If there’s one thing that’s in short supply in almost every organization, at every level, it’s straight talk – candor. It’s business’s biggest dirty little secret that in most companies, most people would rather hide or spin the truth than share it, making it hard for everyone to bring the reality of the situation to the surface and fix it.
That’s human nature, of course. We all have an innate instinct that tells us from a young age to prevent awkwardness and avoid hurting feelings. Or maybe we’re afraid of the very real organizational consequences of being candid in a company culture that doesn’t welcome openness.
But, assuming your organization wants it, getting candor right – with your reports, your peers, and your boss – is a skill that can make or break your career. Here’s how to make it work with all three.
STRAIGHT TALK WITH YOUR TEAM
When it comes to candor with your direct reports, the best approach is to have quarterly reviews where you sit down and say, “Here’s what you’re doing well and here’s what you need to do better.” That way, there’s no BS around it.
The word “need” is very important because people tend to listen to what they’re good at and they might not hear the tougher message if you soften it too much. Now, this process doesn’t have to involve long HR forms and pages of documentation. It can be as simple as a handwritten note on a little card with the two columns above.
This kind of appraisal has to be done frequently – at least twice a year. At our management school, we do it quarterly. As a leader, the more you can give candid feedback, the more everybody wins. You win because you’re not harboring it and becoming passive aggressive. The other person also benefits because they get what they need to improve.
We know someone who started her own company and she recently told us how she hired a good friend of hers who is now really screwing up her business. When we asked, “Have you told him?”, she said, “Oh, I know I should but I haven’t done it yet. I’m worried about hurting his feelings… But I’m getting really passive-aggressive because I’m so mad about it.”
In this situation, everyone loses and the ending is never pretty.
THE PEER-TO-PEER MINEFIELD
Candor in peer-to-peer discussions is almost always difficult, but avoiding it is never helpful. Say you’re running Division X and the other guy running Division Y is mucking up your thing in X. But, you need Division Y’s political, technical, or sales support for various reasons. How can you be candid and honest without sabotaging yourself?
In this situation, friendship will carry you a long way. We have an edict – love everyone you work with. If you cross purposes with someone at work, you’ve got to remember that — “love everyone.” Keep it in a note in your drawer. If you start to see “them” as the enemy and your teams get Balkanized, it’s really important to say to yourself, “This is what I really like about this person. I’m going to assume they have the best intentions. Let’s have that candid conversation but not go in as enemies.”
Taking your colleagues out to lunch or going to dinner and really getting to know them is all the better. These days, you can type an email to somebody sitting in the next cubicle. But don’t let technology replace relationships. One of our kids works in a company where all the employees in their group have lunch together every single day. It might seem old fashioned, but imagine how it helps the work. We are huge advocates of people being friends at work — it just changes everything.