Candor: Tell it like it is, or pay the price.

Through my work, and with numerous client projects over the last 20 years, I have witnessed and identified many admirable leadership qualities. However, in my experience, the ability to model and utilize candor is the behavior that best predicts high performing teams, and the single most important success factor in transformation and change. Leaders that exhibit high levels of candor produce the highest and most successful performing teams.

So what is candor?  Candor is the ability to express oneself with honesty, openness and sincerity.

The lack of candor in your organization slows down action, because when groups of people are not speaking plainly, it’s a lot harder to make good, fast decisions. When lots of ideas and healthy debate are occurring, people open up, and they learn and take action.

Lack of candor on your team kills off potentially great ideas. People don’t share their ideas in environments where it is not safe to do so. When ideas are discussed and considered, they often become improved by the group.

Lack of candor diminishes employee engagement. People engage when they feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. When leadership is not transparent about where the organization is and where it is going, employees naturally pull back sensing/deciding that the lack of transparency means something must be wrong.  When candor is modeled, people feel like it is safer to participate and get involved.

Lack of candor costs your organization money. You will never be able to quantify this exactly; however, think about the meaningless meetings or the performance conversations you have participated in this year. How would candor have saved time and therefore money?

When I talk about lack of candor, I am not talking about malicious dishonesty – not at all.  I am talking about the inclination to hold back important comments, avoid important debate, white wash a situation or hoard information.  This behavior is a silent killer in organizations and it is alive and well in in our society, and therefore in our businesses.

Within moments of meeting someone, our brain is deciding whether they are friend or foe. We innately know if someone is being honest, sincere and open even though we may not consciously acknowledge it.   When you are being candid, it signals to others that you are open to a transparent conversation, and that you can be trusted. Candor always leads to trust.

When we learn how to be candid, we start creating a feeling of safety for ourselves and others. From this place of trust we can build deeper relationships. This is as simple as you learning to share honestly about yourself and/or to focus on the relationship before focusing on the task.

So if candor makes such a difference, why aren’t we all rushing to develop this ability? As Jack Welch puts it, “People don’t speak their minds, because it is easier not to.” In other words, lack of candor is about self-interest or self-preservation.

It’s paradoxical really, in our effort to avoid unpleasantness we actually create far more unpleasantness. In our effort to gain favor with the boss, we create distrust.  In our effort to belong and not alienate others, we end up alienating everyone, because lack of candor is the ultimate form of alienation.

You are no doubt wondering how to bring candor to the workplace, when lack of candor seems to be in our very nature. If we go back to the idea that candor generates trust, and trust leads to the experience of feeling safe, we have a good place to start. It’s all about creating a safe environment that can support candor. This is very simple, but not necessarily easy.

If you want to see more candor in the workplace you have got to build rewards around it – praise it, talk about it, set up communication feedback loops with employees, talk about the vision, and most importantly, train your leaders to model candor.

On this last point, there really is nothing soft about soft skills. Leaders have to be continuously trained in communication skills, and rewarded for their application of it with employees.  Don’t expect them to just have competency here. Identify what competencies are important, make it part of your review process and give bonuses based on those competencies. Specifically, the type of training you want to provide your leaders is:

  • Listening: When people feel heard they feel it is safe to speak.
  • Being a learner versus a know it all: When leaders model curiosity, employees are encouraged to innovate and share ideas.
  • Giving and receiving feedback: When people understand where they stand, they are more trusting.
  • Sharing openly: When people sense sincerity, they are more trusting.
  • Debating issues without attacking people: When people don’t feel attacked, they listen and offer their opinion.
  • Leading effective meetings: When a meeting is led well, everyone participates, and everyone benefits.
  • Articulating vision: When everyone sees the big picture, self-preservation behaviors such as hoarding information are lessened.
  • Managerial courage: When leaders face situations quickly, openly and directly, employees develop confidence in their leadership.

By setting the context for candor throughout your organization, and in all of your leadership interactions, you also level the playing field. You set the tone for people to be candid with each other, and candor leads to trust.


About the Author:

Alicia Marie has become a national leader in the field of Leadership Development. For over 18 years, she has coached and trained managers, leaders and sales profes­sionals on how to build lives and businesses truly worth having.