Getting Candid about Candor

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When Walt Whitman spoke of “candor” in the preface to Leaves of Grass, he was referring to a virtue. In his day, “candor” meant what Merriam-Webster calls “unstained purity.” Today, author Kim Scott wants us to practice Radical Candor so that we can “be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity.” Clearly, something has changed.

Scott may well be at the “radical” end of things, but there are a lot of people who would like us to have more candor in the business world. Jack Welch is probably the best known, but Warren Bennis and James O’Toole wrote a whole article, “A Culture of Candor,” for the Harvard Business Review and Alan Murray wrote this for the Wall Street Journal:

“There are no silver bullets in the field of management. But insisting on candor comes as close to being an all-purpose problem-solver as any idea yet encountered.”

So, what is this candor thing, why is magical, and why don’t we have more of it? The first part of that is pretty easy to answer.

What is candor?

Candor in the workplace is people telling the truth about the work and each other. But that’s only part of it. When you have a culture of candor, people share their ideas and observations. They bring their thinking forward.

What’s so great about a culture of candor?

If you can create that kind of culture, many good things happen. You get more brains in the game, and so therefore, you are more likely to be innovative and more likely to have breakthrough ideas. A culture of candor leads to faster decisions and implementations. When people get all their stuff out on the table, things can be compared and choices made quickly.

A culture of candor improves individual performance, too. To get better, people need to know what to improve, and, most of the time, that happens when they hear about it from someone else. In a culture of candor evaluations are honest. They don’t need to be “brutally honest.” Gentle honesty will do fine.

Why don’t we have more businesses with a culture of candor?

If you’re a boss, and you want to create a culture of candor, it won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. You will have to do much more than simply insist on it.

Culture and trust go together like summer and warm weather. People need to trust each other’s capability, they must believe that others can and will pull their own weight. And everyone must trust everyone else’s intentions. Everybody needs to think that everyone has the team’s best interests at heart. Without all that trust, people won’t be willing to go all in.

There’s one more thing. A culture of candor can be very uncomfortable. There are some people who like their feedback raw and take it as a gift, but most people bruise more easily. Without a sense of psychological safety, people are not going to take the risk. Part of the reason is the ghosts.

The Ghosts That Work Against You

People want to work with you. They would love to work in a culture where it’s safe for them to share their opinions and ideas, but they’ve got a history, and the history includes some ghosts. There are the ghosts of bosses past. They’re the ones who were constantly catching people out and criticizing their ideas, sometimes in public, often in the most abusive language imaginable. And there are the ghosts of dead messengers, people who brought unwelcome news to someone higher on the org chart and suffered for it.

Sometimes those ghosts have made people believe that no boss can be trusted. When that happens, even your honest attempts to encourage sharing and participation will be interpreted as manipulative. The ghosts created a situation where people believe that it’s right to sabotage your efforts to create a culture of candor.

Why Creating a Culture of Candor Will Be the Hardest on You

There are great benefits of having a culture of candor, but creating one where you are will be no picnic. You will need to both walk the walk and talk the talk every day. Tell people what you’re doing, what you expect, and why it will be better in the new world you’ll create together. Make it safe for them and as easy as possible.

You’ll have to be especially wary of the tendency for people who work for you to tell you what they think you want to hear. In your culture of candor, you may need to call them out when that happens, and that won’t be comfortable for either of you.

You will read things about having a conversation when there is “no rank in the room.” In my experience, there is always rank in the room, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a culture of candor. Your challenge is to hear people out, listen when they criticize you, especially when you’ve asked them to. Your job is to model good behavior every day, no backsliding. You can do weeks of good work modeling truth and candor, but if you slip, even once, those ghosts may make your team members think it was all a show.

How It Happens in Real Life

The task is daunting, but it can be done. The best recent example we have is Alan Mullaly at the Ford Motor Company.

When Alan Mullaly took over at Ford, the company was losing money at 83 million dollars a day. One author described the culture as incredibly internally competitive, one where “the weak went to the wall; only the strong survived.” Managers never shared problems if they could avoid it. If Mullaly was going to change the culture, he was going to have to create a new one, a culture of candor where helpful sharing would happen.

The medium he used as the vehicle for getting culture change done was his regular Business Performance Review meeting. where all senior leaders participated either in person or virtually. Mullaly said that he expected honest reports, including trouble spots. For the first few meetings, though, everyone said that everything was okay.

Then, at one meeting, Mark Fields (now the CEO of Ford) reported a problem in his area. People were astonished. They looked at Mullaly to see how he would react. When he praised Fields, and set about dealing with the issue, it was the first time many folks in the room had seen that happen at Ford.

As time went on, other people found the courage to speak up and to tell the truth, even when it was uncomfortable or reflected badly on them. That’s how it’s likely to happen for you.

You will go along setting the example and sharing your message. People won’t believe you. Finally, one person will. He or she will share something that would have been dangerous before the culture you’re trying to create. That will be your moment of truth. How you handle what happens then determines not only what happens next, but what happens from then on.

Bottom Line

A culture of candor is a business virtue. Teams with a culture of candor have every brain in the game and everyone contributing and improving. A culture of candor is achievable, but you will need to overcome all kinds of ghosts and a large chunk of human nature. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, but achieving virtue never is.

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