marketing strategy

The case for being frank and forthright

There are a couple of things we learn when young that impact our behaviour as bosses.  The first, say out loud the nice things, don’t say the not-so-nice things.  The second, when we join a work environment, everyone tells us that we need to be professional.  In other words, caring more about the process rather than the person.  These can result in significant dissonance.  Dissonance between what we think and what we say.  Dissonance in how well an employee thinks they’re performing, and how their boss perceives their performance.

Let’s say, Employee X is not doing his job well.  His output is not up to the mark.  For an external observer, the obvious thing to do is to tell him he’s not performing.  Then understand the issues leading to sub-optimal performance, and work towards improving performance.  The trouble is that its difficult to give honest feedback.

In these situations, we typically fall-back on one of two behaviours.  One, we give the person an ultimatum to improve performance.  Without trying to understand what’s causing the under-performance.  We construe our professionalism to mean being impersonal.  The second behaviour which is common is to try to be ‘nice’, without explicitly addressing the gaps in the performance.  That means we don’t give direct feedback.  We package our feedback in a way we think will not hurt the person. Then we ‘wait and watch’ and hope for a magical performance improvement.  That doesn’t happen.

These behaviours are nicely described by Kim Scott in her book, Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity.  The fundamental construct is a 2 by 2 matrix with the axes being ‘Care Personally’ and ‘Challenge Directly’.  She argues that ‘Radical Candor’ is when a boss both challenges directly and cares personally.  Anything else leads to sub-optimal outcomes.

The Radical Candor Framework above is a trademark of Radical Candor, LLC (

Telling it like it is (while caring) is something you should consider in every aspect of your professional (and I would argue personal) life.  Whether it’s telling a client that something they say or do isn’t the best idea.  Or it’s telling your boss that you think there’s a better way to do something.  Or it’s telling a loyal employee that there are certain areas where they could do better.

A common argument against radical candour is that it spoils relationships.  Sometimes it does.  But most times it sets the stage for an honest relationship and makes everyone progress.  It significantly reduces the dissonance between what you think and what you say.  Which in turn reduces stress. For the times that being candid spoils a relationship, examine what you could have done better.  You might have communicated your views better.  Or had a better basis before sharing a candid view.  Yet, you can’t win them all.  There will be relationships which sour over your candour.  There’s not much you can do about them.

Not being candid is another form of procrastination.  Postponing telling the truth about something which isn’t up to the mark.  But once you’ve postponed candour, there’s never really a right time for it.  It leaves everyone uncertain and when candour can’t be postponed any longer, it becomes a difficult conversation.  You’ve been saying ‘A’ all along, suddenly you are saying ‘B’.  It difficult for the candour “postponer” and it’s confusing for the candour “receiver”.  This sets everyone nicely on a vicious cycle of not speaking their mind.

Agree then disagree?

One common method used by those who believe in candour is to ‘agree, then disagree’.  So, you listen and agree with all a person has to say, and then give your views.  Often, diametrically opposite to what the person has just said.  This often works.  Yet, don’t do it too often.  The feedback receiver might agree with what you have to say.  But, since you haven’t been explicitly candid on your disagreement with their views, they still won’t understand why that thinking may be faulty.  So, while you might have convinced the person ‘what to think’ in this specific instance, you haven’t changed the ‘how to think’.  And what’s the point of feedback if it doesn’t change how a person thinks?

What has been your experience with being frank? Share your comments!

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