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Create a Culture of Candor

Honest and open communication creates high-performing teams.

By Keith Ferrazzi


Many of us are wary of opening up, even to close friends, let alone to colleagues in a business meeting. People often keep opinions to themselves, fearful of having them rejected. But being straightforward and candid can have an enormous impact as a high-return ­practice in successful organizations.

In my work with more than 50 large companies over the past five years, we identified “observable candor” as the behavior that best predicts high-performing teams. But asking people to be candid in the absence of a supportive organizational culture is a challenge. Here’s how to go about institutionalizing a culture of candor.



Two Sides of Candor

In our studies at Greenlight Research Institute, part of Ferrazzi Greenlight in Los Angeles, California, we learned there are two key leverage points in creating a culture of open communication: meetings and individual interactions. The good news is that adopting one or two keystone practices can make candor a habit in both. And the payback is evident.

Management teams that structure meetings around candid, collaborative problem-solving make better decisions, move with greater agility and give executives access to a wider range of information. Management also comes away with a better understanding of the issues and a broader set of possible solutions.

Individuals who seek out and act on candid feedback from the people most crucial to their personal success find that it is both a valuable tool for self- improvement and a path, through greater trust and intimacy, to deeper relationships, including mentorship. The way to embed candor into both your personal and organizational reflexes is through repetition. Only a habit of true relational collaboration ensures your organization won’t fall back into a more insular process when the chips are down.

A seminal study in safety makes the value of habitual collaboration clear. NASA researchers conducted a study on how to improve flight safety. The research focused on cockpit crews made up of a pilot, copilot and navigator who participated in flight simulations in which a potential crash situation occurred. Researchers found that pilots who acted swiftly and decisively based on their own gut feelings were much more likely to crash the plane than the pilots who consulted other crew members for their reading of the situation before deciding how to respond.

In a look at underlying causes, the researchers found that the pilots who spoke up had a history of open exchanges with their crew. And crew members were more likely to voice their opinions to pilots who had habitually solicited their input. In other words, without an established culture of candor, pilots found themselves on their own when they most needed assistance.


Best Practices for Meetings

In order to build high-impact teams, forthrightness should be encouraged and epitomized from the top down. The following three techniques make it easier for coworkers at all levels to interact more directly in meetings and group settings.


1 Break meetings into smaller groups. When five or more people meet, those with confidence and commanding voices will dominate. Even strong speakers may find it hard to take risks in front of a larger audience. One solution is to break a big meeting into groups of two or three to brainstorm for a few minutes, and then have a spokesperson from each group report back to the entire team. Smaller groups promote higher degrees of risk-taking and increase the odds that more voices will be heard.


2 Flatten your hierarchy. Encourage the free flow of information at all times, not just in meetings. Among the available mechanism are forums, having senior staff approach individuals for input and establishing a “make a difference” award that allows any employee to recognize a colleague for speaking up and making a difference.


3 Designate a “Yoda.” We all remember the wise Jedi master from Star Wars. In our research, we asked for volunteers or picked one or two people in the room to be the official advocate(s) of candor. A Yoda’s job is to notice and speak up when something is being left unsaid. (The Yoda may also call out anyone whose criticism is unconstructive or disrespectful.) If the Yoda has not spoken up for a period of time, the leader should ask the Yoda if the group is missing anything.



Best Practices for Candid Individual Feedback

Some people fear giving others candid individual feedback, preferring to tiptoe around uncomfortable truths even when candor—delivered with generous intent and received gracefully—would help drive personal and organizational improvement as well as foster deeper and more valuable relationships. The most valuable relation­ships are those in which we give each other permission to be candid and honest. The best way to understand how others perceive you, your work or your performance is simply to ask them, giving them sincere permission to be honest with you.

Leaders can coach the most rewarding approach to candor in meetings by encouraging “caring criticism.” Negative feedback can hurt, but not when it is offered and understood as a gift aimed at helping the recipient improve performance or avoid mistakes. In order to deliver and receive it that way, encourage your team to use phrases like “I might suggest” and “Think about this.” Evaluation and feedback are cornerstones of the Toastmasters education program. No one improves without understanding how they are perceived by others. A best practice for business leaders is to require their teams to regularly ask for private feedback from those most critical to their success.

Individuals who seek out and act on candid feedback from the people most crucial to their personal success find that it is both a valuable tool for self- improvement and a path, through greater trust and intimacy, to deeper relationships, including mentorship. The way to embed candor into both your personal and organizational reflexes is through repetition. Only a habit of true relational collaboration ensures your organization won’t fall back into a more insular process when the chips are down.

Here are five key ideas to remember when requesting candid feedback:


1 Give clear permission. The person from whom you’re soliciting feedback must know for certain that he or she can feel safe being candid with you.


2 Watch your emotions. Try not to be defensive or upset when presented with unexpected feedback. Really listen to what you’re hearing and seek to understand it. This is an opportunity to learn how you look through a different pair of eyes.


3 Be generous and strive for greater connectedness. Asking for someone’s candid appraisal is flattering. Tell the person providing feedback why you respect his or her opinion and insights. Encouraging candor can accelerate intimacy in a relationship and often results in a reciprocal request.


4 Say “thank you.” No matter how you feel about the candid feedback you receive, remember to say thank you, restate the feedback given and promise to take it into consideration along with other data points you’re gathering. Follow up at a later date and describe how you’ve used the feedback constructively.


5 Make it a habit. Requesting candid feedback is a great way to stay in touch with your environment. It is a skill that few have the courage to practice, but it’s a crucial practice to master if you hope to take advantage of valuable mentors in your life.


True collaboration is impossible when people don’t trust one another to speak with candor. Solving problems requires team members to be unafraid to ask questions or propose wrong answers. It takes work to create a candid environment supported by respectful, honest relationships, but it’s a challenge every leader should embrace. 

A version of this article was printed in The Magazine of Sigma Chi.