The Starting Point for Corporate Innovation is to Develop a Culture of Candor

In his seminal book 'Winning' legendary former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, described candor as: "the biggest dirty little secret in business." He's not alone in appreciating the impact that candor has on businesses and teams. Elon Musk, Ed Catmull of Pixar, Lori Garver of NASA, John Chen of BlackBerry, and Joe Biden, amongst many other successful leaders and entrepreneurs have recognised that candor is the secret to winning. Through candor they've created environments of innovation and change with the ability to move businesses, industries and even countries in new directions and to new heights. If candor is such a powerful attribute then, why don't we all do it? Why aren't all businesses imbued with open and frank cultures? The answer is simple: we've been brought up in societies where it's the norm to soften bad news and to make nice about awkward situations. This is universal, no matter in which culture, country or social class we were raised. Candor unnerves people. Yet, in today's disruption economy, the fact is that we can no longer afford to be stifled by our reserve. Without candor we'll lack the responsiveness, speed and agility to compete. We HAVE TO develop cultures of candor.

Culture of Candor

What Candor Brings

i. Speed

"Sometimes my candor may be difficult for people to hear,  but they can trust they know where I stand."
Lori Garver - Former Deputy Administrator, NASA

Candor generates speed. It cuts through the barriers of misinterpretation and misunderstanding to get to responses and answers quicker. It removes bottlenecks. When people are candid, there's no ambiguity; you know exactly where they stand, how they think and feel. It therefore dramatically accelerates decision making so that the team and business can move forward at pace.

ii. Innovation

"A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Lack of candor, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments."
Ed Catmull - Pixar / Disney Animation / LucasFilm / Author of Creativity, Inc.

Candor opens up smart ideas. It brings people into the conversation which, in turn, means more brain power. People are freed to surface and share ideas which can then be discussed, debated and pulled apart to find new solutions and improvements. An environment is created where everyone opens up, learns and iterates.

iii. Efficiency

"I think being precise about the truth works. Truthful and precise. I try to tell people, 'You don't have to read between the lines with me. I'm saying the lines!'"
Elon Musk - Founder, PayPal / Tesla / SpaceX

Candor works because it unclutters. It eliminates communication issues, conflicts, and mistakes. It therefore removes the need for superfluous processes and communications. If you have a culture of candor, there's less need for meetings, updates and reports that exist to bring people up-to-speed or decide on corrective actions. Through the course of everyday interactions and discussions the team are aware of what's going on and able to give their inputs and contributions to solve problems and move forward.

iv. Trust

"There is always the temptation to make statements that feed sensationalism, or make executive decisions that chase hype and trends. I have found telling it like it is the best thing to do, even if it hurts in the short-run, because it builds a foundation of trust over the long-term."
John Chen - Executive Chairman & CEO, BlackBerry

"Candor generates trust. Trust is the basis on which real change, constructive change, is made."
Joe Biden - President-Elect of the United States

Candor breeds trust. Giving feedback in a way that challenges people directly whilst showing that you care about them personally creates integrity and connection. It improves relationships, rather than threatening or destroying them. 

Candor Versus Honesty

In his book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation, makes a subtle distinction between candor and honesty:

"As valuable as the information is that comes from honesty and as loudly as we proclaim its importance, our own fears and instincts for self-preservation often cause us to hold back. To address this reality, we need to free ourselves from honesty's baggage. Replace the word honesty with another word that has a similar meaning but fewer moral connotations: candor - not so different from honesty, really. And yet, in common usage, the word communicates not just truth-telling but a lack of reserve. [...] People have an easier time talking about their level of candor because they don't think they will be punished for admitting that they sometimes hold their tongues. This is essential. You cannot address the obstacles to candor until people feel free to say that they exist, and using the word honest only makes it harder to talk about those barriers."

Candor removes the barriers to having a frank and forthright dialogue because people see it as having less moral and emotional baggage than honesty. Being less candid doesn't make you a bad person, whereas nobody wants to be dishonest.

Why Candor is So Difficult

Although we constantly hear that leaders want to create open environments where contribution and ideas are welcomed and encouraged, the reality is that candor in business is something of a rarity. Too many people, too often, instinctively don't express themselves with frankness. They keep their mouths shut, hold comments and criticism back, and avoid stimulating real debate. They sugarcoat bad news and negative feedback in order to avoid conflict or making people feel bad. They keep things to themselves, and hoard information and ideas.

The irony is that they want the opposite. They want to be valued, to be able to put their views across and be heard, to talk about the world realistically. So what's holding them back?

i. Fear of being judged

Being candid exposes you to the world. It puts your thoughts and ideas out there to be judged. But what if you're wrong? What will people think? What will it do to your credibility and career prospects? This fear of rejection inhibits us and causes us to hold back. It's our natural survival instinct kicking in. We want to stay safe, so therefore we don't put our head outside of the cave.

ii. Fear of destroying trust

People avoid candor to curry favour with other people. They worry that when they speak their minds and news isn't good, they stand a chance of destroying the trust between them and therefore alienating them. The huge irony here is that they actually destroy trust by NOT being candid. The lack of honesty and openness is the ultimate form of alienation. They're excluding them from the truth; from vital feedback that will help them with what they're doing and trying to achieve. Candor, especially over time, builds trust amongst individuals and teams thus creating a climate where people can rely on and support each other. This is critical for any innovation to breed. 

iii. Fear of perceptions

Just as we fear being judged for our lack of knowledge or acumen, we also fear being perceived as insensitive, blunt or even arrogant by the wider collective. In this increasingly socialised world, we're giving more and more credence to how people view us. Where candor isn't the norm, it can be construed as negative which then reflects on us socially. We all want to be liked, so we avoid the risk of coming across as difficult or self-important.. 

iv. It's easier not to

When you tell it like it is, you risk creating a mess that you have to clean up. Frankness can lead to anger, pain, confusion, sadness and resentment; which in turn can breed further conflict, awkwardness, and avoidance. The results are draining - both in time and emotional energy. You therefore take the easy route and avoid all this by keeping things to yourself in the first place. Not being candid is about your self-interest - making your own life easier - rather than offending or alienating others.  

v. 'Speaking the truth to power'

Hierarchies are the enemy of candor. Hierarchies are the product of an age of control and conquer; designed to promote discipline and efficiency in communication throughout. But hierarchies squash open dialogue. They put people into boxes where they're expected to do their roles and not rock the boat. When speaking to their bosses, most people inevitably colour the message. They fear that by being candid, they expose themselves. They therefore tend to soften bad news, or spin it in a way that's more likely to please those above. Without being open, problems and concerns can consequently go unaddressed and left to fester.

How to Create a Culture of Candor

Great companies are filled with people who are absolutely determined to see the organisation succeed, whilst being unstintingly candid in confronting the obstacles that they face. In most companies, this isn't the case.

To create a culture of candor, the change has to be seismic, at all levels. It's hard.

It requires leaders to realise that an open and candid organisation is the ONLY way that the business is going to compete. It needs individuals to realise that their impact, value and careers are dependent upon speaking up, sharing their ideas, and being part of the conversation. 

Culture of Candor

i. Ensure the free flow of information

Underpinning a culture of candor is ensuring a free flow of information. Access to information enables individuals to have the understanding and context to form the basis for inputting into the conversation. It provides more ammunition for problem solving and allows innovation to flourish. This doesn't mean that everyone needs to know everything, but that critical information gets to the right people at the right time for the right reason. Freeing information eliminates the tendency for managers to hoard it as a source of power: if they have it, and others don't, they can use it to justify their existence or leverage it selectively to achieve their goals. They may also be reluctant where information could serve to highlight issues with projects or performance. Opening information in this respect creates a collective intelligence that fuels candid dialogue and collaboration. 

ii. Talk about it

Creating a culture of candor requires an awareness and understanding of what that is and what it means, across the team. To achieve this you need to talk about it. Leadership need to be seen to not only be embracing the concept, but going all in. Although this shift must come from the top-down, everyone has to be party to the change. You need to create a safe forum where people feel comfortable enough to ask questions, offer feedback, and present their ideas. When people don't feel safe speaking up, leaders should step in to show that it's safe by saying the hard things themselves; saying the un-sayable and asking for feedback. To go beyond encouraging openness, leaders can actually train their teams to open up: how to speak with candor, build rapport, put egos aside, and embrace feedback to use it to fuel positive change. 

iii. Make heroes of those who demonstrate

It's important to reinforce behaviours by raising examples of where team members are being candid, and reward accordingly. This should include public displays of recognition; public praise is more about influencing those who hear it than those who receive it. Use the different platforms available: public forums, town halls, kick-offs, team meet-ups, internal newsletters, websites, etc. Really laud those who are prepared to take the risk so others can see that their candor is welcomed and not deemed insubordinate. Also, praise leaders who allow and foster candor; show their peers that they're being successful and demonstrate what they're doing that can be replicated.

iv. Bring them together

As the culture of candor takes off, start to bring opinion leaders together and push them further to pose (and solve) tougher, more disruptive questions. This could take the form of an internal 'braintrust' group, as was used at Pixar whilst creating some of the most innovative and successful animated movies of all time. Here, a group of executives would come together regularly to solve creative problems faced by the films' directors and their teams. It's interesting that Ed Catmull highlights the fact that at Pixar, Steve Jobs was intentionally omitted from 'Braintrust' meetings as it was felt that his bigger-than-life presence would make it harder for the team to be candid. (A decision which Jobs was party to and agreed with.) That's how much candor matters at overrides hierarchy.

v. Practice it yourself

Whatever level you're at in the organisation - from CEO to Office Assistant, candor has to start with you. Changing your ways is the catalyst for change across the whole organisation. Don't blame your boss or the CEO if your company lacks candor - open dialogue can start anywhere.

Some may say that in the current socio-political climate, candor is being misused, even used as a weapon (think Trump). That's a shame as it's power to business is immense. As Jack Welch stated: "Lack of candor basically blocks smart ideas, fast action, and good people contributing all the stuff they've got. When you've got candor everything just operates faster and better."

How are you developing a culture of candor in your business? What approaches are you taking and how are they working out for you? What tips and advice can you give to others? Please add your thoughts in the comments below.