Bad Boss BS: “Can I be candid?”
How bad bosses can misinterpret “Radical Candour” and miss the point of what makes good feedback conversations
Radical Candour is an approach to giving feedback that balances personal investment with being direct. The model, proposed by Kim Scott in her book Radical Candor, can be a valuable way of thinking about feedback, building relationships of trust and helping with development and performance. The problem is, some bad bosses don’t read books. They just hear a title and think, “I get it.” But they don’t. So how do you deal with “radical candour” that misses the point of the original model?
What is radical candour?
Models are great. They can wrap up a set of ideas into a formula — setting different elements in tension to find the perfect balance of needs, constraints and possibilities. Models rely on this internal coherence. They’re a recipe that someone has put effort into designing. So when someone misinterprets or misses part of a model, it either leads to the brilliant invention of something even better — like that time we made those special meatballs and they were delicious or it creates something horrific (let’s not talk about that Sausage Dahl).
Radical Candour’s central premise is that building trusting relationships with people improves the quality of feedback conversations. These relationships enable you to tailor your feedback conversations to their needs and to find the perfect balance between two elements — caring personally and challenging directly. There are four central ideas in this paragraph — and a boss needs to pay attention to each one in order to use “radical candour” effectively.
- relationships of trust
- caring personally
- challenging directly
We see time and time again that trust is the foundation of great working relationships. Whether it’s trust within a team and organisation or between individuals, trust expands our options. We’re more confident to share work in progress, listen with commitment and speak with honesty. Without trust we’re much more likely to dismiss feedback. We might doubt motives. We might question legitimacy. Feedback conversations can be difficult. A lack of trust is much more likely to throw them off track and create barriers, making them less effective.
Feedback conversations require navigation. Great feedback conversations don’t just share information or a perspective, they drive towards an outcome. While a boss can put effort into choreographing the conversation in advance, rehearsing their plan and the points they want to cover, feedback conversations are more like improvised jazz than formulaic recital.
Unthinkingly applying a cover-version of the ‘radical candour’ concept to feedback can leave you feeling like every feedback conversation is played out to a soundtrack of thrash metal — they’re aggressive and in your face. But that misses the point of the need for adaptation. Different people and different situations require different styles. The demands of the interaction will change throughout the conversation. A good feedback conversation is more like ‘Live and Let Die’ — it’s sort of three or four styles all wrapped up into one, with transitions between styles as the approach is tailored to the person and adapts throughout the interaction.
Personal investment — caring
Caring personally builds the relationship of trust and it’s a way to ensure feedback conversations are effective and feel valid. Feedback can be a gift. But it’s a certain type of gift. It’s like a jigsaw or a Lego set, or some flat pack furniture (which I’ll admit, is an unusual gift). The point is, feedback comes with strings attached — (so maybe it’s more like a tent?). It asks the other person to take on some additional work they might not have been expecting.
For feedback to be truly effective the “gift” needs to be good for the person receiving it. A bad boss might retort — “well it is a gift, because if they don’t listen and act I’ll fire them”. This type of boss has only one chance of the feedback working — threat and fear. But when feedback is delivered with personal investment in the other person there are more factors to motivate a change.
Most people are motivated by doing things well. But a bad boss will miss the point of this insight. Their feedback comes from what they need, rather than employing empathy to consider what might motivate the person receiving their feedback. When a boss genuinely cares about the person receiving the feedback as much as the outcome, they put as much effort into the message as they do the desired outcome. So they more carefully construct the means to that end.
Challenging directly doesn’t mean aggression. In Scott’s original model she directly states that radical candour is not ‘obnoxious aggression’. But bad bosses miss this point.
Challenging directly means plain language. It doesn’t o̶b̶f̶u̶s̶c̶a̶t̶e̶ use fancy words to make the point less direct. It addresses observations and perceived impact in plain language — this is what I saw, this why we’re talking about it.
Bosses are sometimes required to set expectations and describe times when they’re not met. A good boss will be able to talk about actions and impact. They’ll be able to create conversations that explore intent and motivation — and then move on to suggest changes. And they’ll do this in language that maximises the chances of their desired change happening.
Feedback conversations are an instance of the contract that exists between us and a boss. Our professional lives require transactions all the time. We give an organisation time and effort in return for pay and other benefits. Bosses communicate objectives and we try to achieve them. Bosses give feedback. Good feedback focuses on that transaction. Good feedback feels fair. It adapts the “currency” used so that it can feel like everyone comes out of it a winner. Bad bosses miss this point. Their feedback conversations are more focused on demonstrating or reinforcing power, rather than than achieving better performance and outcomes. They let their ego, anger or frustration get in the way of their duty to help us to be the best we can.
Radical candour is not a one-size-fits-all style of straight-talking, no-nonsense feedback giving. It can be. But it’s really just a way for bosses to intentionally construct feedback conversations to ensure they’re effective for both people in the conversation - them and us. If you’re faced with a bad boss who excuses their aggressive style of feedback as ‘radical candour’ then you’ll enjoy the rest of the posts in this Feedback series. Also — you have the perfect gift idea the next time you get the boss for Secret Santa.