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Creating a culture of candor

From: Delivering Employee Feedback

Video: Creating a culture of candor

Earlier, I referred to a culture of feedback, the idea that it's A team that understands candor behaves differently.

Creating a culture of candor

Earlier, I referred to a culture of feedback, the idea that it's normal, good, and expected to offer performance feedback on the fly when needed. It's one of the hallmarks of high-performing organizations. That's why it deserves a little more discussion. I want to really drive home the defining characteristic of a strong culture of feedback. It can be summarized as follows: Civility is great, but candor is even better. Let me explain. To be civil with others means to be nice, positive, and congenial.

It means caring a lot about not offending someone. Let's be clear, to be civil is good. Civil behavior is a useful part of a healthy team. However, it can't be the defining characteristic of the team. Great performance means tough conversations, which is why candor should always trump civility. Candor refers to interactions defined by honest, frank and, forthright exchanges. No sugar-coating, just professional and somewhat blunt conversation.

Please hear me carefully. Civility matters a lot, but candor needs to be stronger. Let me give you an example. Let's say you and the team are watching a colleague practice a presentation that he will offer to an important client the following day. While watching him, each one of you notices plenty of things that might be improved. When he's done, he says, okay guys, what do you think? Well, what do you say? The average team will water down their real thoughts. They'll say, it's not bad. Or, I liked it. Or, it was pretty good.

If they do offer specific criticism, they say something general, such as, maybe it's a little long. Or, do you think it's a bit too technical? Listen carefully, that's a team entirely too civil. Kind to the point of not being effective. A team that understands candor behaves differently. When the guy asks for feedback, someone speaks up and gets specific. They might begin with, hey not bad, but quickly they add, Mike, you lost me after 20 slides. I think you made good points, but it gets redundant fast.

I'd shoot for 15 to 20, not 45 slides. Or maybe another colleague says, your facts look good to me, but you dove way too deep into the weeds, Mike. Three slides actually had spreadsheets no one could even read. I bet you'd be a lot more successful if you only pull out the one or two numbers you really need and just show those. Now that's specific, honest candor. But candor does have a cost. As you and the team try to adopt this mentality, I want you to have your eyes open. Because at first, before candor becomes stronger than civility, you'll see some people who find frank conversations difficult.

We've been trained in life, not just at work, to be nice, to be polite, to be civil. Breaking those habits takes time. So to begin, you and the entire leadership structure need to be on the look out for bruised egos. You'll want to spend a little more time than normal quietly coaching people, so we can learn to see candor as a normal good part of learning and improving. To kick-start this process, keep these two things in mind. First, any change in culture begins with the leadership team.

To the extent the employees see you making yourselves the recipients of tough feedback, the sooner they'll feel comfortable accepting it themselves. Leaders can use one-on-one sessions, group meetings, online forums, or public town hall meetings to gather tough feedback they need to hear. And the response they give needs to be thoughtful listening and gratitude. Only then will the team believe you when you talk about candor. Second, when you see the new behavior modeled by others, overtly notice it and applaud it.

In some ways, it's simple. You get what you model and what you reward. A culture of strong feedback defined more by candor than mere civility is possible, but you have to lead the way. Fortunately, this is a skill, which means the initial increase in possible conflict quickly fades as the team embraces candor as a normal positive part of what it means to be on a high performing team.

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Delivering Employee Feedback

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Todd Dewett
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