Beyond Radical Candour

The problem with Radical Candour

”In the end, you get the behaviours you reward. If you reward candour, if you reward straight-forward talk, you will get it” — Jack Welch

“Welch conducts meetings so aggressively that people tremble. He attacks almost physically with his intellect—criticizing, demeaning, ridiculing, humiliating.” — former GE employee


Kim Scott defines Radical Candour as caring personally and challenging directly. The idea is to give someone very direct feedback, to be willing to “piss them off” while “giving a damn” about them, as she puts it.1

It is a model designed to encourage a speak-up culture, which we started exploring in the last post, Speaking up to Power. However, as Dr. Richard Claydon argues in his brilliant critique, Why we need Dependable, not Radical, Candor, the model has a serious problem.

The problem with Radical Candour

The type of feedback Scott encourages people to provide is often about impression management: how to act in such a way that makes a good impression on others; which usually means how to conform to accepted stereotypes, especially, as Richard points out, those based on hyper-masculine North American leadership traits2

Furthermore,

Radical candor doesn’t work well in terms of psychological safety in teams because it is based on the performance of somebody in a position of authority who tells a subordinate how to improve. So while it adds some much needed femininity to the leadership discourse, it is still underpinned by an extrovert, assertive, self-confident, drive for achievement discourse that disables other more introverted, modest, reserved and collaborative voices. 

Those who aren’t extroverted, assertive and self-confident, and who don’t want power and achievement, still have things of worth to say. Their personality doesn’t stop them having potentially game-changing ideas.

Dependable Candour

Richard’s article goes on to advocate Dependable Candour and offers a commendable six-point guide. It is well worth a read. To accompany the article, I’d like to offer a short history of how the term came about and provide some additional perspective.

We coined the term while preparing a Masterclass in Psychological Safety. It related to my experience with working with culturally diverse Agile development teams. 

It is crucially important in Agile development that each member give constant and candid feedback to each other during development iterations. If someone notices something amiss or is uncomfortable with the way a solution is developing and fails to speak up immediately, then the development trajectory can diverge from the optimum very quickly.

In new teams, this happens often. Someone might notice a potential security flaw, for example, but feel too timid to say something to new colleagues. Some days later, when the code fails a test, they might say something like, “yeah, I thought that might have been a problem but wasn’t sure”. Then the entire team is set back while the code gets re-worked. 

This problem is particularly prevalent when team members come from vastly different cultures, say Russia, Korea, Singapore, Australia, and North America, for example. Where we grow up strongly influences our relationship to power, individuality, masculinity, uncertainty, and other cultural dimensions. It is always fascinating to examine how culturally different we are on the Hofstede index. It shines an interesting light onto multicultural team dynamics and provides an indication of where speaking-up problems might manifest.

I have enjoyed a lot of success fostering speak-up cultures in Agile teams. The formula is fairly straightforward:

  1. Model good facilitation skills

    At first, good leadership is required. New teams will naturally look to authority figures for guidance. It’s the job of the Agile leader3 or coach to establish new rituals and communication norms. This is as simple as ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity to speak, making enough time available for proper dialogue, making it explicit that anyone can raise any concern whatsoever at whatever time, politely encouraging the more dominant personalities to allow some space for others, reading emotions and gently questioning the shyer personalities, e.g, “you look a bit worried Peter, we’d really like to hear what you are thinking”. After a while, this pattern of communication becomes normalised.

  2. Handover facilitation to the team

    Once favourable communication patterns stabilise, the leader or coach can start to withdraw. They simply let others facilitate the dialogue and observe. Depending on dynamics, some minor interventions may be required: providing some coaching to individuals, or some team training in facilitation skills, for example. Very occasionally, highly disruptive or aggressive people need to be removed to allow the team to phase-shift into a state of healthy autonomy.

Speaking up about aspects of collaborative work is not as intense as holding someone to account for broken commitments or performance standards. That requires more sophisticated dialogical skills. However, the confidence inspired by speaking up about work-related issues creates a solid foundation for more advanced training.

What is vital is the realisation that team members are truly dependent on each other, especially in highly autonomous teams. If one person fails to speak up about an important matter, then the entire team, as well as the organisation, suffers. 

Once this realisation sets in, the establishment of dependable candour becomes an obvious priority.

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1

See Radical Candor In 6 Minutes With Kim Scott

2

Claydon, R., Why we need Dependable, not Radical, Candor., EQLab Insights, June 2021

3

Agile purists may ark up at this term claiming there is no such thing as an “Agile Leader”. I’ll take up this debate in a future post.