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The Career Lessons of Tough Love, aka ‘Radical Candor’


Former Google and Apple University employee Kim Scott is making waves with her approach toward clearing the air at work. Much like Festivus’ “airing of grievances,” her theory of “radical candor” can be a saving grace when you’re out to make a co-worker or report a better and happier employee. While we’re often taught that if we don’t have anything nice to say, we shouldn’t say anything at all, her approach gets out ahead of problems before they become unresolvable.


(Photo Credit: JD Hancock/Flickr)

When speaking at a recent CEO Summit, Scott told a story of a presentation she gave while employed at Google. After the meeting, which touted the success of Google’s AdSense business, her boss Sheryl Sandberg took her aside for a chat which started with a compliment, but ended somewhere very different…

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“Finally she said, ‘But you said um a lot.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, no big deal. I know, I do that. But who cared if I said um when I had the tiger by the tail?'”

Sandberg asked whether Scott’s ums were because she was nervous. She offered that Google could provide her a speaking coach to get past that quirk. Scott didn’t think much of Sandberg’s concern, assuming it just wasn’t that big of a deal.

“Finally, Sheryl said, ‘You know, Kim, I can tell I’m not really getting through to you. I’m going to have to be clearer here. When you say um every third word, it makes you sound stupid.'”

“Now, that got my attention!” Scott said.

The Keys to Radical Candor

It’s about operating on two helpful axes, the “Care Personally” vertical and the “Challenge Directly” horizontal. Scott has a helpful acronym to help you put it into practice: HHIPP.

“Radical candor is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person — in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise — and it doesn’t personalize.” Keep that in mind. “My boss didn’t say, ‘You’re stupid.’ She said, ‘You sounded stupid when you said um.’ There’s a big difference between the two.”

radical candor 

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Candor Goes Up as Well as Down the Chain of Command

Scott advocates that managers as well as those they manage be encouraged to share radical candor. After all, if you sit and avoid an issue, it can only get worse.

“If you’re a manager of managers, you need to make sure that everyone on your team feels they can criticize their boss,” Scott said.

This doesn’t mean ganging up on the boss and making a hostile environment, but instead, hosting a meeting where direct reports get to have candid feedback about their boss. With everyone aware that this meeting is happening well in advance (so nobody gets blind-sided) and with anonymous but carefully noted feedback provided to the boss (by their own boss, who should run the meeting and take notes personally).

“These meetings are a way of avoiding the situation where stuff is happening down in your organization that makes your skin crawl when it comes to light,” Scott said.

There’s a lot to Kim Scott’s radical candor approach, and she’s even turning her thoughts into a book, due to be published in 2016 by St. Martin’s Press.

Tell Us What You Think

Would you practice radical candor at work? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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