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Practicing Radical Candor in the Creative Workplace

by Jennifer Williams

A redbit by Jennifer Williams

Most of us believe in the truth behind the English proverb, “Honesty is the best policy,” and believe it applies to our relationships. We’ll tell our partner when he has spinach in his teeth. We’ll let our friend know if no, maybe she can’t pull off that outfit. This type of honesty forms the basics of a sound relationship. But when it comes to relationships in the work environment….the principle gets a little, well, prickly. Why do we find it difficult to tell coworkers or employees the sticky truth about an issue that might be holding them back?

Kim Scott, an entrepreneur, executive and executive coach, wrote the book on what she coined as “radical candor,” a communication practice that gets you over your qualms about giving needed (possibly negative) feedback in a way that honors, not ignores, the whole person. But there are easy ways to get it wrong…which is why we hesitate to give honest feedback in the first place. And working in a creative industry specifically poses its own set of challenges in this area—our success requires an environment where ideas can flow freely without the threat of perceived judgement.

Scott says to imagine a graph with the two axes labeled “caring personally” and “challenging directly.” In more memorable language she calls them the axes of “Give a Damn” and “Willingness to Piss People Off.” The sweet spot — caring personally about the individual while also challenging them directly is “radical candor.” Practicing it in the agency setting means playing an active role in the growth of our teammates by offering direct, in-the-moment, honest and constructive criticisms that are in service to both the work and our clients’ needs.

Radical candor stems from the idea that interpersonal relationships are the foundation to achieving goals as a company. When relationships are strengthened with radical candor, three things happen:

  • You create an honest culture of feedback that yields growth as both individuals and a collective team.
  • You understand that people are people — caring about them as humans can motivate them well enough so as to avoid burnout or boredom and keep your team cohesive.
  • Lastly, you drive results collaboratively. Which drives additional team performance.

She writes, “If you think that you can do these things without strong relationships, you are kidding yourself.” And building these relationships not only serves ourselves as a team of humans, but it also directly fulfills our company’s mission statement: to create an environment where creativity thrives. Trust in each other’s skills and potential is a crucial step in doing so.

In order to build strong relationships, it’s important to know what to avoid. The following are pitfalls to avoid when attempting radical candor:

1. Obnoxious Aggression

When we feel threatened or don’t understand or agree with someone’s choices, we may communicate in a way that challenges the other person without regard to them as a human.

If someone’s actions seem way off-base and your inner monologue is saying, “no, you idiot!,” don’t spout off. Instead, seek understanding. Don’t make assumptions; go to the person directly and ask questions until you have a full picture. Still disagree with them? That’s ok! Provide candor in the context of serving them.

2. Manipulative Insincerity

When we want to keep the peace so we can move on to the next thing, or are generally in a hurry, we may communicate with someone in a way that doesn’t challenge them or their actions, and isn’t really caring for them personally. It’s when we choose the path of least resistance.

If you’re about to say something that you think will boost someone up (so you can move on), but inside you’re sighing and eye-rolling, chances are you’re about to fall into this trap. Ask yourself instead how you can turn the thing that’s nagging at you into a concrete piece of feedback that will help the person grow.

3. Ruinous Empathy

Our personal feelings for someone we like can inhibit our ability to give meaningful, direct feedback. We may communicate with this type of person in a way that is based in caring for them personally but fails to challenge them. We offer platitudes or the vague “oh yeah, it’s fine!” and hope the shortcoming or issue will work itself out naturally.

“Fine” is never really fine. If something isn’t correct or up to standard, assume that it won’t work out naturally and that you are the only, last hope — speak up as quickly as possible. If you really like them, you’ll prove you care, and speaking honestly does just that.



So now that we know what to avoid, how do we do it right in a creative setting? A few tips:

  1. Make sure that your feedback on a proposed solution, strategy, or plan is outcome-oriented — “X is likely to happen if we do nothing about Y.”
  2. Seek deep understanding and ask questions! The other person’s motivations are likely in service to your shared goals—plus, they can unlock new paths of thinking (a crucial element of any agency’s work, as we know there is never just one right answer).
  3. Be holistic. Mention what’s working in the context of the issue that’s causing problems, but avoid the dreaded “compliment sandwich.”
  4. Make it clear that the feedback is in service to the person — just as if they had spinach in their teeth. 
  5. Make it discreet when necessary. Protect their ability to propose out-of-the-box solutions without the fear of judgement—that’s often where the best ideas come from. Give negative feedback directly and in private; give praise in public.
  6. Ask for it back. Relationships are their strongest if radical candor is reciprocated.

The goal is to push our creative work and ourselves as people forward by building a foundation of strong interpersonal relationships. We spend a lot of time with our teammates, so we should make that time meaningful and honest. If we’re more open about issues and shortcomings, without ego, competitiveness, or our own fears getting in the way, then we’re more poised for growth — as a humans, as a community that spends a lot of time together and as a profitable, creative company. And that’s the truth.

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