Kim Scott’s Radical candour model — using feedback to build great working relationships

Feedback is undeniably a vital part of managing working relationships. I spoke in my last blog about how both informal and formal feedback can be used to support the learning and development individuals within an organisation. I also discussed how difficult it can be not only to receive feedback, but also to ensure when giving it that it lands with the recipient in a supportive, helpful and constructive manner. Following on from this, I’d like to share some thoughts about how we, as leaders, can develop and enhance our skills in delivering feedback.  

Giving feedback requires an enhanced level of self-awareness and specific interpersonal skills. Traditionally, leaders have used psychological models for improving self-awareness in interpersonal communication — for example, the Johari Window model. Developed by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955, this model helps support a better understanding of your relationship with yourself and others, while improving the trust and insight of a group as whole.  Through highlighting issues which are known or unknown by us or by others around us, feedback can be used to gain unknown, potentially enlightening insights into one other.  

A more recent model I like to use when I’m training leaders in how to give feedback is Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. Originally published in 2017, the book describes a four-box model which helps leaders create good working relationships through feedback. 

What is radical candour? 

Scott defines radical candour as the quality of being honest, sincere, clear and kind. Radical candour should be the ultimate goal of a leader when it comes to relationships with their people. It’s about balancing honesty and challenge with humanity in your relationships and your feedback, so that people can achieve or even exceed their potential and make your organisation a healthy, successful and pleasant place to work and thrive. Scott calls the radical candour model ‘a compass that can guide specific conversations with specific people’.  

The model focusses on two concepts which Scott places on bisecting axes. She calls these ‘challenging directly’ and ‘caring personally’. She maintains that all of life’s problems can be boiled down to what is contained in this 2×2 framework. A bold statement, but this model clearly sets out the sliding scales of challenge and care which all leaders must balance against each another in their feedback and relationships with their people. 

Caring personally 

Caring personally is what Scott rather flamboyantly dubs the ‘give a damn axis’. It ranges from left to right on a sliding scale: from not caring at all, to caring personally. Caring personally does not mean being a soft and fluffy pushover of a leader, or striving to be liked. Instead, it’s about acknowledging people as humans and mindful about the way your feedback will land with them. To end up inhabiting the desired ‘radical candour’ quadrant, you need to ensure your feedback will be perceived as supportive and helpful by those who receive it. Scott explains that part of the culture problem for leaders is built when we start our first jobs; at an age where we are solidifying our personalities, we’re continually warned to be professional at all times. We feel we’re being told to leave our emotions, identities and humanity at home; that what is required of us is to behave like emotionless robots in the workplace, or risk being deemed unprofessional. As Scott points out, you can’t care personally if you are a robot. Make time for real conversations and get to know people on a human level, and you’ll build real working relationships. 

Challenging directly 

The other axis on the model is ‘challenging directly’; the sliding scale ranges from silence to challenging directly. Challenging directly is about being clear, honest and direct. It’s inevitable as a leader that you’ll have to have difficult conversations, give feedback which might take courage to deliver. Sometimes, it’s necessary to give bad news or critical feedback. You may have to push yourself further along this axis than feels comfortable, in order to make yourself clear enough to be heard; but successful challenge is not about being brutal, mean, hurtful or damaging.  There is a big difference between being honest in order to help and brutal honesty. According to Scott, ‘allowing people to fail when everyone else is watching isn’t kind; it’s cruel’. The key to delivering difficult feedback is for leaders to raise it in a timely fashion, with clarity and without any judgement, superiority or underhand motives; if it’s done in the best interest of the recipient, that will come across.  

Obnoxious aggression

The two axes bisect to create a model with four quadrants. The perfect balance between challenging directly and caring personally is radical candour; if there is an imbalance between care and challenge in the leader’s behaviour, then another, less helpful behaviours occurs. The first of these Scott calls ‘obnoxious aggression’. It occurs when there is plenty of challenge in the feedback, but not enough caring personally about the effect of that challenge on the recipient. Examples of this might be if a leader berates someone in public, challenges with a raised voice, swears at someone, or any other act of aggression without considering the impact. This type of feedback is not uncommon, public dressing downs, being called out on group emails and being thrown out of meetings are all examples I have heard recently. Scott calls this ‘front-stabbing’; she explains that sometimes obnoxious aggression can manifest because leaders fail to show that underneath, they do care, instead allowing the challenge element to dominate, because they feel that’s what’s expected of them. She goes onto say how this approach leads to defensiveness and little change and ultimately contributes to a culture of fear. 

Manipulative insincerity

Potentially this is the worst of the three ‘counterfeit behaviours’ identified by Scott. Manipulative insincerity manifests itself in backstabbing, negative political behaviour and passive aggression . For example, leaders saying negative things about someone behind their back to manipulate others, rather than addressing an issue directly with the individual in question. This can leave the recipient isolated and unaware of how negatively they are perceived by others. A move into this quadrant can be the result of a leader who has been called out over their obnoxious aggression retreating into a less direct, more passive aggression.  The key behaviour here is the attempt to win everyone else over to their way of thinking, by being underhand, to gain some kind of political advantage. There is a lack of honesty here as well as manipulation, as Scott states, “These leaders never say what they actually think. They just attempt to push people’s emotional buttons in return for some personal gain.” She goes on to say how this approach leads to mistrust and poor relationships. 

Ruinous empathy  

An awful lot of leaders inhabit this space without meaning to. Leaders who do not want to rock the boat or upset anyone, who do not have the courage to deliver challenging feedback, as they are afraid of provoking a negative reaction. While it’s high on caring, the lack of challenge here means that feedback is sugar-coated so it becomes unclear and ineffectual and doesn’t support the recipient’s development. An example of ruinous empathy is to only present positive feedback and to gloss over the critical, or to be so generalised and bland in feedback that the recipient has no idea what it actually means for them, or even perhaps if it refers to them at all. Scott points out that while it’s part of our conditioning to avoid hurting other people’s feelings, refusing to provide challenge is actually only protecting your own feelings, and does them no favours in the long run. She also suggests as managers it is our job to say it.  ‘You could be setting people up for bigger failure and more hurt feelings later’. This approach leads to ignorance and little change. True empathy means honesty and enabling people to address any issues that might hold them back from future success.  

Putting the model into practice 

As I mentioned in my feedback blog, seeking feedback before you give it is a great idea. It helps you understand how the process feels. Kim Scott also feels asking for your own feedback as a leader is advantageous for the learning process — if you cannot prove to others that you can take feedback well, you shouldn’t be giving it to others. It can be useful to combine models — for example, using radical candour with the Johari Window model, you could bring out hidden areas from your blind spots into the open area through receiving your own feedback. 

Once you’ve given feedback, Scott advises gauging it. Take time to evaluate how what you are saying might land for the recipient. Make sure your motives behind the feedback are in their best interest. If the person becomes upset or reacts angrily, you need to move along the ‘care personally’ axis, understanding their human emotional need for care at this point; if they are not appearing to hear what you are saying, you’ll need to up your level of challenge accordingly. As Scott says, ‘radical candour gets measured not at the speaker’s mouth, but at the listener’s ear’.  

Nurturing working relationships is achieved by leaders providing a supportive, appropriate action for the reaction engendered by honest, clear, respectful and constructive feedback. Encouraging radical candour can help cement a healthy, honest working culture for all.  

If you want to know more about Kim Scott’s model you can buy her book, watch her TED Talk and visit her website for more information. She also shared this interesting article with Amy Edmonson about how Radical Candor can support Psychological Safety. 

If you’re interested in using the radical candour feedback model to build healthy relationships at work, email me to book a first free session. 






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