Radical Candor is Not About Labeling People

The Radical Candor vocabulary can be very useful for creating shared context and a shared standard around feedback. However, there are some good ways and some not-so-good ways to use this vocabulary.

When used within a company, it can be tempting to label people using the 4 Radical Candor quadrants. “Oh, yeah, Obnoxious Aggression – that’s totally Ted!” Or people walking around making the letter “M” with their fingers to identify certain co-workers as Manipulatively Insincere (oh, that doesn’t happen in your office?). Let’s not do that!

These words are meant to be used to evaluate and analyze certain interactions, and not used like Myers-Briggs or another personality test. We all behave in different ways in different interactions, and most of us probably spend time in each of the four quadrants. We would like to encourage people that are trying to build a culture of Radical Candor not to use these terms as labels for people but to evaluate and analyze interactions.

Here are some guidelines for getting the most out of the Radical Candor vocabulary in your organization and remembering not to label people.

Focus on the axes, not the quadrants

The quadrants are handy two-word phrases that are often memorable and relatable. Heck, they are even kind of fun. But they are meaningless without the axes. To analyze or evaluate an interaction, don’t focus so much on the words “Obnoxious” or “Manipulative”, but rather, evaluate an interaction based on whether there was a high Direct Challenge (CD) or whether there was high Care Personally (CP). This is important because it’s possible to act with Empathy in a certain interaction and still achieve Radical Candor (high CD, high CP). It is also possible to act Aggressively in an interaction and still show up Manipulatively Insincere (low CP, low CD) in that interaction.

One of my favorite examples of this is something that happens in every workplace. If you are talking about someone and not to someone, you are clearly not Challenging them Directly, and you’re not demonstrating Personal Care because you’re not really making any investment in that person or that relationship, you’re doing little to help them improve, etc. This can easily be considered Aggressive behavior and some might argue a bit on the Obnoxious side, too. Obnoxious Aggression, right? No – by Radical Candor standards (Radical Candards?), you are behaving with textbook Manipulative Insincerity. And this proves my point that the more meaningful way to look at the interaction is through the lens of the axes, not the quadrant names.

Would you label yourself?

As with many things in Radical Candor, it can be useful to turn things inward first, before trying to apply the ideas to a co-worker. Thinking about the example above, almost no one thinks of themselves as Manipulatively Insincere. I know this because I teach people how to run our workshops and as part of the process, they have to come up with a story of a time in which they were Manipulatively Insincere, and this story is always an absolute struggle for people. “I’m just not that kind of person, Russ.” Yet, whenever we make the decision – conscious or unconscious – to talk about someone and not to someone, we’re operating with textbook Manipulative Insincerity. Many of you reading have done this and many of you reading would not consider yourselves Manipulatively Insincere, right? We wouldn’t either, because these are labels for interactions, not for people.

Another example: Most people would not call themselves Obnoxiously Aggressive (high Challenge Directly, low Care Personally). I know this because in the workshops that I run, I usually ask! But, let me run down a scenario. Imagine you’re in the passing lane on the highway during rush hour traffic, and a dude in a nice sports car cuts you off, narrowly missing your vehicle with his. How do you react? Correct answers include: speed up and tailgate, give him the middle finger, yell obscenities at him. In all of these cases, there is a pretty clear Direct Challenge. And based on some of the horrible things we are willing to say about our fellow man when he cuts us off in traffic, it’s safe to say we’re really low on the Care Personally axis. In this interaction, we are acting Obnoxiously Aggressive toward our fellow citizens. So remember that we’re all susceptible. Just like you wouldn’t label yourself as Obnoxiously Aggressive based on one interaction, don’t jump to a label for another person either.


Acknowledge the complicated set of variables

Remember that how you intend to show up on a given day may not be how you actually show up that day. For example, imagine an interaction in which you are fresh off a big win and your co-worker is fresh off a big loss. Or what if your child kept you up last night? What if you are hungover? What if you had a great night sleep and got to the gym? Got breakfast? Got some bad news at home? Got some great news from home? And now ask these same questions, rhetorically, about this theoretical interaction with a co-worker. All of these variables can manifest and make what you think is a Radically Candid interaction feel much more like an Obnoxiously Aggressive one to the other person, and of course, vice versa. Remembering how these outside factors can affect you in a given interaction will help you be mindful that the other person is also influenced by variables that you aren’t aware of. Hopefully this will make you less likely to label their personality rather than the interaction.

We hope these guidelines will help you remember to use the Radical Candor framework to guide your interactions, not to label people. Let us know what you think, and tell us what your challenges are!

Russ is the vice president of people at Qualtrics. Prior to joining Qualtrics he held various roles at Google, Twitter, and was a co-founder and COO of Candor, Inc. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania – The Wharton School.