The Art of Asking for Radically Candid Feedback

She praised her for how well the presentation had gone, but then she said, “You know, when you say ‘um’ every other word, you sound stupid.”

October 17, 2017

A few years ago, Kim Scott was a manager at Google, overseeing their AdWords division. She had just given a presentation to the leadership team about their skyrocketing revenues. She thought she had nailed it. Yet, leaving the meeting, her boss Sheryl Sandberg pulled Kim aside. She praised her for how well the presentation had gone, but then she said, “You know, when you say ‘um’ every other word, you sound stupid.”

Kim was thunderstruck. Yet, she was able to take Sheryl’s feedback to heart. They already had a strong relationship built on personal trust. Kim ended up hiring a speaking coach at Sheryl’s recommendation, and her respect for her boss deepened. Ultimately, Kim coined a term for the type of leadership Sheryl demonstrated that day: radical candor—the ability to both care personally while challenging someone directly. Today, Kim has consulted for a wide array of Silicon Valley companies ranging from Twitter to Dropbox and, across these experiences, she’s found that the best leaders are not only able to dole out radically candid feedback but they also start by asking for feedback first.

In this exclusive interview with +Acumen, Kim lays out her four-part framework for how to get Radical Candor—before you dish it out—and become a more effective leader in the process. Regardless of your job title or status, these tips are designed to help you build better relationships with the people you interact with every day so that you can all do your best work.

4 Steps to Get Radically Candid Feedback from Your Colleagues

Kim found that one CEO in Silicon Valley liked phrasing his question as: “Is there anything I could do (or stop doing!) to make me easier to work with?”

Step 1: Come up with your “go-to question” to elicit Radical Candor.

If you ask someone point blank—“Do you have any feedback for me?”—she will probably brush off the question. It’s hard to answer on the spot and the timing is offbeat.

Especially if you’re in a leadership position, you’ll need to ask a question that your employees feel comfortable responding to. Instead of jumping into the deep end, you start small and build trust.

Develop a question that will feel comfortable for you to ask at the end of 1:1 meetings. Your question should fit with your personality rather than feeling too forced.

Kim found that one CEO in Silicon Valley liked phrasing his question as: “Is there anything I could do (or stop doing!) to make me easier to work with?” Another used the more colorful phrase, “Tell me why I’m smoking crack!” to encourage her direct reports to point out flaws in her logic.

Whatever your style, think about a few possible questions that feel natural to you. It may take a few rounds of experimentation to get it right, but then start (and keep!) asking your question on a regular basis.

Step 2: Embrace the discomfort.

After you ask your “go-to question,” pause and get ready to really listen. Kim recommends counting to six in your head. Don’t jump in and try to erase the awkwardness. Hold the space for the person to digest the question.

...by forcing people to embrace the silence until they could suggest a change.

Usually, the other person will eventually break the silence by making a suggestion about something you could change. Staying silent will signal that you are serious about hearing their input.

To illustrate the importance of waiting for feedback, Kim loves to tell a story from the early days of Toyota.

The Japanese car manufacturer was desperate to have their frontline employees offer feedback on issues they were observing on the factory floor. Yet, in the Japanese culture, employees were extremely resistant to offer anything that could be perceived as criticism of their superiors.

Eventually, managers at the company painted a giant red box on the floor. At the end of the first week, new hires had to stand in that box until they could come up with at least one suggestion. In this way, Toyota started to encourage a culture of candid dialogue—by forcing people to embrace the silence until they could suggest a change.

Step 3: Listen with the intent to understand.

So you’ve asked your question. You’ve remained silent until someone has spoken up. Now you have to do the really hard work—you need to listen.

This is not always going to be pleasant. Your coworkers might get uncomfortable as they start to speak their truth. You might start hearing things about the way you act that feel challenging or threatening. However, it’s important that you don’t get defensive; that’s just your ego. You need to listen with the intent to understand and to move forward together.

Acting upon the feedback you received will be the clearest signal to your team that you really care about what they have to say.

At this stage, focus on practicing empathy to truly feel the person’s point of view as accurately as possible. Kim suggests you “learn to rephrase” to make sure you heard what the other person is saying. She recommends using the phrase, “Just to check for understanding…” and then restating what you heard to ensure you’ve grasped the details correctly.

If your hear feedback that you don’t fully understand, ask clarifying questions. Stay curious! Remember, you asked for this candor; your work evolves in unpacking the feedback and figuring out what the next steps are to build progress.

Step 4: Reward the candor.

Finally, no matter what the other person said, reward their candor. Thank them for giving you feedback and be genuine with your appreciation —what many organizations severely lack is a culture of feedback.

If you heard criticism that you agree is valid, offer practical steps for how you will address it. You may not be able to supply all these ideas in the moment, but take careful notes and then follow up as quickly as possible once you’ve had a chance to digest the input and come up with a plan.

Acting upon the feedback you received will be the clearest signal to your team that you really care about what they have to say.

If you don’t agree with all the feedback that was given to you, try to find at least one thing the person said that you agree with. Kim calls this finding “the kernel of truth.” Then point out the other things you might disagree with by using a phrase like, “I’m not so sure about the other things you said…”

Explain why you disagree in a calm and methodical way. Try not to get defensive and keep in mind that you may need to ask for more time to process everything you’ve heard.

Once you’ve gone through these steps and signaled to your team or coworkers that you are genuinely interested in hearing—and acting upon—their input, the feedback will likely keep coming.

That’s how we improve our work.

Keep rewarding radical candor.

Keep asking for it.

Keep encouraging your direct reports and teams you work with to give feedback to each other. Once you’ve built this healthy culture of radical candor and shown that you can take it when the challenges are directed your way, your team will be more likely to listen when you start challenging them directly too.

At its core, Kim’s concept of Radical Candor is not just about being audacious and direct in your appraisal of others, but also practicing humility. She chose the word “candor” instead of “honesty” because she wanted to emphasize that no single person is going to the arbiter of the truth. Instead, we all have only partial understandings of every situation and need to get as much input from others as we give.

You can learn how to effectively get, give and gauge Radical Candor in our upcoming Master Class with Kim Scott.

Spread Positive Change

NEVER MISS A POST

SIGN UP FOR THE +A JOURNAL TODAY.

Newsletter Form




Need assistance with this form?