Leadership: Radical Candor vs Radical Caring

An emotional bank is a trust account whose value can be drawn against during difficult times.

I wrote a LinkedIn post the other day on the concept of “Radical Candor.” I argued that instead of focusing on “radical candor” it would be healthier if organizations would focus leadership on “radical caring.” I want to use this space to clarify the how you can achieve candor in a positive, healthy way.

Radical candor is a buzz word for the concept originated by Kim Scott’s desire to “[create] a bullshit-free zone” within the workplace. My post doesn’t take issue with Kim’s concept but instead takes issue with most people’s application.

As my LinkedIn post noted, Kim is correct – we do need more candor. The problem is too many people focus more on the “straight talk” portion of Kim’s concept when they should focus on the foundation of caring necessary for it to work.

Frankly, the scary thing is organizations are better at candor than they are at caring, which makes radical candor unhealthy. Candor simply means “the quality of being open and honest in expression; frankness.” It does not mean causing blunt force trauma to someone in order to make a point.

Trust is a fundamental requirement and must be present in any relationship in order to have healthy communications. If someone does not believe what you say then it does not matter how you say it. They must also trust what you are saying is being said to benefit them. This is why creating “radical caring” is more important than radical candor.

Here are the some basic steps you can take to build radical caring and

healthy candor within your team or organization:

  • Be Vulnerable – Vulnerability is leading by example at its best. A willingness to be open about your own shortcomings will make others open to hearing about theirs from you. Vulnerability is the political capital you will need to spend on being candid.
  • Being Honest – Honesty is tougher than you think in the workplace. The workplace is a world where information cannot always be shared fully. It is probably easier to tell your spouse that s/he doesn’t look good in that outfit.

Honesty starts with being honest with one’s self. Admitting that more often than not the reason for non-disclosure is organizationally selfish is the first step. Breaking down this wall and opening communications is a vital second step. You cannot develop a positive, healthy culture of candor in an organization that is not open.

You can still be honest in cases where organizational confidentiality is required. You can do this by showing empathy and simply admitting that there are issues you are not at liberty to discuss. Having been open in other situations will give you the political capital to do this.

  • Developing Clarity – Too often leaders fail to build clarity around an organization’s values, objectives and commitments to goals. Making efforts to communicate these early, often and through multiple channels is key.

The aim should be over-communicating. This starts during branding and runs beyond recruiting/onboarding to the daily heartbeat of an organization. Developing clarity about these is key to the next step.

  • Building an Emotional Bank – An emotional bank is a trust account whose value can be drawn against during difficult times. Providing regular positive feedback, taking the time to understand an individual, and showing concern or expressing empathy combined with the steps above shows the team you care.
  • Ensuring Shared Values, Objectives and Commitments – An organization has to be okay with the fact that it is not a fit for everyone and everyone is not a fit for it.

Studies show that groups naturally homogenize. New members with unaligned values, mores, and objectives may seek to influence others to be more like themselves. Over time, these new members either change to fit the group or if the gap is too wide the new members leave (either voluntarily or through force). This process of homogenization can disruptive.

By over-communicating its values, objectives and commitments to goals an organization is setting expectations for the team. Setting the expectation ensures a team dedicated to those concepts. Doing so early also allows people to self-select out of the team before they join.

  • Having Accountability – Without accountability the steps above are nothing more than window dressing.

If your values, objectives and commitments mean anything then people must be accountable for them. This accountability is not a one-way street, all members up and down, over and across the organizational chart must be accountable to one another.

Accountability is also key to limiting the disruptive impact of group homogenization. By addressing misalignment of values, objectives and commitments early the organization emphasizes their importance. This emphasis speeds the process of change or departure.

Accountability is also a form of showing you care. When you address a person’s shortcomings you are saying to them, “I want you to succeed.”  You are also saying to others, “I won’t allow others failures to impact your success.”

  • Measuring Outcomes – In order to hold people accountable, there must be measurable outcomes.

While things as nebulous as values can become subjective that does not mean they cannot be measured. It simply means more care should be taken in discussing them and how they are addressed.

My favorite policy manual contained a single sentence: Don’t be an Asshole. Yeah, it can mean different things to different people but…there are also obvious violations a group can agree on without debate.

Bottom line:  fundamentals of performance are always measurable. Creating data about cascading sets of short-term goals that achieve long-term objectives is key.  No data is perfect but data is always present so pick the best data and stick with it. This will let people know how they will be measured.

These steps are synonymous with an environment of radical caring. When you have a culture of caring the impediments to candor are removed. With the impediments removed, conflict becomes debate and discussion reducing avoidance of the issue.

In writing this, I purposely left the word “simple” out of the title and them. While these are obvious steps to strong leadership, they are far from simple. People in my life will tell you that I fail at them often if not regularly.

They call yoga a practice because you never reach perfection.  Leadership is the same and requires daily devotion to using what you have learned in order to take another step towards improvement. However, you will inevitably falter at times.

Small steps—even imperceptible steps—create great change. Short-term failure is an important part of the process because pushing yourself over time builds a strong core. Having a strong core allows you to reach out showing strength in your arms and legs.

Like yoga, having a strong core supports the other areas of your leadership. Speaking with candor is fraught with opportunities for failure.  Yet, if you have built a core around trust and concern you will have the ability to overcome those mistakes.

Shout outs: Lizza Rob, RedShift Leadership, for the lessons and support that led to this article. Thanks!


Author: Timothy Koirtyohann

Prior to his most current role, Tim was overseeing strategy and transactional HR for 3 companies with over $50M revenue. In his role as Director of Human Resources Client Relations, he managed HR consulting offices in TX, GA, NM and SC with 7 direct reports providing HR business partner and customer support to businesses employing over 7,500 employees.

Tim’s experience also includes multiple charitable and civic roles. He frequently participates in charitable events, Habitat for Humanity, Junior Chamber of Commerce and Weatherford Noon Lions Club. He has held positions on several boards, including City of Willow Park Planning/Zoning, FW Junior Chamber of Commerce and FWHRMA.

Tim’s philosophy is simple: Everyone is in a client service role.

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