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Imagine this scenario. The leader of a project team is gung ho about the rollout of a new product, but several of his subordinates are not in favor of it. Rather than being candid about their objections, they hold back and go along with their boss’s opinions. Research on the project is conducted and data collected. Unfortunately, the facts and figures aren’t as favorable as anticipated. The leader doesn’t solicit information from his team for fear of hearing bad news, and his subordinates play down the real story, not wanting to put a damper on their boss’s enthusiasm. The end result? Plans proceed, and the project fails.

How often does this situation (or something similar) play out in your organization? In the book Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor, Warren Bennis says that organizations “need candor the way the heart needs oxygen.” Other commentators agree that candor is absolutely vital to an organization’s effectiveness.

Why is speaking in a candid, forthright way so difficult? For some people, it’s a matter of being polite and not wanting to hurt others’ feelings. For others, it’s the fear of being perceived in a negative way or the worry that being frank and telling the truth will result in harmful repercussions. Maybe the person doesn’t feel comfortable with the resistance or emotions that often come along with being open and honest. For whatever reason, though, it’s sometimes easier either to stay silent or take the “politically correct” approach and say what is expected rather than rocking the boat.

When organizations endorse practices and systems that discourage candid communication, the fallout can be seen in multiple ways:

  • The environment is characterized by mistrust and fear.
  • Innovation and creativity are stifled.
  • Poor performance can be overlooked, and productivity declines.
  • “Groupthink” becomes the norm.
  • Office politics and game playing increase.

A recent survey by Fierce, Inc. (1,400 corporate executives, educators, and individual contributors across multiple industries) found a huge gap between desired behaviors and the reality of the workplace in the area of candor. Ninety-nine percent of the respondents prefer a workplace in which people identify and discuss issues truthfully, but only 44% believe their organization has a candid environment. The survey also showed that 70% of the respondents believe a lack of candor within their organization impacts the company’s ability to perform optimally.

In order to create a culture of candor in an organization, both leaders and the people who work under them need to support an environment of openness and trust. Below are ways both groups can communicate more clearly and directly, even when addressing sensitive or contentious issues.

  • Don’t just welcome openness; insist on it. Leaders set the tone for the rest of the group, so if unsettling news or different points of view are greeted with an automatic smackdown, it only will ensure that the “conspiracy of silence,” as some people have called it, continues. Leaders need to be curious, ask questions, and challenge old assumptions so that others feel “safe” to offer a contrasting view. In the Fierce study mentioned earlier, 98% of respondents believe a leader’s decision-making process should include input from the people impacted by the decision, and 40% feel leaders and decision makers consistently fail to ask.
  • Be aware of the barriers to communication in a hierarchy. When organizations have rigid, hierarchical structures, opportunities for open and honest dialogue can be diminished because people may feel fearful or intimidated.  Leaders should ensure that the everyday “give and take” in communication is vibrant and ongoing. Reducing the focus on power and status and redirecting efforts toward a common goal help make everyone feel as though they have something valuable to contribute.
  • Model giving and receiving effective feedback. Once again, the leader has a huge influence on the overall environment. If the leader demonstrates by his own behavior that he is willing to listen, be open to new ideas, react non-defensively to constructive criticism, etc., it will go a long way in building mutual trust.
  •  Be trustworthy yourself. The connection between trust and candor cannot be overestimated. Demonstrating integrity in your own behavior and communications is the first step.
  • Be willing to say what you really think, not just what you think others want to hear. There may be risks involved in being frank and direct, but unexplored differences of viewpoints can be very damaging to an organization.  Leaders are counting on people to talk to them straight, even when they might have to hear something unsettling. Diverse points of view are essential to the decision making process; make sure yours is heard.
  • Build conflict resolution skills. A climate of candor may lead to increased conflict because issues and problems are brought the forefront. The more effective you are at managing conflict, the more likely you’ll see the positive results of conflict such as increased creativity, collaboration, and productivity.

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