BIV Boardroom Strategy: Candid realities about business’ dirty little secret

In an effort to avoid conflict, leaders and team members often conceal their true feelings, withhold their opinions or outwardly agree and go along with the crowd while inside they are vehemently opposed.

For some, this lack of candour also extends to hoarding information or avoiding communicating with others entirely, in an effort to save face or get and stay ahead of the pack.

Strength of the strategic plan and the ability for executives to collaborate cross-silo with their teams depends considerably on trust and respect within and between teams. The willingness to come forward with authenticity and transparency is key to building up that trust and respect.

In Jack Welch’s book Winning, he describes a lack of candour as businesses’ “dirty little secret.”

Welch summarizes the positive effects of candour on an organization as

  • creating better outcomes: getting more people in on the conversation leads to more minds and more ideas;
  • speeding things up in the process: surface, debate, improve, decide; and
  • cutting costs: replace boring meetings, pointless updates and presentations with real conversations about the core issues.

It makes perfect sense. So why aren’t we more candid? One reason is that we’re taught not to be at a young age. Sensitive or awkward issues are softened or avoided. Our parents scolded us for pointing out something that we thought was obvious but “wasn’t a nice thing to point out.” But the main reason we’re not candid is simple: it’s easier not to be.

Healthy debate requires an understanding of the difference between ideological versus interpersonal conflict. Ideological conflict is healthy and constructive in that we are disagreeing on what we feel is best for the organization, the merits of a decision or the way to proceed. Interpersonal conflict is damaging in that the focus is on my difficulties with the other person.

Encouraging debate and frank conversation helps push organizations to think about things in new ways, consider new lines of business and re-examine traditional approaches to how they operate. Modelling the behaviours that promote candour within an organization is a key part of a leader’s role.

Here are a few ways to build candour in your organization’s culture and open it up to new ideas and ways of doing business.

Be real. Take time to think about where you might be staying silent because it feels easier. From there, make the decision to be frank and speak your mind as often as possible. Focus on sharing information factually without spending too much time trying to “spin it.” Most people are smart enough to see through the spin and will feel that you’re probably hiding more than you’re sharing.

Encourage push back from below. Insist that the people who report to you and their direct reports share their thoughts, especially when they disagree with your ideas. Instead of being defensive, ask questions, support the dialogue and, most of all, reward this behaviour.

Have difficult conversations. Get better at having difficult conversations. And have them more often. Although people might not like the message you’re delivering sometimes, in the long run they’ll respect you if your approach and intention are solid.

The more you and other company leaders are honest about what’s happening, the more commonplace it becomes for people organization wide to say what’s on their mind.

Look outside your team for data. Find ways to regularly gather information from all of your stakeholders. Having conversations with customers, suppliers, competitors, other executives, industry peers and front-line team members can broaden your perspective.

Fess up. When you screw up, fess up.

This shows your team that it’s OK to make mistakes, it’s OK to be human, as long as you come forward and share your experience and learning with the team.

Increase transparency. Find ways to provide added transparency: be open about corporate strategy, competitive analysis, strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Doing so makes sharing information the norm in your organization instead of hoarding, limiting or hiding it.

There’s no question that creating a culture of candour in your organization will improve outcomes, reduce silos and encourage a wider perspective; it will empower and motivate people at all levels of the organization to speak up, be heard and challenge the status quo.

BIV Boardroom Strategy – Candid realities about business’ dirty little secret – May 2012

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4 responses to “BIV Boardroom Strategy: Candid realities about business’ dirty little secret

  1. Love the “hording information” description…So true! Brings back (not so fond) memories of my days as an employee and all the internal politics I now no longer have to deal with. Great post.

  2. Here are a couple of things I’ve noticed that prevent candid, open and honest debate in organizations. Too often the leader starts the discussion with their perspective or opinion on the issue influencing subsequent discussion. Leaders need to go last to avoid having people try to align with what they perceive as an endorsement of a specific idea or direction. Another thing I’ve experienced is the need to ‘win’ causing people to get invested in their idea and hearing other ideas as competitive to theirs rather than iterative. And, one that happens too frequently is not taking time to prepare for discussions – we don’t seek out alternative ideas and information in advance or take the time to reflect on how we want to advance the conversation or support the issue. Rather than fretting about a lack of innovation and productivity in Canada we need to get better at productive dialogue. Your article is a good reminder of the value of creating a culture of candor in organizations.

  3. Thank you Karole and Maria. Karole – one way that I’ve seen to help prevent the group think steered around the leader’s comments too early in the brainstorming is to have every prepare their thoughts in advance, post them up on the wall (even with duplicates), and have the leader go last, before using dots to vote on the top five ideas on the wall. This ensures that the debate that occurs after is only on the ideas that have made it through the filtering process. Every time we ask a leader to sit back and allow the discussion to unfold they are blown away at what happens in the room (in a positive way).

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