Getting Comfortable with Candor

While the truth can hurt, everyone benefits from honest feedback

Getting Comfortable with Candor

Interested in Business?

Get Business articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Business + Get Alerts

In the business world, it’s so much easier for managers to gloss over employees’ weaknesses or for employees to give some manager’s zany proposal a free pass, no questions asked. Just go with the flow and it’s all good.

Until it’s not.

Here’s the thing: When managers don’t give employees the critical intel they need to get better, they’re tacitly indicating that underperformance is OK. That then places an unfair burden on high-performing employees who pick up the slack. And that, in turn, leads to resentment and low morale, poor team results and higher turnover as star employees tire of the charade.

The same is true for a group-think mentality where no one raises questions about proposals and projects. There are many reasons for this. One obvious factor is concern about retaliation. Or employees are afraid they’ll be the only one to say something — even if they know others share their skepticism. Or perhaps they lack the confidence or conviction to express an opinion, fearing it’s without merit.

How can you tell if an organization cultivates a culture of fear instead of candor? The telltale signs are obvious, says Dana Brownlee, the founder of Professionalism Matters.

You probably know the drill: There’s the “meeting after the meeting,” where employees who smiled and nodded their approval as the boss announced another doozy of an idea then gather in a break room and whisper about the ridiculous proposal.

“Or you’re attending a large, all-hands meeting and the president of the company asks if anyone has questions about a new proposal, and no one raises their hand,” she adds. “If you have that many people in a room and you have zero questions, you’re working in an organization with low trust.”

Worse yet, it convinces leaders that bad ideas are viable, she says.

It’s all about context

While honesty truly is the best policy, it can also have negative consequences if not presented tactfully and diplomatically. Like so many things in life, it’s not what you say, but how you say it, along with the context you provide for your candid comments, experts say.

Best-selling author and executive coach Kim Scott has a name for it: radical candor.

“It’s a simple idea — care personally while at the same time you challenge directly,” says Scott, the co-founder of Radical Candor, a consulting firm that helps organizations create a culture of effective feedback. “It’s like delivering love and truth at the same time.

“Very often we think there’s a dichotomy between the two, but I believe that’s wrong,” continues Scott, the author of the best-selling book, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. “If you truly care about someone, you also must challenge them — tell them when they make a mistake.”

That raises a crucial point about radical candor: It only works when employees know their managers care about them. Without that key ingredient, praise sounds insincere, and criticism becomes what Scott calls obnoxious aggression.

The converse to that is when managers care about employees but fear that delivering bad news will hurt their feelings. Scott calls this “ruinous empathy.”

But when managers both care about and challenge employees, they’ve entered the radical candor zone.

Two-way street

If managers realize they’re obnoxiously aggressive, how do they change without making their team members leery about the sudden transformation? Start by first inviting criticism, rather than dishing it out, Scott suggests.

“If you solicit feedback and respond well to it, they see that you view feedback as a gift,” she explains. “And going forward, they’ll now understand the spirit in which you offer them feedback.”

When managers ask for feedback, it’s important to ask questions that can’t be answered with simple “yes” or “no” answers. For example, managers might start by asking what they can do to make employees’ jobs easier.

Moreover, it’s important to first give praise for what employees do well. “It’s not a complicated process,” Scott notes. “After you solicit feedback and give praise, you’re in a better frame of mind and the employees are in a batter frame of mind and it becomes easier to offer criticism.”

Radical candor also requires two-way dialogue, not a monologue. In short, managers must be mindful that they’re not the sole arbiters of good or bad performance. Instead, they should emphasize that they’re not passing judgement, just sharing a point of view, she recommends.

“It’s better to say, ‘Here’s what I see and I’m curious to understand what you see,’” Scott suggests. “You don’t want to sound like you have a pipeline to God, where you know what’s true and what isn’t. You’re simply trying to find a better answer together. This should be more about listening than talking. Be humble.”

Get permission to criticize

Similar guidelines apply when questioning crazy managerial proposals. For instance, it’s a bad idea to just tell someone an idea is terrible, Brownlee says.

“Instead, tell them it’s a good idea, but I’m concerned about x, y and z,” she suggests. “Or say, ‘I know this is your baby, and I fully support it, but I’ve heard some rumblings that could raise red flags. Do you want me to bring those up to you or keep it to myself?’ 

“It’s always good to ask for permission up front, and phrasing concerns as a question is much less threatening.”

On a broader level, organizations need to let employees know that candor is a corporate value to be prized, not punished. They should encourage employees to play devil’s advocate because it’s better than finding problems with projects or products after the fact.

There are ways to make employees feel more comfortable with candor. Brownlee says one manager she’s worked with puts $5 in a jar every time one of his reports pushes back on a new idea. He then uses the money to fund a once-a-month pizza party.

Managers also can pick a rotating devil’s advocate that’s responsible for raising tough questions during meetings.

“It might sound silly, but when you do things like that, it starts to shift the culture,” she explains. “You take away the fear factor and pressure for people who don’t want to push back because for that one person, it’s their assigned job.”

Brownlee also suggests a tactic she used back when she was a team leader and project manager for a major telecommunications company. When she’d hold meetings to announce new initiatives, she’d place an index card on every chair in the room. On the card was written, “My biggest concern about this project’s success is__________.”

When the presentation concluded, she’d ask employees to anonymously fill in the blank and drop the card in a bag as they left.

“This technique gave me tons of candid feedback,” she explains.

Start small, but aim big

In the end, changing an organization’s culture can be a lot like turning around an aircraft carrier: It takes time. And it’s the little things that matter, Brownlee says.

“There’s no real formula for changing it,” she notes. “It takes a lot of role modeling by manages. It’s the small things you do at the granular level that change the paradigms.” 


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.