7 Steps to Building a Culture of Candor


With success comes risk of failure if leaders surround themselves with sycophants.

“Flattery is like a thick fog,” says Kim Scott, a Silicon Valley CEO coach and author of Radical Candor. “You won’t know you’ve made a mistake until it’s too late to fix it.”

Scott and other experts advise methods to illuminate your path with frank feedback and open communication while building team loyalty:

1. The truth may hurt, but go for it.

Confess your own errors, welcome alternative views and ask how you can improve. Then listen.

“You have to lead by example and show you receive criticism well,” Scott says. Wait until they’re done talking to ask for clarity.

2. When you critique, be constructive, not cruel.

“Don’t kick them in the shins,” Scott says. Instead, start with how you value the employee and what they did well. Then move on to how they could improve, while giving tangible tips. “You also might share a time your boss’s honesty stung in the moment but was a gift that helped your career.”

3. Tailor your message to your audience.

One culture’s “radical candor” is another’s rudeness. Honor your environment. Scott, for instance, branded radical candor as “polite persistence” when in Japan. “That works with their values. But in Israel, ‘polite persistence’ might seem patronizing.”

4. Show teams that they’re safe.

“Effective communication requires courage and the competence to say things in a way that the listener can hear,” says Jim Detert, professor and associate dean at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in Charlottesville. Workers need to know they won’t be fired, demoted, demeaned or retaliated against.

Anonymity via suggestion boxes conveys the wrong message. “The subtext is: Sharing your views openly is unsafe,” Detert says. Also, credit those who stuck their necks out to constructively prevent or correct mistakes or help you pursue opportunities in your internal newsletter or elsewhere.

5. Balance the scale.

If you sit on your office throne with subordinates in the cheap seats, you may intimidate, Detert says. “The reality of an open-door policy is you’re talking on your turf, where you’re comfortable and they’re not.” Sit on the same side of the desk and in a comparable chair—or meet in their workspace and comfort zone.

Monitor body language. When people cross their arms, look down or lean back, they’re telling you something, such as they’re afraid or disinterested, Detert says.

6. Hold truth-to-power meetings.

Let employees know they can go above your head. Then prove it. Ask your supervisor to meet yearly with your team, in your absence and with comments unattributed. “This gives your people a chance to share their ideas directly with those who might have more power to take action than you do, and it helps leaders at all levels stay informed,” Detert says.

7. Take action.

If you take action based on employee feedback, report soon afterward what measures you’ve made or attempted. “Show you care or they’ll never be candid again,” Scott says. “Ignoring somebody never has improved a relationship.”

By taking the time to build a culture of candor, you will strengthen your team on a day-to-day basis—and set your organization up for future success.

Michele Meyer

Michele Meyer is a freelance B2C/B2B content marketing writer based in the Houston, Texas area.

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