Radical honesty — giving better feedback

Hand holding mega-phone, purple background.

“Radical honesty” is a phrase I’ve been throwing out recently – manifesting as more talk than actions in some cases. Perhaps, though, when I started saying it, I didn’t understand quite the nuance of what I wanted to deliver. Recently, I read an interview with musician Amanda Palmer, who compellingly talks about this:

I find myself constantly torn between honesty and compassion, because I realise that my ageing teenage style of radical honesty is not necessarily always compassionate. If you want to be a good feminist and a good humanist, your job is not to make people angry and upset all the time; your job is to proceed with compassion.

— Amanda Palmer

If we talk about radical honesty in a work or team context, we usually mean giving feedback. The dictionary definition of feedback is the return of information about the result of a process or activity to encourage more active behaviour in the future.

I’ve worked in work environments where we haven’t had feedback for months for fear of hurt feelings or pure laziness. At the other end of the gradient, there’s the Bridgewater Associates approach. Led by Ray Dalio, the hedge fund operates on a culture of “radical transparency”, meaning all feedback is open and anyone can critique anyone else – the key element being that it is all done openly. After every meeting and action, people are encouraged to rank and comment upon their colleagues from the bottom of the org to the top. One example is ranking the top 200 managers by performance publically. (To learn more about this, Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast has a revealing interview with Dalio and his team. It also has the best advert I’ve ever heard on a podcast – get out the tissues 😢).

Kim Scott of Candour Inc. calls this rough and ready-to-give approach obnoxious aggression. A gentler, more effective approach could be Scott’s “radical candour”. Radical candour results from a combination of caring personally and challenging directly.

In her book Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean, Scott uses a quadrant to teach teams the concept: “The vertical axis is caring personally, and the horizontal axis is challenging directly, you want your feedback to fall in the upper right-hand quadrant. That’s where radical candour lies.”

Long story short, the radical part perhaps comes from the innovative or progressive part, to be honest with one’s opinion rather than hiding it. The British nature, in particular, is to clam up once anything gets personal, which is to say, no one wants to seem vulnerable (Dolly Alderton wrote a great piece recently on how gendered it can all get, with men being applauded for showing emotions. Ladies, stop crying, jk.)

So why don’t we ditch radical? Let’s take the compassionate angle to honesty, telling people things they should hear but coming from a place of caring. Looking at the origins of the word honesty, it means truth, certainly, but there’s also an element of ethics and integrity.

Easier said than done of course, but I find the more vulnerability you show, the more others are willing to open up to you. The only way we have growth is through change and to risk failing. Or achieve the first attempt at learning. Proceed with compassion for all parties, including yourself.

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