Are you really ready for candor?

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The Merriam Webster dictionary defines candor as, “unreserved, honest, or sincere expression.” There are lots of calls for candor these days. Why not? Who can argue against unreserved and honest communication? Seems like it should be a winner.

Not so fast, my friend. There are lots of ways that encouraging more candor can go wrong. Many of them are ugly. The brutal truth is that the brutal truth often feels like a slap in the face.

What happens then? The person who feels slapped doesn’t concentrate on the feedback. Afterwards, he or she won’t remember what you said, only how you made them feel. It’s even worse than that because that “slapped” feeling can translate into reluctance to speak up or take prudent risks. You can’t simply and safely decide to create a culture of candor without preparing the ground.

Psychological safety must come first

Candor is valuable. But so is harmony. That’s why psychological safety must come before a culture of candor.

Your team members must feel that they can take interpersonal risks without being ridiculed, punished, or shunned. People won’t speak the truth to power, or each other unless they feel safe. And often they won’t deliver the full force of bad news no matter how safe they feel.l

The Mum Effect

Researchers Abraham Tesser and Sidney Rosen coined the term, “Mum Effect” to describe our tendency to proceed cautiously or not at all when we want to say something that might make someone uncomfortable. That tendency seems to be hardwired into most people, especially Americans.

American managers give positive feedback directly. But when it comes to negative feedback, American managers avoid it altogether or try to couch it in positive language. Many other business cultures are different. If you’re an American or work for an American boss, it’s one reason why you may not get helpful negative feedback.

That’s bad news. But there’s even more bad news if you’re the leader.

If you’re the leader you’re responsible for making candor happen

If you’re the leader, you must make loving candor an explicit goal. You must talk the talk.

You must walk the walk, too. You must set the example. It won’t be easy. People will watch you closely to see if they really can deliver bad news without becoming a dead messenger. You must be nearly perfect at this. The culture and your teammates’ prior experience with other bosses is likely to make them think that one misstep on your part proves you’re not really serious.

How to do it

We do know a few things about how to deliver bad news or criticism effectively. Start by limiting yourself to things you can see and hear. Talk about behavior, not attitude or motivation. Talk about specific instances. Avoid the words “always” and “never.”

Strip the adjectives out of your discussion. You are after an accurate description of behavior or performance. Adjectives bring judgment into it. Avoid them until you establish the facts of the situation.

Practice this yourself. As you master it, you will become a better role model for loving candor. Teach your people how to do it. Praise progress.


Getting brutal feedback can feel like being slapped.

Getting brutal feedback can make you concentrate on how you were treated instead of the feedback.

Psychological safety must precede a culture of candor.

The Mum Effect may keep you from hearing important negative feedback.

If you’re the leader, you must explicitly establish the rules for a culture of candor.

If you’re a leader, you must set the example. It won’t be easy.

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