“God, you really are a f*cking idiot Mary”: Should you put ‘radical candour’ to the test at work?

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Alexandra Jones
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Could you imagine criticising your boss? To their face? The latest business trend sweeping Silicon Valley involves being honest to everyone at all times. But is it just a way of dressing up bad manners? Alexandra Jones gives it a go

Where do you stand on the w old adage ‘Honesty is the best policy’? Personally, I’ve always thought it an indisputably bad piece of advice, speaking more to the naivety of the giver than to the effective resolution of any modern- day problems (particularly any that occur in a modern-day office). And yet, here I am, sitting opposite four of Stylist’s most senior editors (including acting editor Susan Riley), avoiding eye contact and offering an unsolicited critique of how our meeting just went: “Just one more thing...” I stutter, in spite of the fact their attention has clearly moved on. “You ate your lunch in here... and it smells weird and put me off a bit... but it was good not be interrupted so I could just get on with pitching my ideas.” I am shaking with nerves; did I just inadvertently imply that they usually interrupt me? They blink slowly, nonplussed. I look longingly at the door.

Giving instant, forthright feedback is just one of the theories espoused in a radical new management manual written by former Harvard classmate of Sheryl Sandberg, Kim Scott. Scott headed up Google’s global AdSense team before moving to Apple where she created their management programme. The anti-heirarchy culture – which she singles out as one of the main factors driving the success of the two tech giants – forms the basis of her book Radical Candor: Be A Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. Going on to start her own coaching business – Candor Inc – she now counts the CEOs of Dropbox and Twitter among her clients, while her theories are deployed everywhere from Silicon Valley to London start-ups.

Radical candour might sound harsh but the aim is to help us build real, caring relationships with our colleagues. It’s based on two defining metrics – ‘care personally’ and ‘challenge directly’ because, Scott explains, we simply cannot have good relationships unless we’re willing to be truly honest with one another. “As a manager,” she says, “time and again, I have seen that it was kinder in the long run to be direct even if my criticism caused some momentary upset.” Equally, whenever someone does something brilliant we should tell them. And she proffers golden rules about feedback: it should be immediate, honest and regular. So, as one tech start-up employee told me, “One piece of feedback was that I communicate badly and I need to get to the point quicker when I speak in meetings. Apparently no-one wants to hear my entire thought process.”

It might make sense on paper, but it’s a different story in person, I think, stuck in my meeting, my managers staring at me. I recall a passage from the book in which Scott shares a tweet sent by someone who had attended a talk she gave the day before: “Tried radical candour with my boss, got fired.” While my attempt at being radically candid with my own managers hasn’t put me in the firing line, it has prompted some concerned looks. And not for the last time during my 24-hour experiment.

Social lubricant

Smiling through gritted teeth, staying quiet despite glaring incompetence, nodding along while inside you are violently disagreeing... Most of us use niceties like these as handy, social lubricants to keep from chafing against the personalities we spend 40-plus hours a week with. Now, though, we are entering a period where we no longer want to separate our work selves from our actual selves – we’d much rather have jobs which allow us to be ourselves. In fact, we actively distrust people who we feel aren’t being themselves – look at Donald Trump, a man who owes much of his presidential success to the fact that people deemed him to be ‘honest’, ‘candid’ and ‘telling it like it is’.

Of course, criticism – whether it comes from a place of love or not – is a notoriously tricky thing in an office. Feedback like, “Your report was horrendous and I don’t feel like you’re pulling your weight” – is basically someone slapping you in the face and calling it a favour.

To avoid this Scott advises specificity. “Describe three things when giving feedback: 1) the situation, 2) the behaviour – exactly what the person did, good or bad – and 3) the impact.” So more like, “Your report was lacking clarity in three areas, which has cost the other members of your team time and will hold back our project.”

“If you are the boss, it’s your moral obligation to be radically candid,” explains Scott. If you care personally for someone, if you’re invested in their success, you wouldn’t wait until their next 1-2-1 to point out where they’re going wrong – by that time the damage to their career might be irreparable. Tell them immediately and honestly that, for instance, their presentation style is putting clients off and allow them to improve.

A friend of mine – Steph* – works in a radically candid office. Last week her manager told her, in front of her colleagues, that her team don’t respect her because she often comes in late. This seems fairly brutal to me. “Well, I don’t come in late anymore,” she shrugs. Equally, at another company, a Silicon Valley CEO was told by his assistant that his delegation style (“leaving papers on my desk with no note or instruction”) was “rude and unhelpful”. As Scott points out “Hierarchy has no place in the modern workplace. Being a boss is a job, it’s not a value judgment – it doesn’t mean that person is better than you.”

And as she tells me, her strategies are not just a profit-chasing endeavour. “I believe that it is the answer to alienation from labour.” Yup. That work-based ennui that most of us feel from time to time could well be a thing of the past if we all adopted a radically candid mentality. “With fundamental human decency, with good relationships, we can make the working environment somewhere that we all want to be,” she says.

Radically awkward

I’m not so sure. As my attempt with the editors exemplifies, I just don’t have the gall to nit-pick with those in charge. “The single most important thing you can do is solicit feedback. Whenever you’ve finished a meeting, give the other person an opportunity to tell you how you could have improved,” says Scott. After a conversation about the best way to cut down a tricky paragraph with production editor Gareth, I dip my toe in by soliciting his assessment.

“How could I have been more useful to you?” I venture. He pauses. I persist, “Anything I could have done better? To be more... helpful?”

He turns back to his emails before muttering, “You’re being weird and I don’t know what you want from me.” I’m tempted to congratulate him on this inadvertent radical candour, but I continue: “I can see you’re feeling uncomfortable, but if there’s anything I could improve on...” My palms have begun to sweat. I’m also feeling incredibly awkward. “Alex, you were fine,” he says, “I don’t like this.” I roll my chair away.

The book says that praise or criticism should take place in an informal setting, while walking between meetings, or casually passing by someone’s desk. That way, they’re likely to be more receptive than if you officially sat them down. I wonder whether this is where I went wrong, and consider following Gareth as he goes to make a tea, but think better of it.

Throughout the day, my success is limited. I’m shooed away from a colleague’s desk after offering an impromptu bit of praise (“Your briefs are always really well written and precise,” I offer. “It is my job,” she deadpans.) Another colleague asks for an update on a piece, at which point I get an opening to offer my first critique. “The way you asked just then was a bit brusque,” I say. My face is hot and I can barely look in his direction. “Well get your work in on time then,” he shoots back.

Radical candour presupposes – and encourages – a certain level of intimacy between teammates. It’s a noble enough endeavour; Scott intends us all to build the kind of robust, caring relationships that mean giving critical or positive feedback isn’t such a huge deal.

Whether the best use of these relationships is in being constantly candid, I’m not so sure. At the close of my radically candid day I realise I’ve had more uncomfortable conversations in eight hours than in my entire three years at Stylist. On paper, it makes sense but as Steph points out, even though she works in an office that encourages candour, she keeps plenty to herself. “In practice, sometimes it’s just not worth putting someone in a bad mood.”

Consequence free candour…

We asked what you’d say if you could say anything at all…

“Scary isn’t a managerial style – it’s bullying”

 When asked to help on another team’s project: “No, I’ve got my own workload to deal with, you’re an employee, you’re getting paid, sort it out yourself”

“Would you please stop hitting the enter key so hard, the next time you do it I’m going to press enter on your head”

“Be better at your job. Why are you not better at your job when your job isn’t even that hard?”

“Please contain your insecurities. I haven’t got the energy to deal with them as there are SO MANY”

Photography: Getty Images
*name has been changed


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Alexandra Jones

Alexandra Jones is a freelance journalist and the former commissioning editor at Stylist magazine. She writes features on everything from dating to global feminism. She has bad taste in films, a penchant for pickled foodstuffs and a spiralizer that has yet to be unboxed.