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Apr 26, 2022

If there’s one thing HR and talent leaders understand more than most, it’s the value and power of candor. Whether someone is on the giving or the receiving-end, candor, honesty, truthfulness (call it what you want), is essential for creating an equitable and effective organization.

And believe me, when it’s not there, employees notice it – and it frequently isn’t. Recent research found that only 24% of employees said their leader was open to hearing suggestions for improvement – a fact that those reporting this didn’t like one bit.

But here’s the thing. Candor also opens up many difficult questions. For instance, one I often hear is ‘how can a company expect to improve or innovate if employees are actually reticent to offer suggestions for improvement in the first place?’ Or ‘how can a company expect to eliminate discrimination when its employees can’t discuss it openly?’ [On this latter point a recent study found that only 29% of employees thought their management always listened to concerns about discrimination without blame or defensiveness].

Tackling aversions to talking

To begin answering these sorts of questions, we first need to wind back a bit. We need to understand that it’s not entirely surprising that the voices of frontline employees are devalued or ignored. What is surprising, however, is that even the most powerful members of a company (aka the executive team) feel an aversion to speaking truthfully and openly too.

Let me explain. In the new study, How Effective Is Your Executive Leadership Team?, we discovered that only 14% of executives strongly agreed that they’re comfortable disagreeing with other members of the executive team. And only 18% of top leaders felt strongly that their executive team doesn’t sugarcoat the truth.

The dangers of not having candor

There are a few distressing implications of these findings. Of course, any executive team that can’t share the unvarnished truth amongst itself runs a serious risk of getting blindsided by competitors or market shifts. And an executive team that can’t productively disagree is virtually assured of groupthink and, consequently, making some New Coke-style bad business decisions.

Yet maybe the worst repercussions stem from the contagion effects. Employees report to managers, managers report to directors, and directors report to executives. If executives can’t have a productive disagreement and talk truthfully without sugarcoating, how can a company reasonably expect that the rest of the corporate hierarchy (i.e., directors, managers, and employees) will act any differently?

Find people’s attitude to candor

To that end, every executive team needs to candidly assess its candor. This will, of course, need to start with an anonymous survey, using questions like those from the aforementioned executive team study.

Whether this survey is led by an outsider or an internal HR leader, every executive needs to anonymously express the extent to which they’re comfortable disagreeing and speaking candidly.

Find the problem and you also find answers to solving it

Once you know the extent of the problem, you can start nudging the executive team to make some fixes.

For example, you might find it useful to try something like the nominal group technique. This technique requires posing a question to the group – such as ‘How should we respond to our competitor cutting their prices by 30%?’ – and then the leader, often the CEO on an executive team, will give other executives a fixed amount of time to quietly write down their response. Once that five or ten minutes have elapsed, the CEO asks every member to share what they’ve written.

Or perhaps you can get the executive team to share one thing that went wrong in their areas during the past week or month. Not only will this force executives to candidly disclose some uncomfortable truths with each other, but over time it will foster a degree of emotional transparency that most executive teams aren’t currently achieving.

There are hundreds of possible techniques, but the first step is recognizing that if you want candor to cascade throughout the organization, that candor needs to start from the executive team.