In an effort to avoid conflict, leaders and team members often conceal their true feelings, withhold their opinions or outwardly agree and go along with the crowd when inside they are vehemently opposed. For some, this lack of candour also extends to hoarding information or avoiding communicating with others entirely, in an effort to save face or get and stay ahead of the pack.
Strength of the strategic plan and the ability for executives to collaborate cross-silo with their teams depends considerably on the trust and respect that exists within and between teams. The willingness to come forward with authenticity and transparency, to be frank in saying what’s true for me, is a key factor in building up that trust and respect.
In Jack Welch’s book Winning, he describes a lack of candour as businesses’ “dirty little secret”. Welch summarizes the positive effects of candor on an organization as:
- Creating better outcomes: getting more people in on the conversation leads to more minds and more ideas.
- Speeding things up in the process: surface, debate, improve, decide.
- Cutting costs: replace boring meetings, pointless updates, and presentations with real conversations about the core issues.
It makes perfect sense. So why aren’t we more candid? One reason is that we’re taught not to be at a young age. Sensitive or awkward issues are softened or avoided. Our parents scolded us for pointing out something that we thought was obvious but “wasn’t a nice thing to point out.” But the main reason we’re not candid is simple: it’s easier not to be.
Healthy debate requires an understanding of the difference between ideological versus interpersonal conflict. Ideological conflict is healthy and constructive in that we are disagreeing on what we feel is best for the organization, the merits of a decision, or the way to proceed. Interpersonal conflict is damaging because focus is on difficulties with the other person.
Encouraging healthy debate and frank conversation is a great way to ensure that we aren’t simply doing things the way they’ve always been done. It pushes us to think about things in new ways, consider new lines of business, and take a second look at things we assumed we would always do. As a leader, modeling the behaviours that actively promote candour within your organization is a key part of your role. Here are a few ways to model candour, to build it in to your culture and to open your organization up to new ideas and ways of doing business:
Be real. Take some time to think about where you might be staying silent simply because it feels easier. From there, make the decision to be frank and speak your mind as often as possible. Focus on sharing information factually without spending too much time trying to “spin it.” Most people are smart enough to see through the spin and will feel that you’re probably hiding more than you’re sharing.
Encourage push back from below. Insist that the people who report to you and their direct reports come forward and share their thoughts, especially when they disagree with your ideas. Instead of being defensive, ask questions, support the dialogue, and most of all, reward this behaviour. Those closest to the problem or closest to the customer likely have more facts and experience than you in many situations and will most likely be able to come up with a stronger solution than you might be considering.
Have difficult conversations. Get better at having difficult conversations. And have them more often. Although people may not like the message you are delivering sometimes, in the long run they will respect you if your approach and intention are solid. The more you and other leaders in the company are honest about what’s happening, the more commonplace it becomes for people organization-wide to say what’s on their mind.
Look outside your team for data. Find ways to gather information from all of your stakeholders on a regular basis. Having conversations with customers, suppliers, competitors, other executives, industry peers, and front-line team members, can broaden your perspective. Seeing the value in actively seeking information using a multifaceted approach helps ensure you stay open to what others have to say.
Fess up. When you screw up, fess up. This shows your team that it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to be human, as long as you come forward and share your experience and learning with the team. When others come to you when something has gone wrong, help them move quickly to solution, and applaud the turnaround. Take the fear out of trying new things in different ways by being open about your own “experiments.” This type of prototyping will significantly improve creativity and innovation.
Increase transparency. Find ways to provide added transparency: be open about corporate strategy, competitive analysis, strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. Share your financials and metrics with team members on a weekly or monthly basis and provide them with the training to understand the numbers they are presented with (showing the numbers without the training is pointless and will only lead to confusion). Doing so makes sharing information the norm in your organization instead of hoarding, limiting or hiding it.
There’s no question that creating a culture of candour in your organization will improve outcomes, significantly reduce silos, and encourage a wider perspective. Empower and motivate your people at all levels of the organization to speak up, be heard and challenge the status quo.
Mike Desjardins is a transformation specialist at Virtus, a strategic planning and leadership development consultancy based in Vancouver for entrepreneurial business as well as public companies.