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Radical Candor Acting Like Jerk

It’s Not Radical Candor If You Don’t Care Personally

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.

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 and Dilbert comic that do the same.

Let’s get one thing clear, Radical Candor is not brutal honesty. It’s not an invitation to act like a jerk, and just because you preface something with “in the spirit of Radical Candor,” if you fail to Care Personally, then you’re actually being obnoxiously aggressive — not radically candid. You’re acting like a jerk.

Obnoxious Aggression Means You’re Acting Like A Jerk

Radical Candor Acting Like a Jerk

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 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 Both Kind & Clear

Radical Candor is Not Acting Like a JerkAs 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. I’m not saying command and control can’t work, it works especially well in a totalitarian regime or a baboon troop.

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. 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 kickass boss, your team likely wants to kick your ass.


Work Martyr Compete

Keeping it Real

The good news is that the term “Radical Candor” has entered the lexicon. The bad news is that there’s a risk it becomes a meaningless buzzword.

We need your help to fight this. Please let us know which ideas in the book or the podcast you have rolled out with your team. What’s working? What’s not? If you’re willing, we will feature your stories in our blog and email newsletter. If you want it kept confidential, we will honor that and still use what you’ve learned to help others.

Radical Candor on HBO’s Silicon Valley

One of the most amusing but simultaneously painful examples of Radical Candor as meaningless buzzword was the way it was recently featured on the HBO show Silicon Valley (Season 5/Episode 3).

The real moment of Radical Candor on the show came when Jared told Richard, his boss, “If you’re really going to start working with Ben, at least give Dana [Ben’s current boss] the common courtesy of telling him the truth about what you are doing. Because if you don’t tell him, you’re the dog.” But that didn’t get called out as Radical Candor.

Silicon Valley Radical Candor

HBO’s Silicon Valley “Radical Candor”

The Asshole's Journey

“In the spirit of Radical Candor…”

Instead, COO wannabe Ben claims he’s being Radically Candid when actually he’s just acting like a garden variety jerk, kicking down and kissing up. I call this the Asshole’s Journey from Obnoxious Aggression to Manipulative Insincerity. Now I’m being obnoxiously aggressive towards Ben but since he’s a fictional character it’s legitimately instructive :).

This was funny, but it was also painful because I’ve seen it happen in real life. I’ve been in a meeting where someone said, “In the spirit of Radical Candor…” and proceeded to be really cruel.

Also, I recently got this email from one of you: “I gave some feedback – with a specific example – to my boss that the way he is addressing the team (in large team settings) is making them fearful to speak up. A harsh/dismissive tone that shuts a conversation down and often embarrasses the team member that spoke up. Many on the team have shared this sentiment with him already. After the director received this feedback, he responded by saying that he’s using radical candor. I feel this is the wrong application of radical candor, specifically finding your quote that ‘Radical Candor is kind and helpful.’”

Unfortunately, this is a pretty common experience, so I’ll share the articles I suggested this person send to the director to explain the difference between Radical Candor and Obnoxious Aggression.

Are you seeing examples of people confusing Obnoxious Aggression with Radical Candor? Let us know, and thanks for Caring (Personally).

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.

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.


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!

Video: From Obnoxious Aggression to Manipulative Insincerity

Most of us don’t consider ourselves to be jerks or rude people. So if we discover that we’ve been Obnoxiously Aggressive, we’re chagrined! Unfortunately, the natural tendency then is to back off the Direct Challenge. Obnoxious Aggression turns into Manipulative Insincerity.

In our latest video, Candor Trainer Stephanie Usry tells her stories about following this journey.


Next time you find yourself being Obnoxiously Aggressive, remember this story. Instead of backing off your Direct Challenge, push yourself higher on the Care Personally axis. This will help you move in the right direction, towards Radical Candor.

We hope that by sharing stories like Stephanie’s we can help you feel less alone in these challenges and help you avoid making these same mistakes. We’d love to hear your stories, too! Reach out in the comments below, or send us a note.

Video: A Story About Obnoxious Aggression

Obnoxious Aggression can feel like a harsh label. But does this statement sound like something you might say?

I will assert for the record that I am not a jerk. But I do sometimes behave like one.

With the chaos and stress of work, it can sometimes be hard to take a step back and make sure we’re showing we Care Personally. We all make mistakes, but it doesn’t mean we’re bad people.

In this video, Kim tells a story about a time when she behaved with Obnoxious Aggression early in her time at Google. She explains how she knew that her behavior was Obnoxiously Aggressive and how she came to behave that way. Take a look:


Watch more videos about feedback stories.

Video: Ruinous Empathy Leads to Obnoxious Aggression

We recently shared a video of Russ telling a story about Ruinous Empathy. He talked about a time when he withheld his direct challenge in order to be “nice,” but the story doesn’t end there. In this next video, he tells us how his feedback turned from Ruinous Empathy to Obnoxious Aggression.

As you watch, you may recall similar situations when you behaved a certain way because you were angry, tired, busy, etc. Remember that the quadrants in our 2×2 are not labels for people, they describe behaviors. Just because you behave with Obnoxious Aggression to a situation does not mean you are a jerk — and if you know Russ, you know he isn’t either. We all spend time in each of the quadrants.


Of course we’d all love to avoid behaving with Obnoxious Aggression, but it’s hard. If you find yourself feeling low on the Care Personally axis, think about our HIP approach to feedback before acting. When you remember that the best, most Radically Candid feedback is given humbly and in person, for example, you’ll be less likely to resort to tactics that come across as Obnoxiously Aggressive.

Russ’s story isn’t over yet! Check back for the continuation of the story.

Tips to Avoid Obnoxiously Aggressive Criticism

If you think you’ve given criticism that was Obnoxiously Aggressive, check out these tips for moving towards Radical Candor!

Criticize kindly

This doesn’t mean sugar coating. It means seeing your criticism as an act of kindness, meant to help the person improve. If others have rated your criticism as Obnoxiously Aggressive, you’re not showing that you Care Personally. Try to pause for just a moment and imagine the face of somebody you really care about. Bring the kindness you’d show that person to this conversation.

State your intentions

Try to offer a story about a time when you made a similar mistake, and show how somebody’s criticism helped you. Offer your criticism as a gift intended to help the person improve. Help them see it’s not a punishment intended to humiliate.

Criticize HUMBLY, expecting to be challenged and sometimes proven wrong

You want to offer CANDOR (“Here’s what I think, what do you think?”) not the TRUTH (“Here’s what I know, you don’t know shit from shinola!”)

Criticize IMMEDIATELY to keep it quick and light

Don’t save up criticism and then pile on a person in a 1:1 or a performance review. Small, quick course corrections are kinder and easier to take than a pile-on well after the fact.

Don’t hide from emotion

Often people avoid giving feedback in person because they are afraid of confronting the other person’s emotions. That’s a big mistake. Reacting to emotion with compassion is a good way to move up on the “Care Personally” axis.

Don’t “front-stab!”

To show you care personally, criticize IN PRIVATE, praise in public. It’s fine to debate or disagree in public, but when you are criticizing a person’s work or behavior, do it privately.

Don’t criticize personality

Don’t say “You’re wrong!” Instead say, “That’s wrong.” For bonus humble points, say, “I think that’s wrong, and here’s my rationale for why: [data point 1, fact 2, theory 3]”

Video: A Story of Obnoxious Aggression

If you’ve watched our Radical Candor video and wondered about the full stories behind the clips we included, you’re in luck! We’ve got the complete versions to share with you, starting with our featured Obnoxious Aggression story.

Obnoxious Aggression means Challenging Directly without showing that you Care Personally. Joe Dunn, one of our Radical Candor evangelists, tells the story of a time he gave Obnoxiously Aggressive feedback in a meeting. We think everyone can relate to how he ended up in this position and can probably remember a time they reacted similarly. Joe explains the affect his Obnoxious Aggression had, inspiring us to strive for Radical Candor in similar situations.


Does this story remind you of anything you’ve experienced? Share your stories with us here.

Praise & Obnoxious Aggression

Praise can be Obnoxiously Aggressive when it is given without any care for the recipient. Belittling compliments are one of the best examples of this.

Below is a perfect example: an email that a boss at a legendary Silicon Valley company sent out to his team of about 600 people, 76 of whom had just gotten bonuses. It sort of screams, “I’ll praise you if it gets more work out of you but I really couldn’t care less how you feel.” The names & email addresses have been changed, but the text, grammar errors and all, is word for word what was actually sent out.

From: John Doe
Date: Tue, Oct 27 at 9:53 AM
Subject: Spot Bonus Winners!

Dear Giant Team,
In Q3 there was a number of you that really excelled and went above and beyond the rest of us to deliver significant impact to Corpx. These team members and their accomplishments have been recognized with the Q3 spot bonus attributed by the Management Team. I want to take this opportunity to share who these extraordinary people are and provide you an overview of their accomplishments in the list below.


John Doe
Vice President, Giant Team

  • 33rd Name: Level 5 seller, he drove the highest QTD revenue of any seller: $7.5M in Q3. His comp at $70k base and OTE of $116k is 50% below market; retention risk.
  • 39th Name: she has done all of the dirty work in getting XYZ off the ground with endless spreadsheets, updates, legal calls, security calls, financial modeling, fallback matrices and has done a great job (well above her level 3 status)
  • 72nd Name: Exceptional effort in the past 4+ months. Additional responsibility covering John Doe.

Imagine how Person 33 felt when he saw his salary had been sent out to 600 people, along with the fact he was being paid half of what he should have been and was probably looking for other jobs! Just think how motivating it must have been for Person 39 to learn that she did all the “dirty work.” It probably wasn’t any consolation to learn she did such a great job that she was considered to be “well above her level 3 status.” At least there was some comedy in the fact that Person 72 had to be given a bonus for “covering John.” In other words, John Doe was such a jerk the company had to pay people a bonus if they worked closely with him.

This was Obnoxiously Aggressive. John Doe was plenty specific about what had gone well, but he had clearly gathered this information by asking all the managers who worked for him to send him a justification for the bonus. He cared so little about the people he was praising that he didn’t even bother to edit (or ask an assistant or an HR partner to edit) the justifications. He just copy-pasted them and fired off this email.

More about this story and others is included in “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” published by St. Martin’s Press. Learn more

Criticism & Obnoxious Aggression

Obnoxiously Aggressive criticism is often referred to as “front-stabbing”. It’s when you criticize without Caring Personally.

A couple months after joining Google, Kim had a disagreement with Larry Page about his approach to an AdSense policy. She wrote an email to about 30 people, including Larry, which proclaimed his approach to be against his own mission and implied that he was recommending the policy because he was focused on increasing Google’s revenue rather than doing the right thing for users.

If Larry had worked for Kim instead of the other way around, she would never have sent such an arrogant, accusatory email. So why did she behave this way? Because she didn’t really think of Larry as a human being. She saw him as a kind of demigod who could be attacked with impunity. Kim didn’t get the full story to understand his stance, and her criticism wasn’t humble, helpful or in private.

It’s important to remember that Obnoxious Aggression, like the other quadrants, is a behavior, not a personality trait. Although Kim gave this type of feedback, it does not mean Kim is an asshole. Nobody is a bona fide asshole all the time. But all of us are Obnoxiously Aggressive some of the time.

More about this story and others is included in “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” published by St. Martin’s Press. Learn more

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