Radical Candor

A Case Study in Shifting Culture

By Jessica Rothbart, MA/MBA’10

Jessica Rothbart, MA/MBA '10Meet Jordan. One of our senior-level employees, Jordan came to us with a fabulous reputation. We heard from several people who knew her outside of the office and could vouch for her being an “awesome person” and “very caring.” Internally, Jordan was causing frustration and was difficult to work with. Her colleagues didn’t understand what she wanted, and felt like she was condescending since she would often make jokes around issues instead of tackling them head-on.

At the same time as Jordan’s hire, our operations team was beginning to take a hard look at our organization’s culture. Jordan’s behavior wasn’t out of the norm. Culturally, we valued putting other’s feelings before direct feedback, and hesitated to give negative feedback out of fear that it would ruin morale or hurt someone’s feelings. Through professional development, I came across the theory of Radical Candor and was able to put a name to our culture: Ruinous Empathy.

Radical Candor is a theory first introduced by Kim Scott, a Google and Apple University executive, that states that businesses and their internal cultures would be more productive, engaged workforces if supervisors and colleagues shared more direct and honest feedback with each other. It is set up in a quadrant model that runs along the Challenge Directly spectrum (x axis) and Care Personally spectrum (y axis). Radical Candor happens when both of these levels are high: the employee knows that you care deeply about them and are giving direct feedback. Our culture fell in the Ruinous Empathy category — high marks on the Care Personally spectrum, but low on the Challenge Directly spectrum. In order to increase productivity and improve relationships, like Jordan’s and her colleagues, we knew we had to make some shifts starting with training the managers.

We showed our managers Scott’s video that gave an overview of Radical Candor. We also began a series of trainings that talked about regularized feedback with employees and how to give more instructive feedback on reviews. The use of annual reviews, mid-year goal revisions and regularized check-ins was emphasized. Feedback is key for a good relationship with managers, and as an organization that focuses on relationships in the field of Jewish education, this was a piece we wanted to get right.

According to Scott’s team, more than 75% of feedback mistakes are made within the category of Ruinous Empathy and don’t take into account the listener, only the feedback giver. Thus the “compliment sandwich method” is often ineffective. Employees grit their teeth through the compliment while waiting to hear the “but” that follows.

The hardest part of shifting the needle is modeling the behavior of Radical Candor. In the trainings, we practiced giving each other direct feedback and writing performance evaluations that delved deeper into issues of productivity. In addition, we gave supervisors a chance to edit the performance review form to reflect the types of feedback that supervisors want to give their employees. For feedback from the employees, we built a supervisor feedback form to allow for feedback to go in both directions.

For Jordan, the techniques of Radical Candor have allowed her to communicate more clearly with her colleagues and show greater productivity due to these improved relationships. Did it work for shifting our larger agency culture? Yes. We have increased productivity and newly redesigned performance reviews that target aspects of both skills and competencies in an employee’s performance.

Is it perfect? Of course not. We’ve had to make adjustments along the way and even eliminate elements like the supervisor feedback form. But by adhering to the ideals of Radical Candor, we are shifting our culture — and all in the same direction.

Jessica Rothbart is the Director of Operations and HR at The Jewish Education Project in New York City. She is an MA/MBA graduate of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University in the Class of 2010.