Leading with Candor: Three Ways High-Performing Teams Say What Needs to Be Said

“I don’t want to offend them.” I’ve heard this rationale many times from leaders who were unwilling to be candid with others. Perhaps you’ve thought this yourself. I certainly have. Or, “I don’t want things to escalate.” Worse yet, “It’s easier to just let it go.” 

Leaders who don’t say what needs to be said might think they are preserving the peace or allowing someone else to save face. But in fact, when you don’t share useful, meaningful feedback, you are the one wearing the mask. You’re showing up as less than your best. You’re being inauthentic as a leader. And you’re hurting your team and your organization, too.

Being more courageous in your comments is a worthy goal. But it’s hard to lead with candor. There are many reasons leaders hold back. Perhaps you don’t want to appear uncaring. Or you’re concerned the other person will retaliate. It could be a fear of losing standing in the eyes of others if you’re wrong. Or you don’t want to stand out from the crowd by sharing an unpopular point of view.  

Some individuals struggle with wanting to be liked. For relational leaders, this is a common challenge. Their people skills are a strength. Yet many of the things they know they need to communicate can be hard for others to hear.

The Pitfalls of Holding Back

By not being straightforward, however, leaders create bigger problems. Not only are they missing out on an opportunity to help others improve upon their skills or their work, a leader’s silence can create an environment of fear. And when people are afraid to speak up for whatever reason, everyone pays a price:

  • A crucial new product launch fails because no one was willing to question its viability.
  • An important proposal is poorly received by top management because the project team wasn’t willing to ask for feedback in the early going.
  • A team member persists with an ineffective behavior because no one has the courage to tell them how they are coming across to others.
  •  A leader makes a decision that violates the company’s values because no one is willing to tell truth to power.
  • A company experiences a devastating sales slump because no one is willing to challenge the current business strategy.

Bigger yet, top talent leaves. What are they searching for? A fearless environment where:

  • Team members are willing to take calculated risk because they know others will help them course-correct as needed.
  • Products (or services) undergo rigorous review and improvement well before being launched.
  • Proposals receive constructive feedback in the development stages to ensure only the best ideas are brought forward.
  • Leaders operate with openness and transparency, so others feel confident in sharing differing points of view and identifying weaknesses in thinking.
  • Individuals receive specific coaching in the moment to help them improve upon their own performance.
  • Teams work in dynamic, collaborative models across organizational boundaries, producing unique ideas and innovative solutions that could never have been created in a siloed workplace.

Creating Psychological Safety
Sounds too good to be true. But it’s not. It’s the way fearless organization functions. High-performing teams thrive in psychologically safe environments like this, and intentional candor is a hallmark.

Significant research has been done over the past decade or so on the importance of psychological safety to business success. Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmonson is credited with discovering the correlation, which has even greater relevance to a leader’s work in today’s complex and uncertain world.

Individuals and teams that adapt more easily to change and are willing to take more risk to innovate do so because they are empowered by their leader to ask thoughtful questions, share constructive criticism, debate robustly and share diverse perspectives. They know how essential these things are to further the team’s mission to succeed in an increasingly disrupted marketplace. This is candor at its best.

Edmonson has a new book out, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. There are many practical applications for leaders to be found in this read, but perhaps her most compelling chapter for me was the one on candor.

In it, she profiles Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull as a leader who has figured out how to use candor to drive the studio’s relentless success – 19 animated feature films (e.g Toy Story and Finding Nemo) that have all been commercial or critical triumphs.

In a Fast Company article on the same subject, Catmull explains the power of candor and how it has helped Pixar accumulate such an enviable track record:

“A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments.”

Three Ways to Say What Needs to Be Said

But candor left unchecked can just as easily be a destructive force. Catmull and his team have been very intentional to ensure candor works for good. They have created something called the “Braintrust,” a small group that meets every few months to assess a movie in process, provide useful feedback to the director and help solve creative problems.

It’s a simple model for candor you can apply to your own workplace. Here are the guidelines for how the Braintrust operates as laid out in Edmonson’s book.

  1. Feedback must be constructive. And it must be about the project, not the person. At the same time, the one who is receiving feedback must remain open and not become defensive or take criticism personally.

  2. Comments are suggestions. In the Braintrust model, the group has no official authority. The director does not have to implement every idea proposed. Rather it is up to her or him to determine how to address the comments that were shared. Since the director is ultimately responsible, though, the feedback received is appreciated and carefully considered. It helps tremendously if people respect each other’s expertise.

  3. Feedback comes from a place of empathy. Those offering feedback have been previous recipients of feedback. They know how it feels to receive both praise and constructive criticism, and they know both are valuable. “The Braintrust is benevolent,” said Catmull. “It wants to help. It has no selfish agenda.” This mindset ensures feedback is not a “gotcha” experience; rather it seeks to affirm someone’s vision and help them find a better way of realizing it.

Six Suggestions for Making It Real

These guidelines can help you create a more candid environment. How can you make it real? Think of specific ways you could empower others to speak more openly and authentically that would further your team’s goals. Some ideas:

  • Insert a new step in your ideation process to gather outside “Braintrust”-type feedback on projects with potential.
  • Establish a buddy system for your team to practice giving and receiving comments on their work before it goes to the client.
  • Make an effort to give more spontaneous yet specific feedback to team members both on ways they have exceeded expectations as well as opportunities to improve.

Importantly, once you establish a culture of candor, you must stay close enough to ensure things don’t go off the rails. As Edmonson reminds us, candor, though simple, is never easy. A few suggestions:

  • Consider how you can tie candor to your team’s values to ensure it is well intended and well placed.
  • Ask for feedback periodically from your team on how candor is working or not.
  • Listen in on small-group meetings to observe how diverse points of view are invited and received. 

Written By

Elise Mitchell

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