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Blog Thoughts on productive communication

Can We Be Candid?

Business literature (particularly in the US) is filled with calls for workforce candor. Jack Welch devoted an entire chapter to it in his best seller, Winning. Jim Collins encourages business leaders to “confront the brutal facts” to get from Good to Great. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan talk about the importance of “robust dialogue” in Execution. And for good reason: as Welch points out, when more people get in the conversation, “more ideas get surfaced, discussed, pulled apart, and improved.” This in turn enhances innovation and decision making while simultaneously reducing costs (Welch and Welch, 2005, p. 27).

As with most things that sound too good to be true, there’s more to creating candor than meets the eye. While candor holds great promise as a source of competitive advantage, it’s a rarity in organizational life. Leaders who seek to institutionalize candor find it elusive for three primary reasons:

  1. Candor lives between people, but the decision to practice candor is a personal one. It is a choice to make public some aspect of our private thoughts, feelings, or beliefs. Because the depth and breadth of these revelations can’t be fully known by others unless we tell them—even under duress—candor is an extension of our free will.
  2. Candor in its purest sense is an organic, messy process. Candor bubbles up rather than cascades down which makes it difficult for leaders to mandate candor as a cultural norm in their organizations.
  3. Most managers have an “approach-avoid” attitude toward candor. While they say they want it, most don’t want the conflict, frustration, and additional work they’ve experienced as by-products of candor. While a skilled leader (or outside facilitator) is able to manage the dynamics for productive ends, for most leaders, inviting candor can feel like opening Pandora’s Box.

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