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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!

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Kim Scott

Kim is the co-founder of Radical Candor and author of "Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity." Kim has built her career as a leader at Google and Apple and as an advisor at numerous other Silicon Valley companies. Her goal is to help people love their work and their colleagues (appropriately of course).

This Post Has 6 Comments
  1. I’m hesitant to write this because I don’t (as of yet) have any ideas about how to communicate more clearly what Radical Candor means as you’ve coined it. But, I’m writing anyway because I think I have an idea where the ‘mis-hearing’ or ‘mis-relaying’ is coming from. Might it be misconstrued because people already use the term, ‘To be perfectly candid …’ write before they insult someone? Too many people believe if they preface what they are about to say with a ‘disclaimer’ they get to say whatever they want. And, ‘to be perfectly candid’ is an old an oft used disclaimer that precedes rude comments.

    This doesn’t mean you’ll never win. It just means you will have to be especially careful, and repetitive, explaining what Radical Candor means. Eventually, if it becomes a commonly used phrase (and if you get famous like one of your twins said) – then you will re-write the meaning of ‘candor’.

    I wish you the best of luck. I hate the ‘to be perfectly candid’ anyway (and most disclaimers generally), so I hope you win.


  2. The word ‘radical’ has been much used in recent years, primarily in an extremely negative way in connection with terrorism. Maybe it implies (if only subliminally) bullying, over-powering, lacking any ability, or apparent wish, for considerate communication.

    Candor is not an everyday word but does have connotations of thoughtlessly saying what you think.

    It lends itself to negative misinterpretation, at best by journalists and at worst by people reading those articles and implementating their own ‘radical’ version.

    If you want people to know that Radical Candor is about caring and open communication, ‘Challenging directly whilst also showing that you care personally’, without all the negative connotations and interpretations and without having to explain or realign, perhaps call it something else.

    Or, maybe you are getting more coverage with a controversial title and its worth the effort required to try and re-educate the nation.

    However, whatever you call it, cartoonists are ‘meant’ to satorise that which puts us outside of our comfort zone aren’t they?

  3. After reading this book and really enjoying it, I stumbled on some of these articles claiming that Radical Candor gave people a license to say whatever they wanted and be mean to one another. As I read each article, it became more and more clear to me that these people hadn’t actually followed through reading the book or learning the entire principle. They may have latched on to the tagline in the video “Just say what you think.” While yes, at it’s heart that’s what radical candor is, it’s much deeper than that. It’s saying what you think after putting a lot of thought into what you think and why you’re saying it. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to watch a 4 minute video and feel they understand the concept and I think it’s very easy to interpret “just say what you think” as “be brutally honest.”

    I’ve been rolling out this culture of feedback with my team and I have made it very clear to them that having a culture of open feedback is not a license to say whatever they want. People don’t even have to read the entire book to understand that’s not the idea you are driving home. It’s disappointing to see it so frequently misinterpreted when I feel that it could truly improve so many workplaces. I’ve seen big changes in my team in a really short time already.

  4. Aggressive communication will lead to a mass pull out of workers looking for places that show warmth and welcome. Criticism by any means should be for the betterment of an organization. I have found that lending a helping hand is always candor. If you are the critiser you better be do the talking and the walking. I have served as a military officer where soldiers knew their responsibilities and wanted to work for the organization. Remember in an organization you are as good as your weakest employee. If you have to read a manuel to manipulate your team to do the job I say run! You are better than a textbook of ideodloy that lowers self esteem and finger pointing!

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