Embracing radical candor: How to build a culture of giving great feedback

Two people walking outside speaking

7 mins, 34 secs read time

Managers’ jobs are to guide a team to deliver results, and they are able to do that well in a sustained way—not because they exhibit power, control, or authority, but because they nurture and enhance a set of human relationships around them. Giving and receiving feedback is the single most crucial aspect of building those relationships.

But not all organizations have a good process for providing feedback. Organizations that do feedback poorly tend to be dysfunctional, suffering from underperformance, lower employee engagement, and attrition.

The organizations that do feedback well, on the other hand, tend to thrive: they’re more productive and employees are happier. The teams that are best at feedback are able to make themselves better—they can challenge each other with minimal defensiveness. Debate happens vigorously and in the open. Decisions get made and actions are taken, and those teams learn from the new context created by their actions.

People on those teams tend to care about each other. They have a shared sense that team success and individual success are intertwined. They’re tuned into each other’s values and career aspirations and are actively trying to help one another move towards those aspirations.

These teams exhibit Radical Candor, the ability to give feedback in a way that challenges people directly but also shows you care about them personally.

By building a culture of Radical Candor, you can help teams build strong relationships, be more productive, and ultimately, encourage everyone to do the best work of their careers. Here are 3 steps for building this culture of feedback in your organization:

Step 1: Establish guidelines for feedback quality and process

The first step in building a culture of Radical Candor is to teach your organization what great feedback looks like, both in terms of quality and process.

High quality feedback, as described above, challenges people directly while also showing that you care personally. When you do both of these things, feedback is “Radically Candid.” At Candor, we’re building tools to help people be more Radically Candid, and we’ve illustrated Radical Candor as a simple 2x2 framework:

In other words, giving high quality feedback means specifically telling people what you think while also being sincere and kind—in a nutshell, caring about them as a person.

Focusing on the process for delivering feedback is also important to make sure feedback is effective and scalable. Two of the most crucial guidelines for a good feedback process are to 1) deliver feedback immediately, and 2) deliver feedback in person.

With these guidelines for quality and process in mind, here are two ways to start teaching Radical Candor to your organization:

  1. Build a shared vocabulary and understand the concepts: Start by explaining the ideas behind quality feedback and process to your company in your own words. This helps build understanding of the terms so that everyone can describe their intentions. We also find it helpful to share stories that help illustrate the concepts. Once everyone understands the vocabulary to use, it’s easier to be aligned around the goal and feel comfortable changing behavior.

  2. Set an example: Help your people managers to identify and articulate where they haven’t used Radical Candor. By communicating to their teams that they, themselves, want to improve, they’ll show the organization that they’re serious about the cultural shift. They can prove that they mean it simply by asking for the team’s help. They can ask their teams to rate their feedback. By building a collaborative process, your people managers will improve their own impromptu feedback quicker, and this will help their teams see first-hand the impact of Radical Candor. When the team starts to see the improvements, they’ll also be encouraged to make the change themselves.

Step 2: Teach leaders to live the feedback culture

For a strong feedback culture to develop in your organization, you need leaders at every level to buy into and demonstrate the values of great feedback daily. You can approach this by encouraging and providing training on 4 habits that will build employee-manager, peer-to-peer, and cross-team relationships:

  1. Give feedback: Teach leaders how to give better feedback to those around them. By introducing Radical Candor, you’ll help them start thinking about this, and you can provide regular training and reminders around the attributes of high quality feedback and feedback processes.

  2. Get feedback: Teach leaders how to engender “real talk” from members of their teams. It’s hard—they will have to work extra hard to get people to say what they really think. Here are some of the techniques you can teach them:

  • Have a go-to question: You might try, “What can I do differently to make it easier for you to work with me?” or “How can I help support your success on this project?” Find a way to phrase it that feels comfortable to you.

  • Embrace the discomfort: After asking for feedback, be quiet and fight the urge to fill in the silence. Count to 7 and commit to allowing the other person to speak first.

  • Listen with the intent to understand: Don’t interrupt or argue when someone gives you feedback. Don’t cross-examine by asking questions such as “Can you give me some examples?” Just listen, and check for understanding. Make sure you truly understand their point of view.

  • Reward the candor: Reward their act of providing feedback by thanking them sincerely and by making visible changes based on the feedback. People won’t take the risk if there’s no payoff.

Encourage feedback: Teach leaders how to encourage people on their teams to give feedback to each other directly. This will help promote collaboration and relationships outside reporting lines, amplifying the impact of good feedback. Here are some dos and don’ts that you can teach leaders (and demonstrate yourself as well!):

  • Do encourage people to talk directly: When someone on the team tells a leader about something great a colleague did, the leader should insist they share that feedback directly. Also, when there are issues, insist that people try to work it out directly. Leaders must be consistent with both parties that the expectation is that they should try to hammer it out directly first because they likely have the best context and data to resolve.

  • Don’t triangulate: People often have nice things to say about their colleagues. They also often have issues. In either case, leaders need to get out of the business of being a shuttle diplomat when there are personal issues or opportunities among colleagues or disagreements over one course of action versus another. For praise, it’s important for people to hear directly from their colleagues about what they think is going well and why. For criticism, talking with each side individually may seem like being an empathetic listener, but almost invariably it means accruing a heavily tilted, one-sided conversation, replete with bias.

  • Do recommend that people escalate together: For conflict and criticism, let’s not be naive. It’s not always feasible for two people to work it out without an intervention. Once you’re satisfied they’ve really tried to make it work, make it clear they can escalate it to you together. The accountability of being forced to tell each side of the story with the other present helps guard against the implications and exaggerations that come with triangulation.

  • Do use a system of peer recognition: Many companies have simple processes by which peers can recognize each other. For example, you can create an internal location or system where people can post “shout-outs” and tag the person who is getting the praise, so they see it. The company then also sees the praise. These types of systems help widely communicate what success looks like.

Gauge feedback: Teach leaders that feedback is measured at the listener’s ear, not at the speaker’s mouth. Someone could give the exact same feedback—same words, same body language, same tone of voice—to two different people, and one could experience that feedback as harsh and uncaring, and the other could experience that feedback as Radically Candid. Leaders can much better understand how their feedback is received by asking others to gauge it.

Step 3: Stay committed

The trend is clear: Organizations are trying to move toward immediate feedback and away from big, formal “feedback save-ups.” It’s worth seeing this through, but your organization won’t build a feedback culture and become Radically Candid overnight. There will be successes and misses and readjustments over time; it’s almost impossible to be Radically Candid 100% of the time. You’ll need to re-educate teams, provide additional training for leaders, and teach the framework during onboarding. But if you stay committed to this education process, you and your teams will see the benefit of having a feedback culture, and the improvements will keep gaining momentum. But it’s important to know—and to explain to your organization—that it will take practice and continued intention to ensure that your feedback culture thrives.

For more insights from Greenhouse customers and partners, be sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter, The Modern Recruiter.