After decades of being taught that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all, more and more companies and organizations are giving up the sugarcoated speech, placing candid communication at the root of their culture. By practicing open criticism, companies are hoping to help team members grow and thus improve productivity.
Let’s see what candid communication is all about and why your team should embrace it.
The necessity of the honest truth
At work, just like anywhere else, people tend to refrain themselves from saying exactly what they think when things go wrong. Usually, it’s for fear of being rejected or simply because they don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. It’s how people stay safe from criticism, bruised egos, and conflicts. Holding back or wrapping up the truth works like a sort of (self-)defense mechanism, a protection of your professional persona.
But the truth is the office is not always a place of rainbows and unicorns, and everybody knows that. Projects often get stalled, deadlines are not always met. That’s when disagreements and criticism (should) happen. And if they don’t, if people only have nice words to say while the ship is sinking, something is just not right in the way they communicate. Without laying the cards on the table, team members will never really get to the bottom of what went wrong and eventually they will make the same mistakes over and over again.
What is candid communication
Candid communication is when you speak frankly to each other, without unnecessary embellishments or polite veneers. People call this type of blunt communication “radical candor”, “front-stabbing” or “mokita.” Mokita comes from Kivila, a language spoken in Papua New Guinea and refers to what is commonly known as “the elephant in the room”, or more poetically put “the truth we all know, but agree not to talk about.”
The concept of radical candor is attributed to Kim Scott, a former Google and Apple exec and co-founder of Candor, Inc. Scott came up with the concept after receiving a blunt, yet valuable feedback from her boss, Sheryl Sandberg. The criticism Scott received helped her acknowledge and address a concern she was already aware of, but somewhat denied. Sandberg made several attempts at dressing up the feedback with niceties, but it didn’t seem to get through to Scott. So she decided to be abrupt. What helped Scott accept the criticism as guidance was her boss’ genuine care for her.
Scott used that experience to create a framework where you give feedback in a way that challenges people directly and shows you care about them personally. And that is basically the foundation of candid communication.
Assess people accurately
In the workplace, we can’t talk about real progress if we’re not able to assess people accurately. Until recently, there was a lot of pressure to do it nicely so as not to embarrass or frustrate anyone. Unfortunately, the pressure to be nice when giving feedback has led to many elephants in the room and work-related issues have remained unsolved. Because people either have difficulties in grasping the ugly truth from all the cover-up subtleties, or they prefer it that way because it’s a more comfortable pseudo-reality.
Candid communication focuses on assessing people accurately, not necessarily kindly. Some agree that giving an honest, accurate feedback already implies a dose of kindness. For example, Val DiFebo – CEO of ad agency Deutsch NY explained in a recent discussion on workplace niceties with Wall Street Journal that giving people an honest feedback takes more generosity than people think:
“I think it’s actually more big-hearted and caring to be confrontational in that way than going behind someone’s back.”
Think of team members who are late, unproductive or uncooperative. Some may be in denial, so by not telling them the truth, you will only allow them to nourish a false sense of reality. Others may be aware of what they’re doing, so acknowledging the truth will help them shake off the embarrassment, relieve the anxiety, and start making changes.
If the truth is not a pretty picture, sugarcoating it or brushing it under the carpet might keep people in the comfort zone for a while, but it won’t solve their problems, nor will it help them improve.
Address the elephant in the room
Candid communication is about addressing the elephant in the room with care. It’s about telling people what they’re doing wrong, while showing that you’re actually looking out for their best interest. If they see that you’re worried about them and they can sense from your approach that confronting the truth is for their own good, they will most likely take your opinion as guidance, not criticism.
But how can people tell that you care about them personally? To help you make sure you’re doing it right, Scott came up with the HHIP acronym that you can use as a checklist when giving someone an honest feedback. People will accept and internalize your criticism without holding a grudge as long as it is:
- In private, if it’s criticism; in public, if it’s praise
- It doesn’t personalize
Candid communication is meant to help people acknowledge the things that are not working and encourage them to fix them right away. It’s not meant to undermine their position or to embarrass them. The purpose is to help them grow personally/professionally because eventually their progress will be mirrored in the team’s workflows and goals.
Candid communication grows on trust
I believe an honest feedback is easier to swallow when people trust each other. If work relationships are founded on trust, people will be more willing to acknowledge and fix mistakes no matter how blunt your criticism might be. And trust is something you can gain if you follow these steps:
- Create a personal connection
Get to know the people on your team. Don’t let meetings and feedback sessions be the only things that bring you in the same room. Share personal stories, have lunch together, be curious about who they are.
- Be yourself
Try to show your true colors all the time. Your team needs to know for better and for worse. If you’re excited, let them see it. If you’re angry, express yourself. They need to know they can talk to you about anything.
- Prove know-how
Reinforce trustworthiness by regularly updating your skills, sharing knowledge, and sticking to your commitments. Let them know you’re good at what you do and you always keep your promises. Do as you say, and they will know they can count on you.
- Ask for help
Avoid playing the expert in everything. Whenever you’re dealing with problems outside your main area of expertise, reach out to colleagues with more experience. Ask them for advice and show eagerness to learn from them. They will feel flattered and empowered.
- Stay objective
Favoritism doesn’t do anyone any good. Don’t treat some colleagues better than others or criticize people behind their backs. Team members will anticipate you’re doing the same with them, so don’t be surprised if they avoid you or not even listen to you.
When trust is missing in the team collaboration equation, people tend to hold back, hindering communication and eventually stalling projects. When team members trust each other, they can be candid about what is right and what is wrong in their work without fearing criticism. And at the same time, they can assess work performance and progress accurately.
It’s like a chain reaction: interpersonal trust is essential to candid communication, which in turn is key to increasing productivity.
How do you give and receive feedback on your team? You’re welcome to share your experience in the comments below.