“Radical candor” — have you ever needed to tell it like it is?

radical candor
Radical candor image from Matt Handal's Helpeverybodyeveryday.com eletter

Matt Handal in his 2018-year-end eletter, describes the “radical candor” concept:

“Radical candor” requires you to care personally about people, but challenge them directly. And when you are candid with people, feelings can get hurt. There really is no way to get around that.

If someone is drowning, I believe it’s your moral obligation to jump in and save them. And if they try to hop on into the pool again, you need to tell them they can’t swim and need swimming lessons (or a lifevest) before going into the pool.

In today’s corporate environment, it seems the trend is to try to be “nice” in an effort to spare people’s feelings — by not saying what needs to be said, by lying, or by just offering a verbal pat on the back. In some cases, coworkers shield people from candor in an effort to protect their feelings.

But, in my experience, this leads to two outcomes for most people. Either they continue performing below their potential (while thinking they are doing fine)…or you end up firing them (with them wondering what went wrong). And firing people doesn’t exactly spare their feelings.

In both these situations, everybody loses.

The challenge, as Handal notes, is that most people don’t take well to the candor experience and the story often does not have a happy ending.  My view is that if generally if you need to reach this stage in communicating with someone, it is probably too late for a repair job. The individual really needs to get the message through a more subtle process, in my opinion.

There are two examples to illustrate this point, both from personal experience. One is about me, the other is about a former co-worker who reappeared in my life many years after we had headed in different directions.

In the first, I was a junior reporter at the Medicine Hat News, hardly the largest metro daily in the world. I was “working” like someone on a much larger publication, waiting for assignments from the desk editor, and doing busy work around the office.

Suddenly I noticed (though the external behaviour may have been going on for some time) that people weren’t responding to me and more seriously, the editor, when there was a screw up, said “I take responsibility” and (I think) I overheard, “he won’t be here for very long, anyways”  — referring to me. There was no “radical candor” but I sure got the message at that moment.

I resolved to work like I’ve never worked in my life, and did, learning how to research and write efficiently. (I discovered that I worked best in the early morning, so arrived in the office about an hour before everyone else.) I started churning out four or five stories a day, receiving bylines for each of them.

A month later, I was called into the managing editor’s office and told: “You’re off probation.” Four months later, I sought to take on the wire editor responsibilities — a fortuitous move, because the new job gave me the opportunity to watch closely the breaking news in Africa, and set the stage for my life-defining Rhodesia/Zimbabwe journalistic embed experience a few months later.

In the second instance, a former co-worker called me to see if he could borrow some money from me. I found this to be very strange, especially when I learned he wanted to send the money to a woman in the Philipines he had met online, and was hoping to bring to Canada to marry. After a few minutes of probing, I realized this guy was a victim of the “romance scam” — and he was being taken for everything he had (and it seems, taken so far that he was trying to pull money from an ever-widening circle of friends and acquaintances.)

Over lunch, I tried hard to warn him off the relationship, speaking in the most radical candor terms possible. It didn’t work, even though I paid for the lunch. I think he sunk further into despair and angst as the ill-fated relationship drained what he had left.

In other words, while I respect the value of a frank and forthright perspective, I think that people need to “get it” through their own awareness of the signals around them, and if you really need to drop a sledge-hammer on the other person to get their attention, you probably have a hopeless case. But not doing what you need to do in this situation won’t solve the problem, either.

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