Communicating with Candor
“All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor.” – Walt Whitman
I have recently encountered several situations in my consulting work which have reminded me of the vital importance of candor, whether it be in life, love or on the job. Given candor’s importance for successful interpersonal relationships in every environment and business performance, it is nonetheless ironic how difficult it seems for people to be honest, direct and fact-based. Indeed, we too often see people go underground with their perspectives, or come on like bulls in a china shop, or worst of all, play various passive-aggressive games (sarcasm, cynicism, innuendo, discussing others behind their backs, saying “yes” while doing “no”, being unavailable or “too busy to discuss”, and so on).
Jack Welch, the renowned former leader of General Electric, argues in “Winning” (Welch, 2005) that candor is critical to success, especially in today’s turbulent business climate. In “Good to Great” (Collins, 2001), Jim Collins encourages executives to “confront the brutal facts” in leading their organizations. And Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan discuss the importance of “robust dialogue” in “Execution” (Bossidy and Charan, 2002).
Everyone seems to be talking about candor, but what is it, and are there real payoffs for you and your business? Welch points out that as more people get involved in a conversation, “more ideas get surfaced, discussed, pulled apart, and improved.” Noting that candor speeds implementation, Welch adds, “When ideas are in everyone’s face, they can be debated rapidly, expanded and enhanced, and acted upon.”
Finally, Welch maintains that candor cuts costs by eliminating meaningless and redundant meetings, PowerPoint slides, and “mind numbing” presentations. To Welch’s list I would add another: reducing the number of situations that lead to anger, mistrust, disengagement…..all undermining effective functioning both on an individual and team level. Most of us think of candor as telling the truth; we assume that candor means “tell it like it is.” Honesty may be the best policy, but candor is honesty with skill: a way of communicating that succeeds at solving problems in an efficient, respectful, and even in a profound way. It’s not a soapbox speech; it’s dialogue.
Candid dialogue creates the openness that allows people to explore different, even uncomfortable, perspectives. Truly candid conversations move beyond individual points of view to yield fresh insights about an obstacle or opportunity. Seen this way, candor becomes a source of actionable wisdom that— in ways both big and small—can yield the competitive advantages Welch describes.
The Personal Case for Candor We benefit both personally and in our work when we engage with candor. The word candor comes from the Latin, meaning “to shine.” The goal of candor is to allow both you and those around you to shine by being genuine. Candor is not a switch to be turned on and off; rather, it is an internal commitment that is expressed in who you are and how you work with other people.
A prerequisite for candor is authenticity— being real. But when people are afraid, they speak defensively rather than authentically. Unfortunately, opportunities for candor are riddled with fear. To protect ourselves or others from the sting of defensiveness, and the pain of conflict that results, we hold back, failing to be fully and publicly ourselves.
We’re not clear about how we might react when confronted with a candid moment. We’re also afraid of the impact which our own candor might have. So we shut down, failing to express what we truly believe. To become more authentically direct, we need to first clarify our intention and transform it into a commitment.
Before doing that, we need to understand why going public with our private thoughts, wants, and needs feels so risky. The harm or loss that looms over us as we contemplate candor can be found in these distinct but overlapping categories:
1) Job Retribution. We worry that our words will be held against us. We might not be selected for a high-visibility project or position; we might alienate our managers; we might lose the influence and support we’ve worked so hard to gain. Given these worries, it seems safer to remain quiet than to speak up….or to find alternate, sometimes backdoor methods to expressing our needs and wants. However, many people realize, in hindsight, that in the end their lack of candor actually hurt their chances for advancement.
2) Social Retribution. Because the experience of work is inseparable from those we work with, we worry about the consequences of damaging those relationships. Among our team there may be a fear that being candid might anger others, and that this perspective might spread among others without us knowing. We might resist being candid in order to avoid awkwardness with others in the group. Yet avoiding authenticity leads to festering problems that destroy team effectiveness and relationships.
3) Hurting Others’ Feelings. We often censor ourselves because we don’t want our feedback or disagreement to be hurtful to others. We try to protect people from feeling bad by not telling them the truth. While our concern for others may be genuine, it’s also true that hurting others’ feelings often results in more work for us, as we have to fix the relationship problem that we think candor created. This is a further incentive to keep quiet. In the end, our impulse to saving face does more harm than good, ultimately interfering with our own effectiveness and the effectiveness of the other person.
4) Self-Perception. We worry that if we speak up, we may look bad. And while the chances are remote, even the slightest potential for humiliation acts as a deterrent to candid discussion. Yet in the long term, not speaking up also damages our self-perception and others’ perception of us.
5) Change. We fear the unknown consequences of speaking the truth. At work, we may choose not to share ideas that could improve our own or our team’s performance if we see those changes as possible threats to our job security, social standing, or advancement. We may also keep problems to ourselves, anticipating a worst-case scenario: “What if I’m just wasting my time?” “What if I get on her bad side?” “What if the team thinks my idea is stupid?” When we visualize the worst consequences, our fear makes us quiet. We remain silent, hoping the problem will go away. Instead, we are better off asking the questions a different way: “What if my feedback helps him overcome a glaring weakness? What if my idea helps the team achieve a breakthrough?” When considering candor, we need to move beyond the worst-case scenario, considering the not-so-bad and best-case scenarios as well.
How Do You Show Up In Candor Moments?
The first challenge is to practice candor with yourself—to be honest with yourself about your typical decisions during these moments. Do you choose a positive mind-set, seizing opportunities to reap the personal and business benefits? Do you speak your truth and encourage others to do the same? Or do you allow fear to push you to the extreme ends of the candor continuum?
The Candor Continuum
Choices regarding candor can be identified on a continuum reflecting our possible responses to a situation or crisis requiring candor. On one end of the continuum is a tendency to bail, to simply avoid a potentially difficult conversation by not raising an issue or responding honestly. Or even more damaging, is the tendency to do an end run; that is, speak harshly and critically of others but not give the target of your opinions direct feedback (the passive-aggressive type who triangulates….not having the fortitude to be respectfully honest and direct). On the opposite end is a tendency to bruise, to be truthful in a way that is harsh or harmful. In the center is the ideal: constructive candor, saying what needs to be said in the most productive way possible and encouraging others to do the same.
Bail: The Passive End of the Continuum
We all have had times when we’ve bailed out of raising an issue, avoided telling someone the thing they needed to hear or the thing we needed to say. With a bad feeling in our stomachs, we decide not to speak up so as not to rock the boat, alienate a colleague, take a risk, or hurt someone’s feelings. Those decisions to bail, driven by fear of the worst-case scenario, ultimately steal our vitality at work and sour the very relationships we think we’re preserving. The more often we choose silence, the more difficult it becomes to speak up. We become marginal players who then spend time after the meeting complaining about the decisions that were made when we didn’t speak up. The meetings after the meeting become a black hole of time and energy, sucking other people in to more and more dysfunctional conversations. We expend a considerable amount of energy defending our decision not to speak up, when being candid would have saved time and energy for not only us, but our managers and colleagues whom we dragged in to those after-meeting meetings.
Bruise: The Combative End of the Continuum
Fear drives bailing, but it also drives us to the other end of the extreme, to an honesty that hurts. Harry Truman, famous for his brutal honesty, said, “I don’t give ’em hell; I just tell them the truth and they think it’s hell.” As satisfying as it may be to lash out or act brazenly, that satisfaction is short-lived at best, and worse, can cause lasting damage to vital relationships. The bruises we inflict in the workplace may be metaphorical, but their impact can be all too real. To change our bruising behavior we need to be aware of our fear of candid dialogue.
We bruise when we are afraid of being out of control, when it doesn’t look like things are going our way. So we speak in a way that shuts other people down, from a defensive rather than an authentic posture. Ultimately that backfires on us in a couple of ways. People don’t always support the decisions that were pushed on them. Also, they choose not to be forthcoming about problems we need to know about because they don’t want to deal with our bruising reactions. Rather than defending our outspoken ways, and blaming others for not speaking up loudly enough, we need to become more aware of the impact this bruising behavior has on the potential for candid conversation.
Candor’s honesty involves understanding how to be appropriately honest: communicating with transparency, to the right people, without defensiveness, at a time and in a way that shows respect and good intentions. Be brief, objective, and specific in your speaking; use a neutral tone; and listen with empathy even when you don’t agree. In addition to creating an environment of openness and trust, these skills can defuse the raw emotions and defensiveness common to most difficult conversations, moving beyond bailing and bruising to addressing and resolving the real, underlying problems.
The Continuum’s ideal candor may not come easily, but through awareness and skillful dialogue, we can move toward the happy middle of the candor continuum. The results? A chance to shine by achieving mutual goals while reaping the personal rewards of job satisfaction, physical health, and peace of mind. The best leaders are candid – always. They say what needs to be said, and they do not mince words. They motivate by their assertiveness (not aggressiveness or passive-aggressiveness) – and their team knows what is expected of them.
Oftentimes those on the receiving end don’t like what they are hearing– but they believe in their leader and know it is the truth. Communicating without candor does just the opposite – it causes fear, lack of trust, resentment, team dissension and, ironically, even more anger.
GPA, work with organizations throughout North America and the UK advising senior-most executives in the areas of strategy formulation and implementation, business transformation and change management, executive succession (both planning and implementation), executive and executive team development, executive assessment/selection (in conjunction with executive recruiters) and executive transition. Our differentiators are our practical business focus, responsiveness, commitment to results and candor.