Workplace Communication: Where Has All the Candor Gone?

Workplace Communication: Where Has All the Candor Gone?

Candor among talented teams is no small feat, but executives across industries will tell you that it is the universal gold standard.

  • Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, called it the "dirty little secret" in business that can chain an organization to mediocrity if it is not developed.
  • Carlos Brito, CEO of InBev, claims that direct, honest feedback about performance becomes a "lost art" in many corporate environments in favor of coddling and conflict workarounds.
  • Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup, candidly states that innovation was stifled at her company because leadership sought to drive organizational consensus (i.e., "something we can all agree on") instead of rewarding the courage to address the hard problems.

And yet, cultivating candor requires a very delicate balance. Teams must carefully tread the line between "brutally honest" and "necessarily honest." One is about putting people down while the other is about the free flow of information.

The free flow of information

Candor among teams hinges on the ability of information to flow freely and be uninhibited. When feedback is tainted - candy-coated for the boss, delivered softly to a failing employee - the problem and potential solutions become opaque. Nobody knows what to do because nobody truly knows what is happening (or worse, they think they know but have misleading information).

A lack of straightforwardness affects an organization on every level. Relationships among teams can become one-eye-open affairs, projects can get muddied by circular talk, and nobody in the company can assess where they stand.

A workplace that values candor need not tell every employee every little bit of information, but it should structure the flow of information so that the facts reach the people who matter so they can make better decisions.

Managers must insist on candor at all times. They must reach out and solicit intelligence from as many people as possible. They must accept, and even welcome, troubling information when it's delivered to them, and praise those with the courage to bring unpleasant news to the surface. They must create systems designed to ensure good information flows to those who need it. And they must make it clear they are not interested in incessant happy talk.

The problem lies in finding the sweet spot between "incessant happy talk" and maliciously raining on someone's parade. Brutally honest feedback, when delivered in a bludgeoning fashion, can hurt morale and damage the relationship with an otherwise great employee.

Criticizing vs. critiquing

There is a vast difference between picking projects apart and picking people apart. When you need to give "necessarily honest" feedback to an otherwise solid employee, the importance of focusing on the work cannot be overstated. A vast amount of research shows that criticism tends to loom over everyone, including superstars.

Professor Roy Baumeister's notable paper on this subject, "Bad Is Stronger than Good," shows that it often takes five positive events to balance out a single negative one, depending on the severity.

The late Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University and author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, posits that negative emotions stick because they are more likely to be dwelled upon: "Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones... Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events - and use stronger words to describe them - than happy ones."

If that doesn't sound surprising, perhaps it's because most people are very intuitive in picking up on these subtleties of social interaction. We know harsh feedback follows us around like a dark cloud, hence why many of us are less willing to dole it out.

When it comes to feedback, there also tend to be different sorts of personalities, operating on a sliding scale. On one end, you have "bottom line" people who regard feedback in a fairly removed and calculated manner; they are most often responsible for evaluating others' work. On the other, you have a group I call the "craftsmen" (and women); they are the ones who pour themselves into projects and tend to react strongly to criticism because they are so invested in the work being criticized.

Every team will consist of a melting pot of these personalities. To find a balance and to encourage an understanding that candor is a two-way street, author Greg McKeown recommends that teams realize the necessity of developing two emotional filters in the workplace:

  1. Protect yourself from others. When evaluating feedback you've been given, consider the source. Brash, cold personalities may give feedback that cuts deeply - it's just how they communicate. A mistake to avoid here is in listening too much or in taking comments to heart from someone who simply speaks in an abrasive manner.
  2. Protect others from yourself. Candor does not mean disregarding other people's feelings. If you're the one giving feedback, it is a strategic misstep to interact too brazenly when you're just discussing the quality of recent work. Confrontations should be reserved for the worst of behavior, not when letting someone know that more polish is needed.

Being a superstar means being able to bring out the best in others as well in yourself. Giving and receiving feedback are valuable skills that should be treated, honed, and rewarded as such. One way teams can better embrace this process is to view feedback in a creative bubble - a "safe zone" where it is only the work that matters.

Next time: Examples of "real talk"; and how brevity encourages honesty.

Gregory Ciotti is customer champion and resident content marketer at Help Scout, which provides help desk software that enables teams to deliver personalized customer service at scale. To learn more, call 855-435-7726 or visit Help Scout online.

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