The Lost Art Of Candor In The Workplace

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In the world of management, it is rare to find a common answer on how an organization should be run. However. if there’s one truism is most often shared, it is that great work is contingent on a willingness to be judged. Candor among talented teams is no small feat, but executives across industries will tell you that it is the universal gold standard.

And yet, as reported on Help Scout, 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.

Help Scout explains:

“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 that 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 surface unpleasant news. 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 understated— a vast amount of research shows that criticism tends to loom over everyone, including superstars.

Help Scout shares Professor Roy F. Baumeister’s notable paper on this subject, “Bad is Stronger than Good,” which “shows that it often takes five positive events to balance out a single negative one, depending on the severity.”

In addition, there are different personality types when it comes to feedback, 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 end, you have a group I call the “craftsmen” (and women). They are the ones who pour themselves into projects, and they 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 balance and to encourage an understanding that candor is a two-way street, Greg McKeown recommends that teams realize the necessity of emotional filters in the workplace by following these two pieces of advice:

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 be made 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.

How Brevity Encourages Honesty

The calling card of dishonest talk is superfluous language. Consultant Peter Bregman has an interesting take on putting this idea into practice. He argues that getting to the tough part of a conversation first is a helpful habit that promotes candor. Suspense heightens anxiety and only serves to make the entire interaction worse:

“Next time you have a conversation you’re dreading, lead with the part you’re dreading. Get to the conclusion in the first sentence. Cringe fast and cringe early. It’s a simple move that few of us make consistently because it requires emotional courage. At least the first time.”

Ed Catmull, current president of Pixar Studios and author of Creativity Inc., says that when this sort of culture is achieved among a talented group of people, magic can happen. His team used to refer to the process as their “Brain Trust,” but the goal was the same: to get to a place where one could hear honest, direct feedback about the work.

“At that time [while working on Toy Story], we got a few things right. We did have a culture where the artists and the technical people were peers with each other. The other thing we had was something which we called “The Brain Trust.”

We had a certain group of people who were very remarkable at telling stories. And part of being remarkable [was] that they had complete trust in each other. And they were very often what you might call “brutally honest,” except for them they thought of it as “necessarily honest,” and it was always taken that way. It was never a matter of ego or about putting somebody down; it was always about the story.

And therefore you could say something hard and it was taken in the right spirit. Getting that kind of camaraderie in a key group of people is just gold.”

By making doing better work the supreme objective, the most talented employees will thrive. To learn more about the concept of candor and its role in the workplace, check out the full piece on Help Scout here.

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