Don’t have anything nice to say? Say it caringly.

We’ve probably all heard it before, be it as rambunctious children, opinionated teenagers, or earnest young professionals: if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. It’s often well-intentioned advice meant to keep the peace and spare people’s feelings, but according to former Google director and Apple University faculty member Kim Scott, it’s the kind of advice that can seriously impede the health and growth of any organization, team or relationship – especially when things are tough.

"The fact is, leading, building, and growing a successful company requires having a few difficult conversations along the way."

We’ve had to learn that the hard way. And oftentimes, the communication decisions we make in times of discomfort prove to be the ultimate litmus tests of an organizations’ maturity and ability to weather storms through honesty and transparency.

That’s where Kim’s trademarked notion of Radical Candor comes into play.

Since its release in 2017, her book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity has become a constant point of reference and source of inspiration for the Workleap team. Now passed around the office as a rite of passage for newcomers and a friendly reminder for old-timers, it appeared on our co-founder Simon’s radar at a rather propitious moment: he’d started wondering if Workleap's so-called happiness culture might be a bit of a trap.

"We cared so much about people that we forgot that it was important to tell them the stuff they don’t necessarily want to hear. It was really detrimental to our culture and our business."

Simon De Baene
CEO and Co-founder of Workleap

Was our focus on unconditional kindness stopping projects, teams, and individuals from learning and growing to their full potential? Worse yet, had we misunderstood the concept of kindness altogether?

We invited Kim to join the entire organization for a refreshingly honest video call and keynote address that would shed light on the practice of honesty. Of course, Simon also had all kinds of questions for Kim, so they set some time aside to chat about so-called “happiness” cultures, rethinking empathy, and tough talks.

We’ll be sharing some of her insightful answers throughout the article.

It’s time to rethink empathy

In many ways, honesty has suffered from an unfairly bad rap. Often equated with disengaged harshness or seen as dichotomous to empathy, it’s become second nature for us to avoid giving honest feedback that may be perceived as negative or critical. It’s like we’ve all collectively agreed not to tell our colleagues about the metaphorical toilet paper stuck to their shoes. So to clear the air and kick-start our collective unlearning, Kim highlighted some of the things Radical Candor is not.

  • An excuse to be a brutally honest jerk.
  • A hall-pass for oversharing your personal thoughts.
  • An assumption that what you’re saying is the implicit truth.
  • A pretext to criticize or impose on someone’s personal life.
  • A one-sided conversation or monologue.

Yet despite our best intentions, says Kim, in our initial attempts at thoughtful honesty, we’re all prone to falling into one or many of those false candor traps. And the one thing that causes many of us to falter from direct, effective communication? Ruinous empathy. A sense that telling someone the truth, no matter how tactfully or constructively, is inherently mean. But of course, that frames caring and love as being inherently opposed – and that’s where we go wrong, says Kim.

Simon wanted to know a bit more about that idea in their follow-up chat. 

To help illustrate the thin lines that separate thoughtful honesty from destructive righteousness, she uses a now-famous grid featuring genuine care on its horizontal axis, and direct challenging on its vertical one.

For a deeper dive into the intricacies of her theory, we suggest you pick up her book or check out her great talk from Qualtrics X4 Europe 2018, but here’s a quick overview of the triggers and behaviors we’re trying to avoid in those three counterproductive quadrants.

Ruinous empathy

When we choose not to tell someone something they need to know in order to spare their short-term feelings – and our own discomfort.

Manipulative insincerity

When we praise someone insincerely only to criticize them once their back is turned.

Obnoxious aggression

When feedback is given bluntly without any expression of care and thoughtfulness.

Though they’re often motivated by a similar sense of discomfort, those reactions can look different in small and large organizations. Simon wanted to dig into those differences and explore the unique challenges of implementing honesty within small teams.

If you’re anything like us – and capable of a healthy dose of introspection – you’ve probably found yourself on both sides of this equation. And we’re willing to bet it wasn’t particularly pleasant or productive. But according to Kim, it’s that misguided empathy that’s most likely to shoot us in the foot.

"Eighty-five percent of the time, that's the mistake that we make at work and also, frankly, at home. [We’re] so concerned about the other person's feelings that we're unwilling to tell them something that they could fix easily if we just told them that it was a problem."

Kim Scott
Co-founder of Radical Candor LLC

So that begs the question: as leaders and managers, are we truly being kind by depriving talented team members of precious information and feedback they could use to improve? What if that feedback could allow them to grow into a promotion, or give them confidence in a new skill, or allow them to enter difficult situations with the full power of context and the right information?

What if, instead, we framed the idea of honesty as a virtuous cycle that can have ripple effects across an entire organization’s ability to perform, collaborate, and grow? As honesty is proactively solicited, more spaces are carved out for constructive criticism and growth, allowing colleagues to caringly improve and support one another within a climate where they feel heard, seen, understood, and trusted.

As we’ve moved through the growing pains of our own transition towards thoughtful honesty, we’ve come to believe that there’s something a bit patronizing and belittling about the premise of avoidance to spare someone’s feelings. Do we not trust our talented colleagues to be professional and mature enough to handle their feelings just as we do ours?

"As a leader, it’s your job to be considerate, constructive, and mindful in the way you deliver difficult news or feedback."

Once that’s done, the ball is out of your court – all that’s left to do is trust your team to be open and receptive to your genuine desire to help. And if that trust isn’t there, says Kim, you’d better get to work and start building it.

The future of employee experience starts with you.