Effective communication in the workplace can be a balancing act. Say too much, and you’ll offend someone. Say too little, and small problems can add up. So how can everyone from new hires to managers learn to speak up in a way that is productive, safe and mutually beneficial?
To find out, we asked Kim Scott, author of the bestseller Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. The book has been translated into 20 languages, and a revised and updated second edition was published in 2019. Scott’s resume includes some of the world’s most prominent companies, including Apple and Google, and she is a former CEO coach at Dropbox, Twitter and Qualtrics. Her approach helps improve workplace communication, collaboration, efficiency and overall happiness.
Here, Scott shares why radical candor is such a game-changer when it comes to effective communication in the workplace.
Care personally, challenge directly
So what is radical candor, anyway? Scott defines it as “caring personally while challenging directly” and says it can be used as “a compass for guiding conversations.” This might sound easy, but make no mistake: radical candor is hard work and goes against much of what we’ve been taught.
“We’ve been told since we learned to speak: ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,’” explains Scott. “[And] we’re told from the beginning of our careers to ‘be professional.’”
Radical candor gives a more useful framework that helps us work better while also supporting — and challenging — those around us. So why is this so important? Giving and receiving feedback is part of workplace life, but sometimes speaking up can feel awkward or even confrontational. Radical candor means offering important feedback when it counts but doing so in a way that makes both individuals and teams stronger. This forms the basis for effective communication in the workplace. By following Scott’s approach, you can transform the initial discomfort over tough conversations into enhanced productivity and trust.
Scott offers a personal example from Google, where she worked for Sheryl Sandberg. After delivering what she thought was a stellar presentation, Scott was surprised when Sandberg pulled her aside and casually mentioned that she had said “um” repeatedly during her talk. At first, Scott laughed it off — but Sandberg didn’t let it go, saying the habit made Scott sound unintelligent, even though this clearly wasn’t the case. She even offered to have Google pay for a speech coach. Suddenly, Scott was paying attention.
“She wasn’t exaggerating: I did say um every third word, and that was news to me,” Scott recalls. “I had been giving presentations my whole career. I thought I was good at it, and that really made me think, Why had no one told me?”
This was an easily fixable problem, but Scott realized no one had felt comfortable challenging her to improve — until that day.
“ [Sheryl] showed me in a thousand different ways that she cared about me at a personal level — not just as an employee, but as a human being,” explains Scott. She followed Sandberg’s advice and met with the speech coach. Most importantly, she learned a valuable lesson about the impact of radical candor.
Caring personally while challenging directly sounds much easier than it is, in part because we misinterpret what it means to act appropriately at work.
“For a lot of people, that gets translated to mean, ‘Leave your emotions, your true identity, your humanity, and everything that’s best about you at home, and show up at work like some kind of robot,” says Scott.
As a result, attempting to be nice and professional can have the opposite effect — hiding the fact that we care enough to try and help others improve.
Personalize feedback for effective communication in the workplace
One way to show you care about a team member is to personalize your feedback specifically for them. While it’s tempting to focus on the individual and not their work, Scott cautions against this: “Don’t offer praise or criticism about fundamental personality attributes because those are very hard to change.” Instead, offer actionable insights that are relevant to the situation and can help them improve performance.
“If you say to someone: ‘You are such a genius,’ then you’re not getting specific enough to let them know what to repeat,” explains Scott.
You can also personalize your delivery to the individual’s communication style. For people who are more sensitive, use gentle, caring language; others will benefit from a more direct approach. Radical candor is about meeting people where they are and providing a framework for action.
“Radical candor gets measured not at your mouth, but at the listener’s ear,” explains Scott. “That means you need to adjust for the individual.”
While some worry radical candor will create problems or resentment, Scott says most people want and welcome feedback they can use: “The vast majority of times, the resistance doesn’t come from the receiver of the critical feedback. It comes from the giver.”
If someone does get upset, reassure them by showing that you care.
“It can be as simple as saying, ‘How can I help?’ or ‘I can see I’ve made you angry. I’m sorry. That’s not my intention. My intention is to help you,’” adds Scott.
Radical candor is a two-way street
“The greatest source of reluctance and resistance to radical candor is employees giving their boss feedback,” says Scott. She stresses the importance of openness and notes that feedback doesn’t necessarily have to be constructive. Managers should encourage employees to be direct with them.
To start the conversation, she says, come up with a question that elicits a response from your team, such as Scott’s favorite: “What could I do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?”
She recommends avoiding yes or no questions. Think seriously about what you need to hear to improve as a manager, including what you should do differently and why. This feedback may not be easy to get, she adds.
“You need to sit with that silence until the other person speaks, to keep your mouth shut and resist the temptation to break the awkward silence,” Scott explains. “You need to get them to answer. That’s embracing the discomfort.”
Next, it’s your job to listen. You’ve encouraged employees to go out on a limb by speaking up — so don’t get defensive. Try to understand what they’re saying and why.
Finally, reward their radical candor. If you agree with them, take action. If you disagree, tell them about it. Either way, use this as an opportunity to create ongoing dialogue and let them know that you appreciate their candor.