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Creating a Culture of Candor in the Workplace

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In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he reviewed data from airline accidents. “The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication. One pilot knows something important and somehow doesn’t tell the other pilot.” In an emergency pilots need to “communicate not just in the sense of issuing commands but also in the sense of sharing information in the clearest and most transparent manner possible.” Your firm’s culture of candor or lack thereof may not rise to the level of an airline crash but firms with a true culture of candor have a premium in annual growth and shareholder returns according to a Harvard Business Review study.

The Human Nature Problem

The hoarding of information is persistent in organizations of all kinds. Leaders believe information is power so they keep it for their own use. These same leaders often punish subordinates for bringing bad news. If a culture of groupthink exists in an organization, team members don’t know how to disagree without being labeled as disloyal or a troublemaker. People fail to question or disagree with a charismatic associate or leader, or with a punitive leader.

Disagreeing Employee Options

In the 1970s Albert Hirschman wrote that disagreeing employees have only three options: exit, voice or loyalty. They can do a principled resignation to try to change a policy or they can remain team players despite their unaccepted or unappreciated opposition. Most choose the path of least resistance by swallowing their objections or disagreements with dictates or policies they disagree with due to fear of punishment if they try. A culture of candor provides a pathway, even a preference, to hear from the disagreeing employee, and, in this tight labor market, retaining critical thinking employees is a must.

Creating a Culture of Candor

Open Leadership – Everyday actions like the consistent sharing of information, openly admitting mistakes, a willingness to publicly change their mind when presented with better evidence and true open-door policies go a long way in creating a culture of candor. It enables and even encourages the speaking of “truth to power.”

Institutionalize Debate – Stimulate out-of-the-box thinking by encouraging more inclusive conversations and productive disagreements. Institute debate friendly rules for meetings. Dr. Gary Klein, an expert on decision-making, proposed implementing a PreMortem Analysis. He likened this to a medical post mortem where they try to learn what happened only doing it BEFORE the plan is implemented. He described it like this, “Now everybody around the table, take two minutes and write down all the reasons you think of why this plan might fail. Its a contest to show that you can come up with a good problem that other people haven’t even thought of. Show me how smart you are by the kinds of problems you can identify, the things you can anticipate that we haven’t considered so far.”

Training – While candor is beneficial, speaking honestly about difficult subjects isn’t easy. Training to learn how to deliver negative messages constructively without being hurtful is critical to the success of creating a culture of candor. Rewarding appropriately and positively for openness and dissent isn’t easily defined or typically natural human behavior so should be part of the training process.

Accept the Internet Impact – The ability to keep secrets is vanishing in large part due to the internet. Organizations, leadership and employees need to accept that all actions and information is becoming one click away, and build structures that support and nurture that information accessibility.

Building a culture of candor requires ongoing effort, sustained attention and constant vigilance, but the payoffs for employees and organizations is worth it.

Interested in discussing your organizational recruiting needs to foster your culture of candor? Contact Smith Hanley Associates’ Market Research and Consumer Insights Executive Recruiter, Lindsey Bartlett at lbartlett@smithhanley.com.

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