Communication plays an enormous role in a business’ potential success. Regardless of the quality of products or services that a company provides, the chances for a bright future are weakened if internal communication is poor.
There is more to it than just the basic concepts, like sharing ideas, information and feedback. It’s wise for CEOs to also put candor in focus. By emphasizing an open and honest dialogue, executives can encourage employees to truly speak their minds. Employees will feel more engaged by knowing that their opinions matter to the leadership team.
As Alan Murray wrote for The Wall Street Journal: “There are no silver bullets in the field of management. But insisting on candor comes as close to being an all-purpose problem-solver as any idea yet encountered. There are many different terms for it — transparency, integrity, honesty, full-disclosure, facing reality — but whatever you call it, it appears to be at the core of all great organizations.”
An example of the importance of candor comes in a story by Fast Company, which references a survey done by 15Five, of more than a thousand employees around the country. The results showed a vast majority (85 percent) are “unsatisfied with the quality of communication in their workplace,” and 81 percent “would rather join a company that values ‘open communication’ than one that offers perks such as top health plans, free food, and gym memberships.”
Here’s a look at how candor can strengthen a business’ overall communication.
Set the example
Business leaders can’t expect employees to share information and display open-and-honest candor if they’re not willing to take the same approach themselves. Communication is a two-way street, and management should do its part. Joseph Folkman emphasizes being “a role model of candor” in a story for Forbes.
“When you see an issue that needs to be challenged, speak up and be candid,” he writes. “Challenge standard procedures that don’t add significant value. When employees see you speaking up, they are more likely to do so as well. When they see you say nothing in a meeting with your superiors but then complain afterward about a decision your boss made, they will act the same way toward you.”
An unsettling feeling that employees may encounter in the workplace is uncertainty. Thoughts of “What are we doing? Where are we going?” when it comes to goals and overall direction can create anxiety. CEOs should put a heavy emphasis on making their vision clear, so that no one in the organization feels left out of the plan, and so employees can fully contribute to the open and honest discussion.
The Wall Street Journal detailed the importance of information flow in creating a “culture of candor” in a story adapted from its Guide to Management book, written by Murray: “That doesn’t mean everyone needs to know everything; but it does mean that critical information gets to the right people at the right time and for the right reason.”
Here are some of Murray’s points on information flow:
- Employee honesty: “One widespread problem is the difficulty of ‘speaking truth to power.’ When speaking to their bosses, most people inevitably color the message — softening bad news, or spinning it in a way that’s more likely to please the person in power. That can cause problems to go unaddressed.”
- Control: Some managers “hoard information as a source of power,” he writes. “If they have it, and others don’t, they can use that to justify their existence, or wield it selectively to achieve their own goals.”
- Costs: The expenses involved in a project may create communication breakdowns from employees and managers to executives, Murray writes. “If they’ve invested heavily in a project, they may be reluctant to pass on information showing that project has problems, or is failing.”
These are natural tendencies, Murray explains, so “managers must insist on candor at all times.”
Listen to all sides
It’s one thing for an executive to say he or she welcomes feedback. It’s another to follow through and actually seek it out. Employees may have valid points that run counter to the way the company usually operates, or complaints that may be hard for the leadership to hear. In a story for American Express’ OPEN Forum, Bruna Martinuzzi advises leaders to not strictly rely on “information from a few select employees.”
“Those who have ‘the boss’s ear’ might have personal agendas, and you might end up with biased information,” Martinuzzi says. “Contrasting opinions will help you see the different facets of important issues that you may have otherwise missed. Make sure you and your managers stay open to a number of sources of information from every corner of the company. For example, those closest to the customer, regardless of their level in the company, can provide valuable information to help you improve your products and services because they’re getting feedback directly from the end users.”
Caring and challenging
The importance of candor is a prime focus of Kim Scott, who served in management positions at Apple, Google and Twitter. She wrote the bestseller Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, which was published in 2017. In a story by Ron Carucci for Forbes, Scott describes the importance of honest feedback, calling it “the atomic building block of good management.”
“There is nothing more damaging to human relationships than an imbalance of power,” she explains. “Candor is the honest broker of truth that neutralizes the imbalance.”
Scott explains two sides of the “radical candor” concept in Carucci’s story:
- Caring personally: “To have good relationships, you have to care about others as human beings,” Scott says. “It’s not just business; it is personal. … It’s about acknowledging that we have lives and aspirations that extend beyond those related to our shared work. It’s about finding time for real conversations and getting to know one another at a human level. Only when you actually care about the whole person with your whole self can you have a relationship.”
- Challenging directly: This includes “telling people in caring, non-judgmental language when their work is falling short,” Carucci writes. “For many bosses, the fear of defensive, angry reactions, or estrangement from those we lead causes them to avoid the truth people are hungry for. But Scott says, ‘It’s true, challenging people generally pisses them off. But challenging people is the way you can help them improve, and when you’re the boss, it’s one of the best ways to show you care.’”
Turn complaints into progress
Everyone vents about their job in one way or another. It’s only natural that employees will have frustrations. Don Charlton, founder and chief product officer of JazzHR, describes a technique that helped him to improve the culture in a story for Inc.com. He presented a scenario in which employees could describe office problems as they would if they were discussing them outside of the office — a safe atmosphere that allowed them to be free in expressing themselves:
“You know that issue in the business that you vent about to friends at a bar, or a co-worker at lunch, or even someone at home? What about that issue that runs through your mind before bed and in the shower the next day? Yeah, that issue. Well that issue most likely only gets resolved if you mention it here. If you don’t mention it, we can’t fix it together, especially if some of us don’t even know about it. So speak up — this is a safe place to be candid.”
The result was a positive one. Charlton says that it “encouraged even the shyest employees to speak up.”
“They realized business problems that affect them outside of work can only get fixed when they are shared in the open at work, and all that time spent stressing at lunch, at a bar or at home is a self-imposed, avoidable intrusion of work problems into their personal life. And when the problem is brought to light, especially in a large public forum such as a staff meeting, management is now on notice to fix things. And good managers are thankful (never vengeful) that employees don’t assume they can see everything right and wrong about the business.”
The power of praise
Everyone naturally wants to know that they are appreciated. This can go beyond assignments and projects, and move into creating cultural improvements in the business. A story by Joseph Grenny for Harvard Business Review details the case of an unnamed executive (called “Phil” for the purposes of the story). Phil was president at a large defense company, and didn’t have a great track record when it came to candor, because of his “command and control” style of leadership. But he made a concerted effort to turn the culture around, Grenny writes, and he succeeded. One of the techniques that was successful was public praise related to voicing opinions.
Phil asked for employee feedback in an “Ask the President” feature in the company’s internal newsletter. His willingness to answer “the most universally asked and highly sensitive questions” made an impact.
“He was careful to sympathize with the questioners and to validate their concerns,” Grenny explains. “The workforce took note — seeing evidence that disagreement would no longer be treated as insubordination. Questions could be asked anonymously or not, and over time more and more of the questioners identified themselves — which gave Phil a chance to commend them in the newsletter for their candor. Public praise is more about influencing those who hear it than those who receive it.”