The Do’s and Don’ts of Radical Candor to Be a Radically Awesome Leader

As I was on a plane to Denver last Wednesday to teach Life Without Limits, I read an article in Inc. Magazine about radical candor. Basically, radical candor is being brutally honest with your employees and team members and expecting the same in return. Of course, being brutally honest can be an HR nightmare, but come on, what is wrong with giving honest, fair feedback in a respectful way? Yes, delivery is everything, but not delivering the message in some fashion is a failure on your part as a leader. How are you to make your company and employees better if you are not giving them constructive feedback, debriefing on a major mistake, or coaching them in areas they need improvement?


Here are the dos and don’ts of radical candor:

DO practice constructive criticism. Often the criticism is taken very personally when it comes out of the blue or seems inauthentic. You know that feeling you get when you are in a room with a co-worker or employee and you know exactly what should be said to them – good or bad? Say it. No good comes from holding that information or feedback in. You know it needs to be said, and so do they. Practice giving feedback to your team and it eventually become natural for you and them.

DO be vulnerable. Do not make assumptions and be prepared to be wrong. Do you know both sides of the story? Do you have all the information? Do you know where you team member was at personally when they made a particular decision? One of the key components to being a great leader is vulnerability and admitting that you may have gotten in wrong.

DON’T make it personal. Keep your radical candor professional and steer clear of personal criticism such as dress, weight, personal hygiene – unless it directly effects their performance on the job. Those HR nightmares I mention – this is where it can get sticky. No matter your intention, your perceived relationship with your team member, or your delivery, making it personal is never a good move.

DON’T dish it out if you can’t take it. If you are prepared to be brutally honest with an employee, be open to unfiltered feedback in return. In fact, you should solicit this sort of feedback regularly, yet informally, from your team. A great question for this is: What could I be doing differently or stop doing to make your life better? It gets people talking if they are somewhat nervous to give you feedback.

DO criticize and complement. If you are leading at the level that I know you are all capable of, you should be giving candid feedback to your team regularly. But remember – too much candor without any positive feedback could back fire. Over the course of a week, for every criticism you deliver, give 2-3 compliments. But don’t just give the compliment to soften the candor. Give compliments when people deserve it, otherwise people will feel that you are being manipulative or inauthentic. If your team member did something great, let them know! And if they did something wrong, let them know that too!

Radical candor is kind of my specialty. I can often be pretty hard on my team and I push them outside of their comfort zone regularly (i.e. calling them out on their shit). Those moments are where we all grow though. Believe me, whatever I’m saying is not news to anyone, but I’m often the only one with the balls to tell it like it is. Radical candor doesn’t make me many friends, but it does create loyal employees who understand I am there to help them grow and achieve their goals. Sometimes the only way that happens is with a little a lot of honesty. And I would rather help people grow, then be their friends anyway.

Two tools we use with new employees are an expectations dialogue and User’s Manual (email for copies of both). Our initial meeting with an employee entails going over the expectations dialogue where we discuss how we want to communicate with each other, how honest do we want to be with each other, along with other standards and expectations for the role. Both parties sign. 99.9% of the time people say they want me to be honest with them at a level 10 (meaning brutally honest). But when we dive in and discuss what that really means, it’s that they would like me to be honest with them with the good stuff… not the bad. But that’s not how it works! I absolutely believe in delivering feedback in a direct and respectful manner, but neither am I going to pussyfoot around a topic and listen to bullshit excuses. Which is why we put together user manuals for new employees – it’s a snapshot into my thought (and each team member is encouraged to do one too) process and idiosyncrasies so that we can all get on the same page quickly. And so (hopefully) no one takes anything too personally.

But – and here’s that radical candor – I just don’t have the time to hold people’s hands and sing Kum bay ya. We are building a business empire here and we’re all adults, right? The only way we all grow is to sometimes hear what we don’t want to hear, become aware of our faults or mistakes, take ownership for them and then move forward – together. Failure in itself is never an issue, it’s not taking ownership and not learning from that failure that I tend to have a problem with.

Ultimately, the only way radical candor works is if it is backed by a leader who radically cares for his/her team. And for all my bark (and yes, I do sometimes bite) I deeply care about the success of my team and personal fulfillment they each have from their career, which then enables them to live whatever life they desire. I believe in transparent and intentional leadership. As a leader, part of my job is to see my team’s blind spots and they have joined my company because of their desire for growth, challenge, and more opportunity. Without radical candor I am doing a disservice to my team and that’s just not what I’m about.

What do you think about radical candor? Can it be taken too far? Is honestly always the best policy? Let me know what you think with #herglife!

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