How Radical Candor Can Float Your Company Through Times Of Change with the CPO of Neo4j

The Culture Code

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When a company experiences rapid growth, growing pains are inevitable. Original employees find themselves in a sea of new employees. The way things are done shifts. The culture evolves.

So what can a company do to ease its growing pains? One of the more creative approaches I’ve heard is to adopt a company-wide mentality of radical candor. Author Kim Scott, who coined the phrase radical candor, writes, “Radical candor is what happens when you show someone that you care personally while you challenge directly, without being aggressive or insincere.”

When you adopt this mentality on an organizational level, sparks begin to fly. To provide a specific example, I had the opportunity to meet with the Chief People Officer of Neo4j, Kristin Thornby. Neo4j is a rapid-growth, graph database analytics company that has more than 800 employees. The company uncovers hidden relationships within data and patterns across many different data points.

Kristin Thornby
Kristin Thornby, Chief People Officer of Neo4j

Culture at Neo4j Promotes “Silicon Valley Growth + Sweet Swedish Roots”

Thornby described the culture at Neo4j as being “a balance between the intense Silicon Valley mindset of growth and sweet Swedish roots.” She then broke down Neo4j culture into three core characteristics:

  • Neo4j employees work with a strong sense of unification and alignment around what they’re trying to build. “In everyday interactions, people are coming out of the woodwork to help each other across lanes, functions, and to reach our goals.”
  • Neo4j culture is incredibly people-focused. “Our chief executive officer (CEO), Emil Eifrem, is super people-focused. One of his top goals is for this job to be the best for our employees. So when they retire, they'll reflect and say, the best job I ever had was at Neo4j.”
  • People at Neo4j get a tremendous amount of leeway to take risks and try new things. “We're working on cutting-edge technology, like our collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to put humans on Mars faster using Neo4j,” Thornby remarked.

The net result of these characteristics is an irresistible culture. “People genuinely enjoy working here, and our attrition rate is impressively low. During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) era, despite the predictions of a Great Resignation, our employees have stayed because they appreciate the unique culture that we're building.”

Three Unique Ways Thornby Decodes Culture at Neo4j

In addition to biannual employee engagement surveys, Thornby and her team measure engagement in three unique ways:

1. Town halls –like many companies, Neo4j holds regular meetings where anyone can speak up and ask questions. However, these meetings are unmoderated and questions can’t be anonymous. “We really push transparency,” Thornby emphasized, “so our town hall questions are not anonymous, and we don't moderate them. Anything goes. We always kick town halls off by announcing that ‘Whatever you ask, we will answer.’”

2. Team feedback – Thornby’s team conducts many smaller group one-on-one sessions and small-group feedback sessions. “We ask teams to join in a live feedback session. Typically, someone from my team will moderate, and then at some point, the leader leaves and we continue the conversation,” she explained.

3. Radical candor in weekly conversations – People like to understand how they're performing. “I'm trying to push our employees to speak with radical candor,” Thornby said. “We’re trying to flip the script on ‘ruinous empathy’, where you feel so bad giving feedback that you hold it back. The kindest thing you can do is to let someone know how they're performing versus leaving them unaware.”

You can probably tell from these examples that Neo4j possesses a strong culture of openness and feedback. “Our CEO, Emil Eifrem, met with every finalist for every position until approximately a year ago. He wants to develop a relationship with every employee. Because of that, people feel comfortable letting feedback rip. Sometimes they may be a little too comfortable, but it's ultimately a gift to us,” Thornby said.

Thornby’s Book Recommendation for HR Professionals: The Culture Map

Of the more than thirty CPOs I have interviewed, all are voracious readers and learners. Asked what book she would recommend for human resources (HR) professionals to read, Thornby recommended The Culture Map by Erin Meyer.

“This book shines a light on the fact that we all join a company and sort of assume that people from all over the world are going to harmoniously collaborate. Of course, this assumption is not true. This book does an incredible job of going across the globe and talking about specific ways that different cultures and people show up at work and how to understand different ways of communication,” Thornby said. “I keep this book with me because I'm always referencing it.”

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at