Developing a culture of candor is an effective strategy for teamwork, innovation and greater speed. Instant candor and fast feedback help working relationships. Candor improves the quality of work and encourages ideas to develop. It is a radical way to make a workplace culture simpler and speedier.
However, instilling candor into an organization is challenging. People are human, people are afraid, people are nervous of offending people. Speaking up and speaking out requires bravery, recklessness or a specific type of culture. If you want a truth-based organization or team, you need to look at it, person by person and leader by leader, and find ways to make it part of the culture.
This approach does not just enhance the boss/employee relationship. Implemented thoroughly, it is about peer-to-peer accountability and is, crucially, a powerful tool to avoid the backstabbing that can occur in the workplace. It is also your best weapon to reduce your complicit support of office “politics.” The best-selling American author Patrick Lenconi defines this type of mendacious maneuvering in the workplace: “Politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think.” That is, words are actions that are likely to be manipulative or insincere, obnoxious or aggressive, instead of being radical enough to be candid.
You’d assume that a less political, more open culture might be a more constructive place to be, but it’s also a place where things can move forward faster because, if this culture of candor is rolled out across the team, there is no time wasted on second-guessing what the other person is thinking. Iterative, marginal gains are a shared goal. Everyone can commit to making the boat go faster through honest conversations that highlight the opportunities to improve.
In the 2004 Summer Olympics, the British Men’s Coxless 4 won gold in the nail-biting photo-finish rowing competition. They had spent four years training for a race that lasted only six minutes, and Great Britain beat Canada by a time of only eight hundredths of a second. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the British rower Matthew Pinsent wept at the medal ceremony.
The team was coached for this event by Jürgen Gröbler, who has worked with gold medal-winning teams for an eye-watering 11 consecutive Olympic Games. One of the keys to the team’s success was a simple question: “How will we make the boat go faster?” This question provided a powerful focus point for giving feedback and making tough decisions. Team members made the commitment to one another: “We must say and do what it takes to make the boat go faster.”
It’s an unrelenting focus on improvement, and by fixating on how to reach that target, the crew members had a context in which they continued to provide world-beating performances day after day, even when the big day was still years away. That winning time of only eight hundredths of a second led to gold. When reflecting on their success, team members said that a significant factor was their commitment to one another – they’d promised each other that they would call out and say what was needed to make their boat go faster, no matter how uncomfortable it was. The British Men’s Coxless 4 was united by a focus on a shared goal.
There is a reason sports teams are so often cited as examples of teamwork; you can see the results of what they do, and their shared goal is normally crystal-clear. In the workplace, people’s personal goals are frequently at odds with the team goal, or the prioritization of individual attainment challenges the team goal. If you want to go faster, candor helps force a shared debate about the positive results of unity.
Here are five ways to instill candor into your culture and communications.
1. Be radical.
Help others with constructive, considered candor. Help yourself by saving time. If you are leading, mentoring and developing people, consider how you can practice radical candor and help them develop and build confidence as they grow. If you care (about the business and the people), then well-framed, considerate honesty is a way to accelerate development and your team unity. Assess your feedback processes, formal and informal, with your line manager or mentees. Share the accelerating power of candor, and consider what more you can do to show that you care.
2. Commit to candor together.
A culture that encourages radical candor will make relationships clearer, save time, and encourage people to grow and flourish. It needs to be constructive and balanced, not manipulative or abusive. The truth helps the boat go faster, but only if everyone in the boat is committed to the truth and to rowing in the same direction. Take time as a team to explore what roles greater truthfulness and transparency could take on. Make candor part of your “charter.”
3. Ask, listen and understand the real story.
Create easy, open ways to share ideas and opinions to gain full value from all the brains in the organization. Consciously and frequently ask, “Is there something we aren’t saying?” What is the “mokita” (a word from Kivila, a language spoken in Papua New Guinea)– the unspoken thing that everyone knows but no one mentions? Be brave and supportive of each other in your candid relations, with a clear awareness that you are all aiming for the same goal. Designate people to be “listeners-in-chief,” or people whose role it is to amplify voices. Practice clarifying what you are thinking with others in order to encourage them to do the same.
4. Set up a fast feedback loop wherever you can.
Set in motion ways to receive fast feedback as you go – by using technology or through people interaction. Whenever a plan is put in place, ask what the feedback loop will be. Is it timely? Is it truthful? Is it going to be used to inform and evolve your approach?
5. Embrace creative abrasion and zones of uncomfortable debate.
Progress is made through creative abrasion, debate and discussion. If you want to make things happen quickly, make it as easy as possible for your customers, employees and team. If you want to improve the quality of fast thinking, make time for arguments to take place, and create an environment that relishes diversity and development. Recognize the value of entering the zone of uncomfortable debate in one-on-one discussions, and enjoy the ability to review ideas in psychological safety. Accept the difference between agreement and alignment in your team, and be prepared to “disagree and commit.” Have the courage to debate but the discipline to make things happen once a decision has been made.
Look at product and strategy development to understand how you can use creative abrasion as a consistent part of the process. As a team, discuss who will have the final say on key decisions, and allow time for input and uncomfortable, vigorous debate.
We are all trying to help our organizations operate at the right pace in a world that is moving “superfast.” Exploring candor may well – honestly – be the best policy.