Tell It Like It Is: Radical Candor Is the Feedback Method Your Startup Needs
This article is included in Entrepreneur Voices on Strategic Management, a new book containing insights from more than 20 contributors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.
Honesty is key when it comes to feedback. But many leaders are inhibiting growth by not being honest enough with their employees.
What does true honesty look like? A spokesperson for online clothing retailer Thread shared with BuzzFeed an example of the typical feedback an employee might receive from the CEO, which reads: “We often have moments in conversations where you quickly say your point, then stop abruptly and look at me nervously, bracing yourself and trying to perceive my reaction. It makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes you seem less confident.”
This type of blunt feedback has a name: Radical Candor. While many entrepreneurs shudder at the thought of being so straightforward with their employees, Radical Candor has proven to be successful at startups like Thread.
This process works because young companies don’t have the time or resources to play games when it comes to office politics or passive-aggressive approaches. And because expectations change so frequently in startups, employees need to have a clear idea of what’s expected.
Honest feedback also keeps employees engaged. A survey from Officevibe shows that 98 percent of employees aren’t engaged in their work when they don’t receive feedback; Radical Candor helps keep employees on track so companies can grow.
How Radical Candor can jump-start growth
The most valuable asset entrepreneurs have is their people, so it’s important to make the most of them. At Sapper Consulting, our team consists of people with varied backgrounds and experiences, and some of our best ideas have come from our “green” employees.
Radical Candor helps these young and inexperienced employees grow much faster -- it allows managers to correct problematic behaviors immediately. This, in turn, allows B players to grow into A players and A players to become all-stars. Even all-stars have room for improvement, and Radical Candor allows every employee to reach his or her full potential.
Employees also trust their team members more because they know if there’s something they can be doing better, someone will tell them -- no more wondering where they stand or if they’re being kept in the dark. Our company’s employees are given the autonomy to make their own decisions because they know someone will inform them if they’re not doing their jobs properly.
While Radical Candor helps employees grow and gain trust, it can also be used to help leaders “fire fast.” When managers and employees are honest about feedback, it doesn’t take long for leaders to determine good cultural fits and bad ones.
Radical Candor can have a profound effect on productivity and growth, but it needs to be implemented the right way to avoid negative results:
1. Have the right intent.
Implemented the wrong way, Radical Candor can quickly transform into bullying in the workplace. Radical Candor is about truly investing in other employees to help them improve, not complaining about or making fun of people. After an employee receives feedback, she should feel like the other person was trying to help her improve, not berate her.
It’s also possible to be gentle while being honest. For example, a manager could approach an employee and say, “I’d like to try to understand why you’ve been consistently turning work in late.” The goal is to open up a dialogue to get to the root of the problem without being hurtful.
Kim Scott, the creator of Radical Candor, explained in a blog post for First Round Capital that Sheryl Sandberg, her boss at the time, helped spark the idea after Scott gave a presentation to the executive team at Google.
After Scott finished her presentation, Sandberg mentioned to her that she used many filler words (such as “um”) while speaking. At first, Scott brushed it off, thinking it wasn’t a big deal. But then Sandberg said to her, “When you say ‘um’ every third word, it makes you sound stupid.” Scott took notice and realized she had room for improvement.
2. Make it a habit.
Giving feedback needs to become a habit. Don’t wait until monthly or quarterly meetings to address issues; address them as quickly as possible.
However, it’s important to always give negative feedback in private -- never in front of a group. Whenever I see an opportunity for feedback, I pull that person aside and discuss it with him or her. This gives employees the chance to make immediate improvements rather than letting them keep repeating mistakes until they’re corrected in a quarterly meeting.
In addition, employees who don’t receive continuous feedback often feel nervous when it’s time for reviews. When employees are used to receiving feedback on a regular basis, it feels normal and doesn’t induce anxiety.
Employees who regularly receive feedback are also more likely to be engaged in their work. According to Officevibe, 43 percent of employees who are engaged in their work receive feedback at least once a week. That leads to happier employees and increased company growth.
3. Include everyone.
In a Radical Candor system, everyone’s on a level playing field. The CEO should be able to receive feedback from an entry-level employee, and the executive team shouldn’t be held to a different standard than everyone else. We ask all of our new hires to give feedback to the CEO or executive team during their first week on the job. That way, they’ll understand the culture and feel more comfortable giving and receiving feedback.
Executives also need to be open to feedback in order for the Radical Candor system to be effective. Career company Levo and career expert Vicki Salemi discussed this topic with Millennials to learn more about how lower-level employees interact with bosses. One accounting employee shared her story about how she discussed her working style with her manager.
She said she sat down with her manager to figure out a way the two could communicate more clearly, and he was very receptive to her ideas; he wanted to make the learning process as efficient as possible. This type of open dialogue between employees and managers not only eases workplace relationships, but it also increases efficiency.
4. Keep it specific and actionable.
Only give feedback that is helpful and can lead to change. For example, rather than saying, “You’re constantly late for meetings,” say, “I’ve noticed you’re consistently late for meetings. I’ve found that reviewing my schedule first thing every morning has helped me stay organized, and it may help you as well.”
Positive feedback should also be specific: A simple “Great job today” doesn’t sound as sincere as “You did a great job leading our meeting today.”
All employees (even the all-stars) have room for improvement, and a combination of positive and negative feedback helps employees grow -- in fact, 72 percent of employees said their performances would improve with helpful feedback from their managers, according to a survey from Harvard Business Review.
Growth is critical for startups, and it all begins with feedback. Radical Candor is a global phenomenon in the startup world, and it can lead to a more trusting and collaborative work environment (and tremendous company growth).