Business literature (particularly in the US) is filled with calls for workforce candor. Jack Welch devoted an entire chapter to it in his best seller, Winning. Jim Collins encourages business leaders to “confront the brutal facts” to get from Good to Great. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan talk about the importance of “robust dialogue” in Execution. And for good reason: as Welch points out, when more people get in the conversation, “more ideas get surfaced, discussed, pulled apart, and improved.” This in turn enhances innovation and decision making while simultaneously reducing costs (Welch and Welch, 2005, p. 27).

As with most things that sound too good to be true, there’s more to creating candor than meets the eye. While candor holds great promise as a source of competitive advantage, it’s a rarity in organizational life. Leaders who seek to institutionalize candor find it elusive for three primary reasons:

  1. Candor lives between people, but the decision to practice candor is a personal one. It is a choice to make public some aspect of our private thoughts, feelings, or beliefs. Because the depth and breadth of these revelations can’t be fully known by others unless we tell them—even under duress—candor is an extension of our free will.
  2. Candor in its purest sense is an organic, messy process. Candor bubbles up rather than cascades down which makes it difficult for leaders to mandate candor as a cultural norm in their organizations.
  3. Most managers have an “approach-avoid” attitude toward candor. While they say they want it, most don’t want the conflict, frustration, and additional work they’ve experienced as by-products of candor. While a skilled leader (or outside facilitator) is able to manage the dynamics for productive ends, for most leaders, inviting candor can feel like opening Pandora’s Box.

Thus while candor offers great potential for improved organizational performance, those gains will only be realized when leaders understand that they can’t force or enforce candor. Instead they must create an environment where there is sufficient trust for people to openly say and hear the hard things. And, of course, the good.

What is candor anyway?

By itself, candor is an abstract principle that can be used to mean many things. People often criticize others in the name of candor, thinking of it as “brutal honesty.” (Note that Jim Collins talks about confronting the brutal facts, not confronting others brutally). We also defend ourselves in the name of candor; remember Jack Nicholson’s famous speech in A Few Good Men? “You can’t handle the truth!”

Most often people use “candor” and “honesty” interchangeably. But in meaning and in practice, candor is closer to “authenticity” and “openness” than it is to “honesty.” The American Heritage Dictionary includes two definitions of candor as it relates to organizational communication:

  • “frankness or sincerity of expression,” (that’s the authenticity part) and
  • “freedom from prejudice; impartiality” (or openness).

It’s a willingness to openly and skillfully express your thoughts and feelings while being open to hear the thoughts and feelings of others in return. Communicating this way moves people beyond their comfort zones to what I call the candor zone. In the candor zone your assumptions and ideas are challenged. You may give or receive unexpected feedback. It’s a state of rigorous curiosity and exploration. Remaining open and engaged in the candor zone is uncomfortable and can be difficult. It should also be exhilarating; it’s here that insight, innovation, and growth occur.

There’s one more aspect of candor that is implied but not stated in the dictionary: candor occurs in the here and now. Candor is what happens during the meeting, not in the meeting after the meeting.

Putting these pieces together, our working definition of organizational candor is:

Listening and speaking openly in real time about the things that matter.

Practicing candor when it counts

This is never easy. There are three main challenges people confront:

  • The decision to speak up in the first place
  • Saying what you want to say professionally and respectfully
  • Listening openly to others (instead of reacting) when they have a strong need to talk

Deciding to Speak Up

If you’re nervous that what you have to say won’t be well received, your challenge is to stop stopping yourself from speaking. Here are some tips to help do that:

  • Disconnect “feeling comfortable” with speaking up. People unconsciously connect feelings and actions in their minds. People who are significantly overweight are often coached to disconnect the feeling of hunger from the act of eating; they learn to be hungry and not eat. Similarly, individuals can train themselves to speak up even if they’re uncomfortable when they do so.
  • Consider the best-case or likely scenarios to balance the worst-case scenario. We automatically think of the bad things that might happen to us if we speak up. But what about the good? Maybe your idea will take the team in a new direction. Then there’s the likely scenario: maybe your idea isn’t the best or worst but one of many that gets considered along the way to a team’s decision. Creating this balance can defuse some of the stress you feel before you speak.
  • Ask someone you trust on your team to give you feedback. Let that person know that you are trying to find ways of contributing constructively and that you’d like to know how your efforts are impacting the group.
  • Don’t take responsibility for other people’s reactions. We often stop ourselves from speaking because we’re worried about how others will react. This actually does a great disservice to others as well as ourselves. We don’t say hard things that may help others improve because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. And so they don’t get better. Manage your half of the relationship and let others manage theirs.
  • It’s not making a mess but cleaning it up that counts. People often think that once they say what’s on their mind, the consequences will be lasting. But by our definition candor is a process that unfolds over multiple interactions. If you say something that didn’t come out as you intended or if it is misunderstood, you can clarify what you meant, apologize, or try stating your message a different way. Your speaking isn’t the end of your candor. It’s the beginning.

How to Say What You Want To Say Professionally and Respectfully

Some people have no problem with the choice to speak up; their issue is how to speak in ways that are respectful as well as authentic. It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Be curious about their reasoning. When we disagree with someone or don’t like what that person has said, we automatically become judgmental. As an alternative, inquire into others’ thinking first. Inquiring before you react gives you insight into their thinking and it requires them to justify their position(s). You may find common ground in this discussion, and you will get more clarity that can inform your response.
  • Disclose versus criticize. “That idea is doomed to fail.” “I’m concerned with the potential consequences of that option.” While the meaning of these two statements is similar, the impact will likely be very different. The second is a disclosure, a statement about you. Disclosures promote openness because you’re making your internal reactions public to the other person or the group. By talking about yourself, there isn’t the same edge that can trigger defensiveness in others. Emotions will be lower and easier to manage.
  • Invite other reactions and perspectives. If you have a reaction to what’s been said, others may as well. If you’re in a team setting, a broader conversation about others’ reactions can help the group surface the range of reactions on the team. For example, “It would help me to hear what others think about this proposal before moving on. Can we do a quick check in to see where we are at as a group?”

Listening Openly When Others Have a Strong Need To Talk

Listening is the forgotten skill of candor. When we find ourselves in a candor moment, we are far more concerned about our ability to express ourselves than we are about our ability to listen. We worry that we won’t be heard; rarely if ever do we worry that we won’t hear others’ concerns.

Listening when emotions and stakes are high is especially difficult. It’s also when listening is most important. In these circumstances listening can help:

  • Clarify differing points of view
  • De-escalate non-constructive emotions people are experiencing
  • Help others speak with candor
  • Maintain/restore constructive interpersonal dynamics.

Listening is defined as demonstrating you understand the thoughts and feelings a speaker is communicating from his/her frame of reference. In the candor zone, listening requires discipline, curiosity, and skill.

  • You need to be disciplined so you can remain engaged in the conversation rather than reactive. When we get hijacked by our emotions we listen to our own self-talk (usually critical comments about the other person or our own rightness) instead of the speaker.
  • You need to be curious about the other person’s goals and their feelings about what’s at stake when they decide to speak up. Ask yourself, “what’s the real issue and why does it matter?” to that person.
  • You need skill to be disciplined, curious, and able to restate or reflect the speaker’s issue in a mature and respectful way.

Here are a few examples of what listening sounds like when emotions are high:

  • “You’re frustrated with our decision-making process.”
  • “You’re irritated because the project specs keep changing but our deadline doesn’t change with them.”
  • “You’re angry because you think I’m opposing your idea for personal reasons.”

Once the other person has confirmed that this represents his/her point of view, you can respond with your own point of view.

How do I start?

I’ll close with this challenge. It’s easy to see the candor-based faults in others. My encouragement is that you start the change process by elevating your own candor. What’s your candor edge? Where can you improve? If you’re not sure, let others know that you want to listen and speak more authentically and openly and ask them for their feedback. When they offer it, listen to them and thank them for their candor. You’ll quickly see that you have the power to change the quality of any conversation you’re in, for your benefit and for others.

Let candor start with you.

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