May I Be Candid With You?

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Aug 15th, 2010

Let’s hope so. According to some well-respected business leaders, including Jack Welch, candor is a major ingredient to business success. According Welch’s 2005 book, Winning, candor helps businesses succeed by getting people in the conversation. When employees and other leaders speak freely about their ideas, it helps them engage and connect to your company’s mission. Candor also encourages diversity of thought. It’s a given that diversity of thought exists in organizations. As leaders, we’ve got to mine for it, though. It is up to the strong leader to encourage the expression of candor.

Another bonus of candor is how quickly it feeds the development process. When all of the ideas are on the table, they can be thoroughly evaluated, debated, and decided upon. There are no missed opportunities or ideas that weren’t explored for fear of public opinion.

So far, it looks like candor is the magic pill. Did you know that candor can cut costs, too? According to Welch, candor cuts costs by eliminating the need to discuss things we already know. Makes sense, right? When sales leads are down 28% percent for the quarter, I don’t need a pretty PowerPoint Presentation to tell me that I am receiving less money this quarter than I was receiving in the previous quarter. I also don’t need a meeting to decide whether or not profits are actually down. In an environment with limited time, any meeting that I attend needs to be fiercely focused on rebuilding my market share.

Yes, candor does sound wonderful and apparently GE has gotten the hang of it. Does it really work that way for the average company, though? As easy as the recipe is, it should. After all, the book on how to be candid is pretty short. Actually, it doesn’t even have pages. Just a simple title: Speak Your Mind!

Unfortunately, in my experience, there aren’t too many people reading this particular book. I have worked with and for some wonderful companies. I have even worked with companies that practiced the GE leadership principles and proselytized candor. The fault of these companies was their failure to recognize that their employees candor ended where management’s opinions began. While CEOs and top leaders can espouse the virtues of candor, if your mid-level leaders and front line employees feel too intimidated to express their true opinions, candor isn’t happening.

There are several reasons people refuse to be candid at work. Fear of retribution, not wanting to be branded as a maverick, and not wanting to present a threat to their leaders come to mind. Fortunately, I only have had to deal with a lack of candor in the work environment. In my personal life, candor is abundant. And while the availability of unbridled thought and opinion can be frustrating, I must admit that these things are what make my marriage as strong as it is.

I think another important reason people shy away from candor is the need for acceptance. Let’s face it, everybody wants a friend. When trying to build relationships and networks, we stay on the safe side of communication. We may even give false praise; refuse to give the full truth; or sugar coat reality. As an only child, I am definitely guilty of being “nice” to build and preserve bonds. It is a difficult character trait to change, but as I have realized, if the goal is to receive value in business and personal interactions, the change must occur.

Without a doubt, candor is important in business. And no matter where you lie in your organization’s food chain, it is up to you to be candid. You can’t always sit back and hope your colleagues will speak up. Generally, it doesn’t happen. And when it does, your colleagues rarely express the message the way you would.

Don’t be fooled though, candor comes at a cost. I have heard it said that organizational change agents and instigators of thought rarely stay at an organization more than five years. Generally, they move on after 3 years. Some of the moves are the result of a stifling culture that they can no longer bear and sometimes they are asked to leave due to their uncanny ability to tip the balance of power.

Considering candor could cost you your job, is it worth it to engage? Well, you have to answer that question for yourself. For me, the answer is absolutely, positively, one hundred percent, “YES!”. Despite the risks of candor, it is well worth it to engage. The objective of any meaningful career should be challenge. If you only challenge yourself, and not those around you, your growth will be limited. Seize the day!

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