How does Radical Honesty Work?

The October 2016 issue of Inc. covered the topic of Radical Candor with the subtitle “Is telling your employee exactly what you think a good idea or an HR disaster in the making?” How does radical honesty work?

Telling the truth, nothing but the truth, and the absolute truth is a tricky thing.

How many of us have told white lies? Just to spare someone else’s feelings or because we decided the other person is not ready. Or like Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Jessep famously said, “You can’t handle the truth.”

None of us wants to be a jerk or be seen as one. We’ve also been taught not to say anything if we can’t say anything nice. Mostly we don’t…until not telling the truth pushes so many buttons that the truth comes out in gossip, an angry outburst, or a passive-aggressive way.

Radical Honesty Radical Candor

What is Radical Candor?

Radical Candor is a management approach that is based on the rare skill of communicating with employees in a honest constructive and timely manner. “Saying what you think” doesn’t mean brutal honesty. What the implementation of Radical Candor is about is building a culture of feedback.

Kim Scott of Candor Inc sees Radical Candor™ as the sector where “care personally” and “challenge directly” intersect. The vertical axis of “care personally is what she calls “giving a damn axis” and the horizontal axis of “challenge directly” is the “willing to piss people off axis”1. This means you actually do care about the other person. You want to share your thoughts and ideas and you invite – challenge – others to do the same.

It is instructive to understand what the other three quadrants are to see the importance of Radical Candor. If you care but do not directly challenge, that is Ruinous Empathy™ territory, where she feels most management mistakes are made. Challenging directly and not caring is Obnoxious Aggression™. Manipulative Insecurity™ is when you don’t care and don’t challenge directly.

According to Candor, “Obnoxious Aggression™ is what happens when you challenge but don’t care. It’s praise that doesn’t feel sincere or criticism that isn’t delivered kindly. Ruinous Empathy™ is what happens when you care but don’t challenge. It’s praise that isn’t specific enough to help the person understand what was good or criticism that is sugarcoated and unclear. Manipulative Insincerity™ is what happens when you neither care nor challenge. It’s praise that is non-specific and insincere or criticism that is neither clear nor kind.”

From the Radical Candor website, here’s a succinct way to describe these four quadrants:2

  • Radical Candor is kind and helpful.
  • Obnoxious Aggression is mean but may be helpful. Obnoxious Aggression is also called “brutal honesty” or “front stabbing.”
  • Ruinous Empathy is “nice” but ultimately unhelpful or even damaging. It’s seeing somebody with their fly down, but, not wanting to embarrass them, saying nothing, with the result that 15 more people see them with their fly down — more embarrassing for them.
  • Manipulative Insincerity is a stab in the back.

Done properly, Radical Candor creates a transparent, productive, and growth-oriented culture at work and translates effectively into other areas of life.

Some ways to instill Radical Candor, according to the Inc. interview with Kim Scott are:

  • Find opportunities for impromptu feedback.
  • Make it easier to speak truth to power.
  • Put your own oxygen mask on first.

The three tips Alix Stuart shares in the “The Hard Truth About Radical Candor” article in Inc. are :

  1. Make it a habit
  2. Know the nevers (“never criticize an employee in front of others, never comment on personal appearance or hygiene, unless it affects performance, never make it personal.”)
  3. Give actionable advice.

First we have to learn to be honest with ourselves. Many people hide parts of themselves for fear of rejection. We learn how certain behaviours elicit more favourable and desired responses from others. Not too long ago, while eating dinner, I witnessed how this little girl, no more than two years old, sitting at a table of adults quickly learned being cute captured the adoring attention of those around her. She is well on the way to manipulate others to get what she wants.

We start hiding so early that by adulthood we have forgotten that we actually do this. We cut off parts of ourselves and as Grinberg Method and Somatic Practitioner Nicole Gilg-Geymayer points out, we also cut off the feelings and sensations of our physical body.

When we are not honest with ourselves, we cannot be ourselves completely and honest in relationships with other people. We then pull into our lives people who fill the holes for us and who make us feel secure when we aren’t even sure why we don’t feel secure. The now-subconscious pull to hide makes us more vulnerable to influence and judgment by others. People don’t like rocking the boat, in general. They would rather keep the peace, even if they are unhappy. They would rather be with someone, rather than be alone.

So yes, it can feel completely terrifying and even radical to stand naked before those who mean the most to you and even strangers you don’t want to feel rejected by.

Ready to be radically honest?

Here are some questions Madison Taylor (co-founder of DailyOm.com), writing for Oprah, beckons us to reflect.

  • What does honesty mean to you?
  • What does it really mean to be truly honest with yourself?
  • In what ways are you not honest with yourself?
  • Imagine yourself completely free to be your authentic self. Nobody is judging you or watching you. What would your life feel like? What would you do?

We end this article on honesty with the importance of telling the truth by Dr Brad Blanton, the founder of the movement Radical Honesty. While Radical Candor may have been created as a management strategy, we can easily apply the same principles to how we live in life.


1 Radical Candor — The Surprising Secret to Being a Good Boss. The First Round Review.
2 Radical Candor is Not Brutal Honesty by Kim Scott. [link]

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