The Radical Candor Model for Giving Feedback

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What is the Radical Candor model for giving feedback to your employees? How do you offer guidance that is helpful and empathetic?

In Radical Candor by Kim Scott, a culture of candor starts with asking for feedback before giving it. Once you’re ready to start giving feedback, you can use this Radical Candor model.

Keep reading for the Radical Candor model for giving feedback.

The Radical Candor Model: Giving Feedback

Once you get the ball rolling and your employees are gaining confidence in giving you guidance, you need to start giving them guidance in return. This exchange sets the tone for your workplace—a culture where people can freely challenge and be challenged, and understand that it comes from a place of personal care and the desire to make everyone’s work better. 

Again, if your employees are not well-versed in receiving sincere criticism and praise, radical candor might seem daunting. Here are some guiding principles you should focus on in the Radical Candor model to help you commit to radical candor and to best set up your employees for sincere feedback.  

Focus #1: Humility

Humility is important to giving both criticism and praise in the Radical Candor model. Criticism without humility can make people feel defensive, and praise without humility can sound insincere or arrogant. There are three concepts that humble guidance should rely on: precise framing of your feedback, an effective filter, and separation of reality and experience. 

Precise framing of your feedback: When you’re giving feedback, frame it around three things—the situation, the person’s behavior, and the outcome. This helps you avoid arrogant generalizations about the person, both in criticism and praise. Criticism, instead of, “You’re bad at time management,” should sound more like, “I asked you yesterday to get a proposal together for the new client (situation). You chose to work on less urgent projects until one hour before the deadline today, and threw together a proposal riddled with typos (behavior). It’s likely that we’ve lost that client’s trust (outcome).” Instead of generic praise such as, “You’re doing great,” try, “At this morning’s meeting (situation), I noticed that you took charge in making sure that everyone got a chance to share suggestions (behavior). I love that your encouragement makes your team so open to sharing ideas (outcome).”

An effective filter: After feedback that didn’t go well, write down what was actually said in the conversation and what you were thinking during the conversation. Examine your two lists to figure out where the conversation went wrong—was there a point where you started saying what you were thinking, without a filter? 

For example, you might find that while talking to one of your reports about her time management, you were thinking that she’s not committed enough to her work. You see that after you had this thought, your conversation became accusatory and you spent the rest of the time questioning her commitment, instead of coming up with solutions together.  

Separation of reality and experience: Remember that your experience or subjective observation of a situation is not necessarily the objective truth—this will help you invite challenge as much as you hand it out. For example, your subjective observation might tell you that your report has time management issues. You suggest this to her, and invite her response. This gives her the opportunity to tell you about her reality—she’s involved in another project that’s disorganized and therefore taking up a huge amount of her time. 

Focus #2: Helpfulness

Don’t get bogged down with the idea that in order to be helpful, you need to hold your employee’s hand through their work. Radically candid feedback does the heavy lifting by clarifying what the problem is, so your employee can find the solution more quickly—this is accomplished in the Radical Candor model through three helpful actions:

  • Making your intentions clear. Criticism usually prompts defensive reactions. When you state that your intent is to help, not to be hurtful, your employees become more receptive to your feedback. 
  • Being as precise as possible. It’s tempting to give vague criticism so you don’t have to dive into the discomfort of fully discussing a tough situation—but being vague, a symptom of ruinous empathy, doesn’t give actionable ideas for improvement. Precision about what’s good or bad about someone’s behavior clearly demonstrates what they should do more or less of. 
  • Outsourcing help when possible. Helping each of your team members personally with their issues would be impossibly time-consuming. Instead, look for external help to offer to your employees when appropriate and available, such as speech coaches or therapists. 

Focus #3: Immediacy 

Feedback is most effective when it comes immediately on the heels of a situation that merits attention. Saving up feedback for meetings is unhelpful, for several reasons. First, you risk forgetting exactly what you wanted to talk about, or the specifics of a situation—your employee will become frustrated when you give criticism, but can’t think of any examples to illustrate your point. Second, when you wait to give feedback, you’ll often find that problems are too far in the past to be fixed, or successes are too far in the past to be built on. Your job is to offer constant feedback, and your big meetings—such as yearly performance reviews or one-on-one time—should just be formalized echoes of your regular work. 

Immediate feedback is especially important when it comes to criticism. Putting off criticism—and subsequently, worrying about it—is mentally exhausting. Additionally, if you hold onto things that anger or frustrate you about an employee for too long, you risk suddenly losing your temper with them, diminishing your credibility and destroying the trust you’ve built. 

Consistent feedback also lets the people working for you understand and contextualize how their work is being received or used. Without the context that comes with praise or criticism, people feel that their work goes unnoticed or unappreciated and become disengaged and bored with their work. If their work is being used by someone other than you, try to include them in the meetings or events where their work will be presented, so they can experience the reactions in real time. 

To ensure that your feedback is as immediate as possible, always try to deliver it in the few minutes between meetings or following a presentation. This saves you both time, as there’s no long meeting to schedule, and the feedback is more effective because you both have the specific points of praise or criticism fresh in your memory. Make sure your schedule allows for post-meeting feedback by stopping meetings 5 minutes before schedule, or by scheduling meetings a minimum of 15 minutes apart. Good feedback doesn’t need to take a long time—the best feedback is consistent and specific. 

There are two situations in which you should second-guess the need for immediacy. First, if you or the other person is angry, tired, or hungry (in short, cranky), wait and deliver criticism when you’re both in a better mindset. Second, if your criticism isn’t important or feels nitpicky, don’t say it right away. Take some time to consider if it even needs to be said at all. 

Focus #4: In-Person

It’s best to deliver your feedback in person—you can see how your feedback is being received by the other person, and you avoid misunderstandings that can come from the nuances of written communication. Many bosses like to deliver criticism by email because it lets them avoid negative emotional reactions, but being present for negative emotions helps you demonstrate radical candor. If your employee is upset, you can lean toward caring personally to help them. If they’re not taking you seriously, you can lean toward challenging directly to show them that your feedback should be important to them. 

Sometimes, the importance of speaking in-person will directly conflict with immediacy, such as when your employee is in another city. In these cases, prioritize immediacy over in-person delivery unless you’re talking about something very important such as promoting or firing someone. When choosing immediacy over in-person delivery, your mode of communication matters. Video chat is your best option, followed by a phone call. Emails or texts should be avoided at all costs unless absolutely necessary—written communication tends to be misinterpreted at a much higher rate than vocal.

Focus #5: Public Praise, Private Criticism

As a general rule of thumb, you should always default to giving praise in public and criticism in private—public praise tends to be more meaningful for the recipient and demonstrates what your team should do more of. On the other hand, public criticism tends to trigger defensiveness.  

When giving praise, pay attention to what kind of attention your employees appreciate. Some of them will love public acknowledgment of their accomplishments, and others will find it unbearably embarrassing. Figure out what kind of praise will make them feel best. Keep in mind that this practice will become easier over time, as you practice “caring personally” and get to know your employees better. 

When it comes to criticism, make sure your team understands the difference between criticism and debate and disagreements, which are important parts of decision-making and discussion. For example, saying “I disagree with this idea” is fair game for a public conversation. On the other hand, “You’ve been handing in a lot of reports full of typos lately, and I’m starting to question your commitment to this project. Can you explain what’s going on?” needs to be privately discussed.

Think before you Reply All: when it comes to praise, replying all to give a quick shoutout is a simple, unembarrassing way to give praise and show recognition for efforts. However, never reply all with criticism—even if there’s an error in something sent out, contact the sender directly and ask them to send out the correction. 

Focus #6: Caring Personally Does Not Mean Personalizing

When giving criticism, make sure that you are criticizing the problem or the idea, rather than the person. Attributing a character trait to someone as an explanation for their behavior doesn’t get to the root of the problem. “You’re careless” doesn’t specify areas to improve. On the other hand, “There are too many typos in your reports” illustrates a clear problem that can have solutions. If your criticism starts with “you’re,” rethink it. 

In a similar vein, when in a disagreement, be careful that you’re arguing against the idea, not the person. Saying, “You’re wrong” will usually prompt a defensive reaction, while “I think this is wrong” will usually prompt a discussion. 

It’s likely that you’ll eventually come across an issue that is very personal—even in these cases, don’t personalize the criticism. Instead, find an external problem/issue to criticize. For example, Scott once had an employee with very bad body odor, to the point that it actually started to diminish her credibility. Instead of saying, “You have bad body odor” to her employee, Scott talked about the American obsession with hygiene and personal smell and suggested that this employee would be better received by colleagues if she worked within the American status quo. Instead of becoming defensive, her employee was receptive and took care of the issue quickly.

These are the six principles to focus on when giving feedback using the the Radical Candor model.

The Radical Candor Model for Giving Feedback

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  • How you have to be direct with people while also caring sincerely for them
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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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