8 Minutes Read | Leadership

Radical Candor in Practice: Airbnb and Piktochart Share Their Experiences

Jacqueline Jensen

Community Evangelist | Piktochart

Lately, we’ve been practicing a new principle here at Piktochart called “Radical Candor.” It’s a simple, yet revolutionary and impactful idea that is rather intangible, which makes it difficult to define. The team behind the idea explains it quite simply:

So why does something so foundational feel wildly radical in practice?

To explore the idea further, we talked to another company practicing Radical Candor, our own CEO here at Piktochart, and the co-founder of Candor, Inc herself.

Defining Radical Candor

Heather Knight works on the Business Travel team at Airbnb in Portland, Oregon.

“I work with small to medium sized businesses to ensure they are set up for success using our Business Travel portal,” said Heather. “I have been with Airbnb for three years, mostly on the Customer Experience Team. Before that, I spent 14 years in healthcare saving lives and stamping out disease while working as an ER Tech in emergency medicine.”

Heather contemplating life at an Airbnb.

Outside of work, you can usually find Heather out of town or in nature. She is an avid world traveler and outdoor adventurer. Heather is also learning how to code in her free time with the goal of getting into either product or web development.

When I asked Heather how she defines Radical Candor to friends or startup colleagues, she added to my attempt at a definition.

“I explain it as a framework to providing feedback in a way that provides transparency and builds trust with your team,” she said.  “It can be helpful as a manager, but I have found it equally helpful when communicating with my coworkers.”

Heather said that when explaining what Radical Candor is to others, she will usually add an example of feedback approaches from the bestselling book Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott.

The author, an acclaimed advisor for companies like Twitter, Shyp, Rolltape, and Qualtrics, has spent years distilling her experiences being – and working alongside – great startup leaders down to simple ideas you can use to help the people who work for you love their jobs and do great work.

Being Introduced to Radical Candor

Heather was first introduced to the idea of Radical Candor by means of a different name – ‘Fearless Feedback.’

“My first lead at Airbnb introduced our team to the idea of Fearless Feedback which is something he brought to my team from Apple,” she said. “Radical Candor’s Kim Scott worked for a time at Apple, and this is where she developed the idea.  I was fortunate that my manager did a great job of establishing trust with our team to allow us to be vulnerable with one another and give feedback in this environment.”

Before working at a tech startup, Heather came from the healthcare sector and this idea of frequent and honest feedback was new to her.

“I would have a yearly review and other than that would never know I was doing something that was bugging someone until I would get a note in my review that would go on my permanent record,” she said. “It was horrible!” Under the framework of practicing Radical Candor, things at Airbnb are different.

“Now, there aren’t a lot of surprises, and anything negative is an opportunity to improve and grow, while the positive things are to be celebrated. I have weekly one on ones with my current lead. We talk about everything and track my progress which allows me to make a strong case for promotions and raises each year. It’s really refreshing.”

Our Piktchart CEO and co-founder Ai Ching Goh came to learn about Radical Candor through a First Round article and the concept deeply impacted her.

Ai Ching / Source: Leaderonomics

“I read the article over and over again and later on, decided to try getting everyone to implement it at Piktochart,” she said. “I was hearing rumors here and there about employee dissatisfaction about processes and management. I wondered why people did not speak up about it.”  

Looking back at her own growth as a CEO and co-founder, Ai Ching went through a major personality shift from the early days of Piktochart to today.

“I used to sugarcoat my words before I delivered them to people. Although I thought I was protecting them, it ended up being a painful lesson. Back in 2014, I had to make a decision to let go of two people simultaneously.

Because I did not know how to speak the truth and I believed that being nice was a great way of having one on ones, the news of letting them go ended up to be such a big surprise to them. The session ended in tears for both the employees and myself.”

After that experience, Ai Ching resolved to speak the truth in love. She feels Radical Candor is the ability to speak the truth with the intention of helping the person change. And simultaneously, this practice also helps the company grow and improve.

Radical Candor in Real Life

To get an idea of how Radical Candor is different from what you and your team may be doing each and every day, Heather shared a personal story.

“Recently there was a situation at work in which I had written a snarky comment to something that I was feeling particularly passionate about,” she said. “It was on a public internal forum and I knew as soon as I wrote it, I probably would get some flak for it.  And I did.”

Heather was asked by a fellow team member if she had time for feedback, and she said she did.

“I went into a meeting room and he told me that he was sharing this because he cared about me,” she explained. “He proceeded to give me some feedback that challenged me directly. This is a person who is a manager, although he wasn’t mine, and someone who I respect deeply. We talked about what happened, and I knew he was right. I should have worded my comment differently.”  

Heather ended up apologizing to the team online for her comment, clarified her message, and everyone moved on.  

When sharing the example of possible feedback approaches, Heather gives a breakdown of the three other ways that this feedback could have gone:

Ruinous Empathy:

The fellow team member stayed silent because he didn’t want to hurt Heather’s feelings by calling out her comment.

Manipulative Insincerity:  

The fellow team member talked with other people about Heather’s snarky comment instead of talking directly to her.

Obnoxious Aggression:

Publicly saying: “Hey, you are totally off base, why would you say something like that?”

A balance between caring personally and challenging directly can be seen in the graph below.


Instead, her teammate chose to challenge directly and care personally using Radical Candor.


“The feedback I received was really impactful and I knew it was coming from a caring place, which made it easier to receive,” said Heather. “I still was upset, but he was right and I knew it.  Even if I disagreed with his feedback, it was a safe place to have that discussion.”  

Heather said trust, transparency, honesty, caring, kindness, and vulnerability each came into play when the two were having this radically candid discussion.  

And the message in the feedback had a powerful impact on Heather.

“The feedback helped remind me that my words matter, and I have adjusted my communication style as a result,” she said.

Kim Scott, co-founder of Candor, Inc. reports that by far the biggest struggle is changing a habit. “For most of us, the habit of ruinous empathy is deeply ingrained,” she said. “Changing behavior is hard.”

Candor co-founder Kim Scott

She suggests that those new to Radical Candor start by soliciting feedback from their peers – which takes some planning and practice.

“Think through how you would ask for feedback,” she said. “Most people would rather not ask, ‘Do you have any feedback for me?’ And that’s not a great question because the answer will invariably be, ‘No!’ So think of how you are going to ask for feedback in a way that makes it hard for the person not to tell you something.

You could say, ‘What could I do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me? Or if that sounds too touchy feely, you could say, ‘Tell me why I’m missing something here.’ The point is to ask in a way that feels natural to you.”

Another struggle Kim sees within teams is that sometimes people will say, ‘I’m going to be Radically Candid with you.’ Then, they proceed to act like, as Kim puts it, ‘a garden variety jerk.’

Kim says if you worry this may be you, if may be helpful to try thinking of how you’re going to state your intention to the person you are giving feedback to. Here are her suggestions to try out:

The third struggle Kim sees in teams is sometimes people think that caring personally feels creepily personal.

Caring personally is not about intrusive intimacy—Kim ScottClick To Tweet

“It’s about a common human connection. It’s about taking a moment – literally 30 seconds sometimes – to recognize the humanity of the person you’re dealing with. It’s about acknowledging an emotion by saying ‘I can see you’re mad and upset’ or showing you see what somebody cares about.”

Challenges of Putting Radical Candor into Practice

If you are excited about Radical Candor and how it can empower you and your team to do your best work, it’s important to acknowledge putting Radical Candor principles into practice takes time and can be a challenge for your team members.

“Embracing Radical Candor means there has to be an element of trust and vulnerability that you can’t just put into place overnight. It takes time and skill to create that environment in which people can truly be honest, open, and transparent in a caring way.”

Heather reminds us that you have to not only challenge directly, you have to care personally. “Otherwise it becomes something else,” Heather notes.  

Piktochart has also had success while trying out Radical Candor, too.

“A few people came up to me and said that they had disagreements at work, but they were keeping it underneath the surface,” said Ai Ching. “Because of Radical Candor, one party dared to give some feedback – the way the person ran a current company project was draining him. When they both talked about it, the person who received the feedback actually ended up appreciating being able to learn how to improve!”

Ai Ching notices two pitfalls to Radical Candor here at Piktochart.

  1. The person giving the feedback is too brutal.
    Ai Ching notices this pitfall when the feedback given is personally motivated and an opinion did not come from a place of trying to help the other person improve.“I think speaking the truth is important, but that’s also why I always add ‘in love’ after. It’s vital to understand what it feels like to be at the receiving end and to think whether that feedback was actionable,” she said.
  2. The person receiving the feedback dismissed it quickly and feels they don’t need to change.
    “At Piktochart, it is very important for us to reflect on ourselves and that takes a lot of humility,” said Ai Ching. Although the person giving feedback may not be spot-on or 100 percent correct in the feedback or opinion they provide, Ai Ching thinks there is always an opportunity to improve after hearing feedback from teammates. Here are tips from the team at Candor, Inc. about what to do when you disagree with feedback.

Sharing Principles of Radical Candor

Candor, Inc. is developing ways for word of Radical Candor to reach the masses.

“Right now the main way to engage with our team is to have my co-founder Russ, one of our trainers, or me come do a talk or a workshop, to read the book, to listen to the podcast, to join our community on Mighty Networks,” said Kim. “In the future we will develop a scalable ‘rolling out Radical Candor’ process.”

This year, at SDX in Portland, Oregon, Heather will deliver a session about Radical Candor. SDX is a conference all about content for support professionals. Talks include topics like leveling up without becoming a manager, dealing with difficult customers, and being a better advocate for your users.

“My SDX talk will be using Radical Candor as a framework on how to deliver Fearless Feedback,” she said. “Attendees will leave with concrete ways to give and receive feedback.  My main reason to speak on the topic was to share what I have learned in the hopes it will make someone else’s work experience as amazing as mine has been since the introduction of it.”

Our team at Piktochart will be at the conference too, and will be hosting a workshop all about sharing stories visually and creating amazing infographics.

Learn More About Improving Your Organization

Heather and the team at Candor shared their favorite resources for learning more about vulnerability, empathy, and the underpinning influences of Radical Candor (which also includes a podcast). If you want to learn more about these concepts, start with this list as your guide!

Watch

Read

Radical Candor: Be A Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen by James G. March
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihályi
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values by Fred Kofman
Rhetoric by Aristotle
Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Towards Self-Realization by Karen Horney
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
Romola by George Eliot


What do you think about the principles of Radical Candor? Have you tried implementing Radical Candor in your workplace? How did it go? We’d love to hear what you think of this approach – let us know by reaching out to us on Twitter @Piktochart!

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