The Dangers of Radical Candor

By Jay Steven Levin

There’s a relevant blog post making the rounds currently that encourages “radical candor in workplace leaders.” It’s both well written and well thought out, and authored by a former Googler. It addresses the need for, as the author puts it, creating “bull****-free zones where people love their work and working together.”

However, inside the call for radical candor lies a hidden danger.  Leaving out the emotional intelligence dimension of this call to practice can be hazardous and unsafe. 

When summoning up our will power to speak the truth, we run a risk if we're not paying attention to which part of us is performing here! Is it ego us? Or unbiased, neutral us? Mistake one for the other and the impact we want is the last one we'll get. 

In short, calling for “radical candor” is a clarion appeal not just to practice it with others but more importantly, to practice it first within ourselves. Self-application is the critical part of the action. It is also the easiest part to forget.

Too many leaders operate only from positional authority, not influential power. In this instance, their use of candor can mask aggression. Their brutal honesty can become a self-serving weapon, protecting them from perceived threats while keeping workers at a defensive and safe distance.

One consequence of unchecked candor is fear in the person on the receiving end. Ego-driven candor can disengage, distance, de-power, and polarize—creating the opposite outcome of what leaders want and need for their long-term scalable success.

Around such leaders, team players can feel treated as if they were commodities. They can feel reduced in stature and marginalized. Their intrinsic values appear dismissed. When individual contributors become commodities, their uniqueness as a person vanishes. In addition, when employees feel like commodities in the eyes of their leaders, they can buy in to this loss of perceived value over time, and ultimately believe it to be a true refection of themselves. Multiply this effect across teams, units and divisions, and a ghost culture can rise. 

The problem with effective smack-down leaders is that all too often they tend to smack down the very players they rely on to set them up and win. In calls for candor, if self-serving only, we undervalue those who provide value.

How effective is your expression of candor? Here are 10 simple ways to measure.

Your candor is effective if:

  1. Others express their appreciation freely without your asking for it
  2. You see improvement in attitude, behavior, responsibility and skills
  3. Engagement and cooperation increases
  4. People show more positive interdependence on each other
  5. Tolerance of differences grows
  6. Diversity is encouraged
  7. Others tell less and ask more
  8. Group think happens more
  9. Fear lessens
  10. Creativity thrives

Your candor isn’t effective if:

  1. People clam up and shut down
  2. No improvements is seen across attitude, behavior, responsibility and skills
  3. Doubt and suspicion pervades
  4. Isolated subject matter expertise rules
  5. Intolerance and impatience of other points-of-view grow
  6. Territorialism and silos grow 
  7. Commanding is seen as strength; asking is seen as weakness
  8. Upper management decides without perspective from the floor
  9. Fear increases
  10. Innovation declines