Have you tapped into Compassionate Candor yet?

September 29, 2023

“Compassionate Candor” is HOT right now. It’s popping up all over my social media because leaders are scrambling for a fresh take on how to create cultures where people want to come to work. I’m excited about the compassionate candor craze because it’s clearly an outgrowth of Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. Her take on candor was very hot before compassion became hot. I was all in on radical candor when I first heard about it. Tell the truth, man! Then I got my head out of 1968 and gave a little more consideration to what I’d read.

Her suggestion to, “Share your (humble) opinions directly.” And to, “Just say what you really think,” adding, “It’s your moral obligation to do this” gave me pause. Radical candor presented as the righteous thing to do. As long as you are “humble” when delivering the bad news. Nice in theory, with a largely appealing Judeo-Christian vibe, the problem is, how many C-suite execs lead with humility? It’s not a prevalent character trait of people in the elite suite. This then, is one of the most radical ideas in the book. Thinking that high level leaders, or more accurately mid-level leaders with a little bit of power, can be “workshopped” into responding with humility to their teams, especially under stress. This fact gave me pause that radical honesty in the hands of the wrong people could easily become brutal honesty. Which is something we talk a lot about in the care of people in cognitive decline when trying to break through their feelings of isolation. Honesty can be a gift to those in the throes of dementia. Not insisting “You’re fine, everything is fine,” but meeting them exactly where they are. But honesty without empathy can easily veer into cruelty. For example, reminding someone how many times they’ve asked you the same question or told you what they had for breakfast might be the truth, but it makes the person feel bad so we just don’t do it. We teach honesty with empathy.

Apparently I wasn’t the only person concerned about the pitfalls of Scott’s Radical Candor. Since the book’s release, she has gone to great lengths to assure critics that radical candor is not brutal honesty. Radical candor must be married with “caring personally.”

I truly admire her effort. The book is wildly popular. She has a captive audience that is now being introduced to kindness in the workplace. The problem here, similar to her assertion that leaders use humility when criticizing people, assuming that leaders will always care personally about their people seems ambitious to say the least. Again unlikely, either because they don’t have time or they never had these interpersonal skills in the first place. The personality that got them where they are doesn’t often lend itself to “caring personally.” No amount of telling them they have to care personally when they are engaging in “radical candor,” is going to actually make them care personally. I don’t know Elon Musk, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t care personally when he X’d out 75% of Twitter’s employees.

You can pitch “humility” and “caring personally” to leaders and show them lots of graphs and charts for why it matters. You can even construct a grid with arrows pointing to the radical candor quadrant as the most effective. But there are simpler, more practical and dare I say truthful ways to help the people who work for you feel good. We do it with active listening, affiliative humor, using mistakes as creative launchpoints and reminding people to take the work seriously, not themselves.

If as I did, you want to take a ride on the Compassionate Candor train, we highly recommend reading this piece by Belinda Chiu, expert corporate trainer and strategist for creating thriving teams. We like the definition of compassion she attributes to anthropologist Joan Halifax, “the capacity to be attentive to the experience of others, to wish the best for others, and to sense what will truly serve others. It’s specific, and by using the word capacity at the top, Halifax makes it clear it might not be for everyone.

We also love that Ms. Chiu appreciates play for creating positive work cultures and that she references Gordon Gekko in this article, calling out his “my way or the highway” leadership style as a relic of the ‘80’s.

Something I am intimately familiar with having played his receptionist in the original “Wall St.”