How radical candour could help your start-up succeed

A new, no-nonsense, cut the c**p approach to management is gaining popularity. So, is it time you were more honest as an employer?

We were all told as children that “if you’ve got nothing nice to say, say nothing at all”, but a new management technique called ‘radical candour’ could see traditional British politeness replaced by brutal honesty in the workplace.

And it’s an approach that could very well help your start-up flourish…

What is radical candour?

Attributed to former Google executive Kim Scott, the ultimate aim of radical candour is to help businesses become more productive by enabling employers to ‘care personally’ but ‘challenge directly’ their employees.

The story goes that Scott’s inspiration for the technique came from her days at Google.  Shortly after joining, Scott was giving a presentation to Google’s founders on the performance of its AdSense arm. With Scott’s department having smashed targets, she felt she had every reason to be happy with her performance in the boardroom.

Walking back to her desk with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Sandberg remarked that Scott had said “um” a lot during her presentation and suggested hiring a speaking coach.

When her offer was shrugged off by Scott, Sandberg replied: “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.” – An example of radical candour in action.

While speaking your mind as an employer, and getting your employees to do the same, might be a daunting prospect, radical candour is intended to be performed in the spirit of generosity. Think of it as a way to allow workers to wise up before, instead of after, an event, and to spare them those excruciatingly frustrating ‘why didn’t you say anything?’ moments.

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Put simply, an employer should adopt the radical candour management technique because they want to help guide and support their staff.

How can I implement radical candour in my start-up?

Like a lot of things, delivery and content is key. Radical candour isn’t a free pass for you or your employees to take a cheap shot at another staff member. Rather, it offers a chance to deliver impromptu, in-person feedback to better the performance of the receiver and the business as a whole.

Not just solely reserved for staff appraisals or monthly meetings, radical candour is intended to be conducted practically all the time and should go both ways with regards to the chain of command.

Honesty should pass from colleague to colleague, from employer to employee, and even from employee to employer.

So how can you put radical candour into practice as a start-up founder? Scott’s acronym of HHIPP should work as an adequate guideline:

Radical candour is…

  • Humble: Feedback should be assertive but respectful. Don’t raise your voice, become angry or use any expletives. Remember, you’re doing this because you care about your employees and want them to succeed.
  • Helpful: Radical candour isn’t a dressing down for the sake of it – feedback should be constructive and benefit your employee. They should walk away from your conversation more informed and more knowledgeable.Scott has  referred to the process as “criticism rebranded as a gift.”
  • Immediate: You should seek to relay feedback to your employee immediatelyu– ideally on the spot or once you’re in a suitable setting. (see below)
  • In Person: Feedback should be given in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise. Expect the same of your employees also – the process goes both ways.
  • Never Personalise: You are criticising the employee’s action not the employee. For example: Don’t tell them “you WERE unprepared” say “you SOUNDED unprepared”.

The possible benefits of radical candour for a start-up business

Once you’ve worked out how you’ll implement radical candour in your office – what possible benefits could it bring to your start-up? We explore a few perks:

  1. Radical candour promotes a culture of guidance:
    Constant feedback and guidance will enable employees to learn quicker ‘on-the-job’ and upskill much faster than they would have otherwise. It also provides safe spaces and opportunities for employees to offer their own guidance.
  2. Radical candour puts an end to office politics:
    A clearer and more open approach to  praise and criticism should support greater staff cohesion.
  3. Radical candour promotes efficiency:
    On-the-spot reviews and feedback should see much needed-changes implemented quicker. It ensures problems are dealt with and resolved instantly, not when the next staff meeting or one-to-one rolls up.
  4. Radical candour provides clarity:
    Radical candour ensures feedback isn’t misinterpreted or lost over formal emails. Better yet, recipients can ask for instant clarification if needed.
  5. Radical candour prevents a build-up of frustration:
    If you notice an employee repeatedly making the same mistakes, this can become frustrating and, if  not dealt with, could build up – turning a minor inconvenience into a big problem.
  6. Radical candour improves honesty:
    While employees can find it difficult to handle praise and/or criticism, radical candour ensures employees aren’t left second guessing as to what you actually mean and will be able to take things immediately at face value.

Possible drawbacks of radical candour for a start-up business

Due to its overly honest approach, radical candour has been met with some trepidation about how it could negatively impact businesses.

Here are a few issues you may need to watch out for:

  1. Radical candour goes against the grain:
    British culture and the British psyche has traditionally seen employers and employees hold back on sharing what they actually think. The very direct approach of radical candour certainly seems at odds with how most people operate. Similarly, with an increasingly diverse workforce, some people take direct criticism a lot better than others – no matter how it is delivered.
  2. Radical candour isn’t for everyone:
    While it’s designed to go both ways, on a practical level, your employees may not be prepared to deliver criticism to someone further up the company hierachy – especially face to face. This would defeat radical candour’s purpose of creating a culture of guidance and equal honesty among ALL staff.
  3. Work is personal:
    While you can try to avoid personalising employee feedback, for some employees their work is personal and they may find it hard to disconnect the two. For example, if you express concern over a salesperson’s inability to sell, or a graphic designer’s lack of creativity, you’re effectively damning their skill set.
  4. Emotions can get the best of us:
    Though all good business owners know how to keep a cool head, the reality of a situation can see politeness go out the window. Remember that radical candour requires you to remain humble and calm.

Case in point: The start-ups already using radical candour

While by no means a standard management technique in the UK just yet, start-ups and larger businesses alike are beginning to catch on to the idea of adopting frank feedback in the workplace.

London-based start-up Charlie HR uses radical candour and has said that its existence has put an end to office politics.

In an interview with Buzzfeed, Charlie HR co-founder Rob O’Donovan noted that “to start off, it is a bit weird”:

“People are used to having awkward conversations and not being able to walk past each other in the corridor afterwards. Whereas here it’s like: Bang, we’re happy families again.”

Indeed, every Monday all 13 employees and co-founders at the start-up gather for a meeting to discuss the feedback they received in the previous week and share their attempts to make improvements:

“I had some frank feedback from Rob that I’d been defensive in a few situations where I was challenged. It was really good to have that flagged to me”; chief operating officer and co-founder Ben Gateley told his colleagues – as reported by Buzzfeed.

“I had feedback berating me for sending really long emails. Sorry. I’ll try and be clearer and more concise” said O’Donovan.

However, some of the criticism was less restrained:

“I got some pretty savage feedback. I’m paraphrasing here, but I’ve been told that what I say is quite shit and I should stop moping around like a big goth” said software engineer Chris Butcher.

Did this criticism offend Butcher? Apparently not – “I like it to be raw. The more outlandish it is, and the more passion and strength of feeling there is behind it, the better. For me it shows that the person a) trusts me with handling it, and b) hasn’t left anything unsaid by the end of it.”

Joe Griston, European regional director at, feels the same.

His crowdsourcing marketplace has implemented radical candour ever since the company’s inception in 2009 and has extended this technique to its open disclosure approach – employees see all of the information that the CEO sees, including revenue:

“Every single employee has access to all this data and they constantly analyse this information. It is a real meritocracy where everyone’s opinion is equal, as every opinion is provable by data”; Griston tells

For Griston, impromptu and open feedback helps make workers feel more reassured and relaxed, because they know exactly where they stand:

“I have never understood yearly performance reviews. Why would I wait months to tell someone they did a good or bad job? [It] makes zero sense to me. It also creates a culture of fear as these reviews make employees nervous.

“If every employee always knows their exact value to the company, they feel empowered and are easily rewarded, or they know exactly where they need to improve. This creates an amazing culture, without the need to hire middle managers, usually of dubious quality, to try and fix culture by implementing processes or games, this rarely works.”

Griston’s advice for a start-up considering adopting radical candour? Go for it – “The world of work today is very different from how it was 20 years ago, so why are you using 20-year-old management techniques?”

Want more advice on ways to manage staff? Click here. Or, for advice on hiring and recruiting, click here.


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