April 21, 2017 Randy Hain

A Road Map to Candid Work Conversations

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You are in a staff meeting listening to a work colleague drone on about his success on a recent project, but you know he is actually behind and over budget. What do you do? One of your direct reports has a few self-limiting behaviors that are impeding her career growth and negatively affecting the team, but you don’t want to hurt her feelings. Performance reviews are coming up and you need to rate her work. How will you handle the situation? A colleague lacks self-awareness about the negative reputation he has earned in the company. He doesn’t work for you, but you want to help him get back on track. How will you approach him? One of your company’s senior executives consistently asks for feedback, but you doubt his sincerity. A business problem arises that you know will reflect poorly on decisions made by this leader. Will you have the courage to speak up?

I observe and hear about scenarios like these playing out in companies nearly every day. Direct, honest feedback about performance and other important topics has become a lost art in many corporate environments and it has given way to coddling, surface conversations and conflict workarounds. I believe the lack of candid conversations in business is pervasive and has a significant negative psychological, cultural and financial impact on leaders, teams and entire organizations when left unaddressed. Lack of candor causes distrust, stifles innovation, slows decision-making and hampers productivity. The desire to avoid conflict is understandable, but it’s one of the most debilitating factors in business today and this behavior exacts a steep price. If the problem is as widespread as I believe it to be, what do we do about it?

Why is Candor Difficult?

Let’s make an effort to understand why we have a candor problem in the workplace today. I suggest these are some of the key causes:

  1. We may lack self-awareness. Are you and I aware that we might have a problem in this area? Has anyone told us? Are we sincerely seeking critical and honest feedback about how we come across to others?
  2. PC work environments. A too-polite veneer often signals an overly politicized workplace and colleagues who are afraid to speak honestly to people’s faces often do it behind their backs. A fear of saying the wrong thing or being misunderstood by those around us has placed a significant restriction on meaningful dialogue in today’s workplace and instead often encourages surface conversations at the expense of candid ones.
  3. Fear of hurting the feelings of others. Candor is typically and incorrectly assumed to be negative or hurtful instead of the helpful gift it truly is when delivered well. We may struggle to navigate the tension between delivering an honest and helpful message versus hurting the feelings of our colleagues.
  4. Fear of repercussions. If I am candid and say the wrong thing to the wrong person, what will happen to me? Will my career growth or even my job be at risk if I speak up?
  5. Not sure what to say. Surprisingly, this is one of the most common obstacles to speaking with more candor at work. I find that many well-intentioned professionals desire to speak more candidly with their colleagues, but wish to do it in a way that will be accepted with minimal frustration and pain. They simply lack the words and overthink what should necessarily be a respectful, clear and helpful conversation.

When I shared with a friend my intention to write on this topic, he assumed it would be some sort of “Candor Manifesto” meant to move every company’s culture in the direction of increased candor. I am skeptical of company-wide initiatives of this magnitude and instead place my faith in the sincere efforts of individuals who are willing to embrace healthy and meaningful change. You see, I believe the best way to positively impact our work cultures and make candor more attractive and accepted is through the intentional actions of each reader of this post. If each of us will subscribe to the “pebble in a pond” concept, our individual embrace and application of candor will ripple throughout our organizations. We must model the behavior we wish to see in everybody else. How do we do this?

Embrace New Concepts and Approaches

First, I would encourage each of us to consider embracing these basic concepts:

  • Candid conversations do not have to be ugly or painful.
  • All candid feedback, if given respectfully, is a gift.
  • “Candor is a compliment; it implies equality. It’s how true friends talk.” – Peggy Noonan (Author and WSJ Columnist)
  • If we assume good intent and think of the person giving us honest feedback as helpful and generous, rather than critical, we become less defensive and more open to changing our behavior.
  • In order to initiate effective candid conversations, let’s try to orient our thinking this way: “I desire to be helpful and I care enough about you to tell you the truth.”
  • Candid conversations are best served with clear, simple and direct language that includes relevant examples. The calling card of dishonest talk is flowery or ambiguous language.

There are numerous misperceptions about candor and we often have an unhealthy fear of what it is and what it is not. In fact, I would argue that candor is a helpful weapon against fear and not something in itself to be feared. Candor comes from the Latin word candere which means to shine or illuminate. Perhaps to be candid means we must be courageous enough to spread the light into dark places. Embracing the concepts above is part of the solution, but we need to also be intentional about changing our behaviors.

Twelve Best Practices for Facilitating Candid Work Conversations

  1. Model it. As I shared before, we should be willing to model the behavior we wish to see in others. Are we setting a good and consistent example for those around us? Do we both speak with candor and receive it well from others?
  2. Admit mistakes. One of the best ways to begin an honest and candid conversation is to be humble enough to admit we made a mistake and own the consequences. How often do we see leaders do this today?
  3. Never punish, always reward. Don’t shoot the messenger! If someone has the courage to speak up about uncomfortable topics, publicly acknowledge and thank them for their honesty. Encourage others to follow their example.
  4. Be courteous and ask permission. Whenever I need to deliver what may be taken as difficult feedback, I ask permission before I give it. I simply say: “May I have permission to be candid?” and in all the years I have asked, nobody has ever said no. Not once. The other person enters into a psychological “contract” with me where they know I am going to share something they may not like, but they appreciate my courtesy and are prepared to receive what I wish to share.
  5. Give permission. Let everyone around you know you are sincerely open to hearing their candid thoughts. Rather than putting someone on the spot and asking for feedback (which often inspires anxiety), try giving those around you blanket permission to come to you in private when they have something to share. When receiving candid feedback, always thank the person who offered it and avoid being defensive.
  6. Be respectful. An offshoot of my fourth point about asking for permission is to always be respectful of our audience if we wish our message to be more readily accepted. Egos can be easily bruised in these exchanges and being respectful is a great best practice we can utilize to defuse the tension our directness may cause. We should both deliver and receive it that way. Use phrases like “Are you open to a different perspective?”, “I might suggest…” or “Please consider this…” when offering feedback. Where applicable, offer sincere praise for things done well in addition to feedback on challenges or ways to improve.
  7. Be constructive and helpful. Negative feedback can sometimes hurt, but we should view it is a gift aimed at helping the recipient improve performance and avoid future mistakes. One way to be more helpful is to be clear about the challenging behaviors we have observed and in the suggestions we offer for improvement. Use unambiguous language and offer concrete examples when ever possible.
  8. Avoid embarrassment. It will sometimes be necessary in meetings to have difficult conversations with our colleagues and we should be mindful that we do not want to embarrass them while still delivering an honest and helpful message. There is a huge difference between picking projects apart and picking people
  9. Be more curious. We often miss opportunities for candid and substantive conversations because we fail to ask questions and show genuine curiosity. Asking probing questions of others rather than merely stating our opinions can often provide an opportunity to bring difficult topics to light. Examples can look like this: “Mike, do you feel like you are having the kind of success you hoped for in your new role?” or “Sarah, I am concerned that you might miss your goals this Quarter. What do you see as the obstacles in your way and how can I help you overcome them?”
  10. Candor is best when delivered in person. As a rule, nothing should ever be conveyed via email that is emotional, awkward or subject to misinterpretation. If it all possible, I would encourage delivering candid feedback in private to ensure maximum receptivity. Candor is best suited to in-person conversations or by phone if necessary.
  11. Promote candor through team accountability. Real collaboration is unlikely to occur when people don’t trust one another to speak with candor. Suggest to your team that candor be required in every team or staff meeting and be sure to model it for others. Take turns holding each other accountable for this behavior and do not be afraid to respectfully call out your colleagues when someone avoids addressing difficult issues.
  12. No jerks allowed. There is no place for bullying or boorish behavior in this vision of a candid workplace. Demeaning our colleagues in any way should not be tolerated in cultures that claim to value their employees.

In my own experience, I have found that my effectiveness in having candid conversations with anyone is predicated on the other person trusting that I am sincerely trying to be helpful. I own the responsibility to earn that trust and do so through investing heavily in building authentic relationships with my business network. There are no tricks, gimmicks or hidden agendas, but a lot of hard work (as illustrated by the 12 best practices above) to ensure that I am doing my part in encouraging mutually respectful candid conversations. These conversations provide a great opportunity to apply The Golden Rule and treat others as I wish to be treated.

The Fruits of Candor and a Call to Action

If you sincerely implement these best practices with consistency, people in all areas of your life will begin to seek you out for candid insights and advice because they can count on you to deliver what so few people in their circles are willing to provide. Whether you are a subordinate or a manager, the key is to take some sort of action to increase the candor and flow of honest dialogue in your organization. If you do nothing, you are just reinforcing unproductive patterns. But, if you are willing to do something, you can help trigger a cycle of increasing self-awareness, personal growth and elevated performance for yourself and others — and create a much more enjoyable and trusting work environment for everyone.

Professionals who intentionally embrace candor will encourage, and even reward, straight talk from their colleagues and teams. They understand that whatever momentary discomfort they may experience is more than offset by the fact that better information and honest conversations helps them make better decisions. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to institutionalize candor on a large scale. Candid behavior at the top of the leadership chain is critical, but lasting change in this area requires sustained effort, focus, and constant vigilance from each of us regardless of our title. It also requires a sincere willingness to own our behavior and make the necessary changes. This is the clear challenge I am asking each of us to accept as a positive step towards making an impactful difference in our companies today.

Will you take on the “candor challenge”?

Randy Hain is the president of Serviam Partners, the award-winning author of seven books, an executive coach, leadership consultant and thought leader on business relationships. All of his books are available on Amazon.com

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