Radically Candid Programming
I recently read Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor, which is pitched at bosses and their interactions with their direct reports. However, this framework can apply to many areas of our lives, both at home and at work. I’d like to share with you the parts that stuck with me and can help in our daily lives as software engineers - from leaving comments on code reviews and pair programming (‘pairing’) to having one to ones with our line managers.
This idea is split across two posts: first we will look at defining Radical Candor and next we will look at how we can implement it in our daily lives.
MY LESSON FROM FRED
My desire to share my take on Radical Candor and programming comes from an encounter I had working on a tech stack we shall call Flurb with a colleague we shall call Fred. Fred and I were good acquaintances and often talked outside of work, but this was the first time Fred and I had properly paired together.
You might think that because we knew each other prior to coming onto the project that we would work really well together. We were both extremely talented and capable of making great things individually after all.
However, we spent an entirely miserable few weeks together. What went wrong? Let’s look at the background context:
- I had 7 years of experience, but had never worked in Flurb before.
- Fred was ‘more junior’ than me on paper but had more Flurb experience.
- Fred had been on the project for a while and it was my first time on a very large Flurb codebase.
- In this case, it meant that several things all went wrong at once.
From my perspective:
- Fred already had a lot of Flurb and domain knowledge, and could type rapidly and come to conclusions faster and better than me.
- I felt overwhelmed, useless and stupid.
- I didn’t want to slow down Fred or get in the way.
- Fred did 100% of the typing because he knew what he was doing and I barely spoke because I wasn’t needed.
- I liked Fred and didn’t want to upset him by saying anything about how I felt.
- When I did talk, it was to ask about simple Flurb things I didn’t understand that could be answered quickly so I wasn’t a bother.
- Fred was cold and unsupportive, very different from the person I thought I knew.
From Fred’s perspective:
- I was silently judging him.
- He was being left to do all the work to prove his worth.
- I wanted the boss to think I was better than him and often questioned basic decisions to make him look stupid.
- He was extremely frustrated with me.
- He would rather have worked alone.
- He had no idea that I needed support or help, being an experienced engineer.
The reason this happened is simple - we failed to communicate. I didn’t make it clear that despite being ‘more experienced’ on paper, I needed support while I got up to speed on the domain and new tech stack. By attaching our own perspectives and beliefs to the situation, and not allowing each other to challenge them, we caused each other misery.
If I had read Radical Candor before this happened I could have approached the situation very differently (more on this later).
By sharing my understanding of Radical Candor, I hope to help others to avoid suffering in silence and inflicting hurt the way I did to Fred, and vice versa, to the detriment of both our results and relationships.
WHAT IS RADICAL CANDOR?
Radical Candor is a framework for giving and receiving guidance, including both praise and criticism. ‘Radical’ because it encourages us to say what we really think. ‘Candor’ because it implies humility and being clear and unambiguous in our views. If we are wrong in those views, we want to know.
There are two dimensions to Radical Candor: care personally and challenge directly.
‘Give a damn!’
In order to develop trust and form better relationships where we feel safe to offer and receive guidance, we need to care personally about those we interact with. We spend a lot of time working very closely with other people on a daily basis (even more so when pairing), making those interactions super important to get the best out of each other and our work together.
Caring personally is more than just caring, it implies that we care about the whole person and not just about their work. If we never ask about what goes on in someone’s personal life (without prying of course!), it’s very unlikely we will ever build a strong relationship with them.
This also encourages us to show some vulnerability and create a safe space for others to do the same.
‘Just say it!’
Intuitively it may not seem like it but challenging others, and listening to challenges, is one of the best ways to build trust.
- It shows we care personally enough to give feedback on what is going well and what is not.
- It shows a willingness to accept when we are wrong. Being wrong is totally cool, it gives the other person a chance to give you their perspective and clear up any misconceptions on either side.
This does mean that we need to push through the initial ‘oh no this is going to be awkward what if they yell or explode or cry or hate me or something, this is going to suck’ feeling and ‘just say it’. Most of the time the person will be grateful to have the chance to talk things through.
In the situation with Fred, if I had said ‘I know you are very knowledgeable and can work extremely efficiently, but when you type so fast and exclude me from decisions it makes me feel useless. Could I get a shot at typing and contribute to our decisions to help me with my learning?’ that would have been radically candid feedback!
It shows that I respect his ability, it explains the problem and it asks for his support to improve rather than judging or blaming. We would have had the chance to talk the situation through and share perspectives.
WHAT RADICAL CANDOR IS NOT
Radical Candor is not a licence to be an aggressive bully, constantly nit picking everyone around us. We should use it with compassion, from a place of support and care, to help each other grow and be awesome together.
We should aim to give more radically candid praise than we do criticism! Radical Candor is not just about critiquing.
WHEN WE AREN’T RADICALLY CANDID
When we put the two dimensions of care personally and challenge directly together, we are being radically candid. However, when we are learning to be radically candid, it’s likely one or more of these will be missing - leading to unintended consequences.
We can think of Radical Candor as part of a matrix, where we can start to label what type of feedback we give when one of the core components is absent.
It’s important to remember that these describe the type of feedback given, not the person giving the feedback. Labelling a person like this implies that a core personality trait needs to be altered rather than a behaviour. Behaviours are generally easier to address and change than personalities.
I really like these labels, because they sound like metal bands. But also, they help us to be more self aware which in turn allows us to improve.
We challenge directly, but don’t care personally.
This is arguably the least damaging of the other possibilities, because it’s at least clear where you stand. This type of feedback may involve mockery and abrasiveness, with no care for the impact on the other person’s wellbeing or support to help them improve.
In the situation with Fred, if I had blurted out ‘OMG, you type so fast I can’t understand WTF is going on’ that would have been an obnoxiously aggressive way to give feedback. I challenged, but I didn’t care about the impact on Fred or try to offer support.
We don’t challenge, but we care personally.
Of all the labels, this is the one my behaviour (not me!) is most likely to default to if I am not careful.
Most of us want to avoid making others feel uncomfortable or creating tension; like when I need to cut my cat’s claws and he cries and squirm, I feel like a horrible cat mum for making my fur baby suffer. But if I don’t cut his claws, they will end up causing him actual physical pain.
We often think we are helping the other person, by sparing them awkwardness and discomfort, but we are actually doing more harm than good by not supporting them to improve or letting them give us their perspective.
The way I handled the situation with Fred was ruinously empathetic. I cared personally but didn’t challenge, because I didn’t want to upset him or make him feel bad. I could have been giving Fred guidance in how to support me better and increase the quality of our combined results.
We neither challenge directly or care personally.
Manipulative insincerity is the worst of all worlds. It can happen when we care more about our personal goals, objectives and reputation than giving feedback to someone else or be too fed up to care or argue anymore.
If I had said nothing to Fred, not because I didn’t want to hurt him but because I wanted him to like me, and worse I talked about the situation behind his back at the coffee stand with my other colleagues to gain favour with them, that would be manipulatively insincere. I don’t give a damn about Fred and his wellbeing and I’m too self interested to challenge him to his face.
A SOURCE OF IMPROVEMENT
Now that we have put labels to these types of guidance, we can begin to be more self aware of our interactions. If we know we have a tendency towards Obnoxious Aggression, we can start to adapt our behaviour to care more personally and consider the impact we have on others. If we are being Ruinously Empathetic, we can begin to start trying to ‘just say it’ and get over the fear of being uncomfortable and ‘give a damn’ about helping the person improve.
The key thing is that these are all behaviours that can be named, identified and improved upon. Even Manipulative Insincerity can be massaged back to a more healthy place given willingness, support and patience.
In my next post I’ll discuss how we can use this framework to move past the initial awkwardness and discomfort to embrace giving and receiving radically candid feedback to improve our relationships and thus results as a team.
BACK TO FRED
With this new knowledge, we can see how my Ruinously Empathetic response to pairing with Fred led to misery:
- I needlessly left myself in a state of isolation and low self esteem.
- I denied Fred the chance to improve his mentoring skills and his relationship with me
- I didn’t allow Fred to become aware of the impact of his actions.
- It may have had the longer term effect of allowing Fred to continue to pair with other people in a similar fashion as he did with me, and gradually wonder why no one wanted to work with him, or find out the problems from someone else and wonder why I didn’t say anything.
By being more Radically Candid I could have:
- Been more vocal and open about my situation at the start to set expectations about my behaviour and where it was coming from e.g. need for help rather than belittling.
- Made it clear I needed context and time to get up to speed and to be safe to ask lots of ‘dumb’ questions, allowing me to contribute more and feel valued.
- Challenged Fred’s fast typing and decision making, leading to better results as a pair through greater collaboration.
- Fostered an attitude of openness and it being okay to be lost, allowing for more honest and free flowing communication
- Although it was upsetting at the time, I’m grateful for my pairing with Fred. It let me resonate with Radical Candor and vow to myself never to let it happen again.
Since reading the book I spoke with Fred about what happened, after sitting quietly on it for several months and hoping I wouldn’t need to work with him ever again! We had an excellent conversation, and I learned a lot about him as a person and his approach. I felt like a huge knot in my stomach had been dissolved.
I hope I’ve inspired you to try out some Radical Candor and see how it can help improve our wellbeing, relationships and results!