Managing the Risks of Candid Feedback

Friends, 

Last week I wrote about the refreshing quality of Bill Ford’s candor.  (I have posted the full interview; to hear it click on this link: dev.danmulhern.com/bill_ford.mp3.  It’s about a half hour long, so it may take a bit to download).  Readers blogged on this RFL, each shining a light on a different aspect of candor.  As one reader put it, “If Mr. Ford had difficulties in changing the culture, where is the hope for others?”  She wrote that candor creates peace of mind, but those who express it “compromise their career growth because the existing culture does not accept them.”  This theme of the risk of candor was repeated by others.  It begs further comment.  

First, it is risky.  One of our teenage daughters was talking about how hard it is to confront their friends or to tell us things that might get them or others in trouble.  She wanted me to “get” that, to appreciate that telling the truth is fraught with some danger.  I did appreciate that.  But I also told her: Telling hard truths will never be easy.  It’s not easy to tell your husband something that will make him uncomfortable and make you unappreciated.  It’s not easy to tell someone you think they have a drinking problem.  Not easy to discipline a worker you really like, or challenge a boss whose close-mindedness is getting in their way.  But real relationships and strength of character are built not on deception but on the gift of truth telling.  And these dynamics of relationship and character get multiplied in organizational cultures. 

You may lose a friend.  May lose favor in the company.  Or lose a job.  At some point there may be that kind of either/or, go-for-broke moment. 

Yet being candid is not always played at this brink.  If you’re feeling compelled to confront someone with a tough truth, there are steps short of suicidal bomb-throwing.  Begin by gathering data.  Are others seeing things the same way you are?  Gather data not to prove yourself correct, but to genuinely learn what’s out there; you can’t afford to be overly partial when the risks are high.  Second, consider with great seriousness the times in the past when you have seen the intended recipient of your candor receive feedback: When have they accepted feedback? Who delivered it?  How did they do it?  What’s the listener’s likely initial reaction based on past situations?  Does someone standing their ground help in their eyes, or do they need to be approached gently and given to think about it?  This approach also forces you to do one of the hardest things of all: Figure out why they should care about it.  To be successful you have to put it in terms of their values, e.g., for you it’s about their not hurting people’s feelings, but to them it may be about not hurting the bottom line; so you have to show how rough treatment generates lousy results.  

Finally, consider employing the power of a good question.  Taking a firm position, stating an opinion without equivocation, may be necessary at some times, but not always.  Asking: “Have you considered the possibility that . . .” is a whole lot less likely to create dangerous defensiveness than, “You don’t seem to realize…”   Try inquiring before declaring.  Seek to understand what it is they actually know, rather than being committed to have them see the world through your eyes!  

These are some key steps before speaking truth to power, to 

Lead with your best self. 

Dan 

8 responses to “Managing the Risks of Candid Feedback

  1. Thank you for continuing this topic. As I finish my read of “The Assault on Reason”, I am floored by how candor is so much IGNORED as anything else. The author gives a thoughtful and candid review of American political, ethical, moral and cultural public discourse. Yet interviewers, pundits and news anchors only have only one thing to ask about this writing, “Is this the prelude to a run for the presidency?” No one engaged Al Gore in a discussion of the topic of the book! Why not?

    My comment is: We DO have to “re-nurture” a society where candor is safe, respected AND is recognized for what it is – an expression of our version of a truth to be openly contrasted and compared with others – with the goal of forming a better, more inclusive truth. I believe that the fear of open communication is ultimately a barrier to civility. I wonder what others think. I believe one of our greatest leadership challenges is leading people to publicly reason together.

  2. These last couple of newsletters are touching on one of the greatest obstacles to progress in organizations, not to mention in individual relationships. “Speaking truth to power” is very difficult, but in addition to paying attention to the “truth teller”, which Dan has done well in this last newsletter, we also need to pay attention to the recipients of the tough messages, especially in an organizational context. What can the leadership of organizations do to foster a culture in which “speaking truth to power” occurs more often because the level of risk has been lowered? A real act of leadership is taking concrete steps to make sure that truth-tellers are encouraged and protected.

  3. As your essay this week reminds us, candor requires both courage and skills. The excellent book Crucial Conversations is intended to help the reader develop some attitudes and skills that will help these kinds of difficult conversations be successful. One of the authors’ first recommendations is to look into your heart. Another is to avoid both trap of choosing between silence and violence. It’s really a wonderful resource and, I believe, has the potential not only to build our skills in these critical areas of communication but also our courage.
    Thank you for addressing this important topic.

  4. Seek first to understand and then to be understood – a common sense principle to follow. (Seven Habits)

    Be impeccable with your word.
    Don’t take anything personally.
    Don’t make assumptions.
    Do your best.

    The Four Agreements – Ruiz

    Do not judge – observe.

    Simple things to make life a little bit easier to cope with – especially if you have teenagers.

    To understand barriers to candor (and change) read Thomas Kuhn – The Nature of Scientific Revolutions.

  5. The ability to be candid with someone — confronting them without being confrontational — is one that takes practice and diplomacy (it does get easier the more it’s practiced). The big trick is to make sure that you’re approaching the person to genuinely help them and not to satisfy your own ego or win an argument — e.g., you’ve figured out what’s “wrong” with them and now you’re going to let them know.

    Often the best way to start the conversation is by establishing areas of agreement:

    You both want what’s best for each other;
    You both want to see the company/marriage/family etc. succeed and grow;
    You both agree on the principals/values at hand — the things that constitute a healthy company/marriage/family/friendship/work environment;
    You both understand the significant challenges — external and internal — to success (the competition, the economy, other time commitments, the prominent role alcohol plays in our society, etc.).
    In other words, you’re both on the same side. Depending on the situation, it can also be a good idea to tell the person you’re speaking to of the concern/love/camaraderie you feel for them.

    Once those things are established and agreed upon, it can be easier to move into areas of problems and concern and make the person you’re speaking with more open to the feedback you’re giving them.

    But even then, it’s important to listen — you may not have thought of something or there may be a complicating factor or something that would explain the problematic behavior of which you were completely unaware.

    None of this, of course, will guarantee that the person you’re approaching won’t react badly to what you have to say. You may be entering into an area that they may already know on some level but are not yet ready to deal with so their first reaction will be to attack the messenger. In those situations it’s best to stay calm and don’t counter-attack. Let the anger run its course. It’s been my experience that after folks calm down and have a chance to think about it a bit, they may still come back and thank you.

  6. Regarding candor, sometimes candor is unwelcome within an organization’s culture. Despite skill bases and/or candid approaches, when in unhealthy, de-energizing organization structure exists it won’t be uncommon for great care to be taken to discredit and/or silence any voice which causes opposition or sheds light on an area which could be corrected if addressed. After all candor can cause cognitive dissodence and the normal reaction to cognitive dissodence is to attempt to re-establish balance in what one believes and thinks. An extreme case scenario but one of the best dramatization that I have seen of the psychological and behavioral impacts of candor is displayed in a 1989 movie called “Casualties of War”. That movie exhibits how peer pressure can cause compliance and group cohesion in negative behaviors; the negative impact it has on an organizations norms; and how lone voices who take candid stands can be retailated for their attempt to do what they believe is right and/or stand up for what they believe to be “right, honorable and true”.

  7. I am particularly impressed with the suggestion in the last paragraph, “Try inquiring before declaring.” This often leads others to understand the need for change on their own and they are much more committed to the change (because it was their idea!) You may get no credit for helping to bring about this change, but true leaders don’t worry about who gets the credit, only about moving forward.

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