them! And sign up here to test an early version of the Candor Coach which will help you create a culture of feedback.

We’d like invite you to think back on 2016 and share your Whoops stories with us here at Candor. We will read them and give you pointers for improving them before you take them to your team.

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