Cultivating candor: why your team must feel free to be themselves

Great leadership is contingent on a willingness to be judged. Having the courage to speak up, give constructive feedback and make difficult decisions leaves us exposed to questioning — that’s just what it takes to move the needle.

But only in an environment of open and honest communication can you foster this type of courage. Your leaders need to feel safe to express themselves without fear of repercussions for saying the “wrong thing”.

And at a time when communication skills are deemed to be more important than ever, it’s unfortunate that our society seems increasingly eager to punish candor. Excessive political correctness only leaves people feeling afraid to voice their opinions for fear of being negatively perceived. People hold back their thoughts and feelings in order to keep the peace, and the results can be costly.

Open and constructive communication can only exist in a culture of candor. And to build this culture, you need to create a safe space in which alternative opinions and viewpoints are not only welcomed, but encouraged.

Why is candor necessary in the workplace?

Ideas need to be challenged in order for the best solutions to be found. Allowing the loudest guy in the room to run unopposed is a disaster waiting to happen.

Imagine your manager is completely set on a strategy that you, and others on the team, don’t agree with. But because you fear repercussions or just don’t want to damage their ego, you sit quietly and do the work, knowing deep down that it won’t end well. The results come through, and it turns out the project was an expensive mistake. Whose fault was that?

The manager can’t take all of the blame. They had the energy to propose something and get it done. And because there were no objections, why would they have done anything differently? Speaking up in this situation would not only have prevented disaster, it would also have fostered creative thinking and learning that’s beneficial to everyone.

A lack of candor also presents the risk of a mob mentality developing at your organization. If people don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves openly, then what will they do? They are more likely to become assimilated by the majority. They will now communicate whatever ideas are being spread around, even if they are not in line with your company’s core values or even their own values. Call it “group think” if you want. It only encourages office politics and game-playing, which doesn’t help your team to accomplish its mission.

And, of course, a lack of candor is closely associated with a lack of trust. If people don’t feel psychologically safe and can’t speak honestly, then how can you possibly trust that they are saying what they really feel?

Even on a personal level, people stand to lose out greatly by neglecting the value of candor. Ultimately, if you don’t reveal your true identity to others, then they will assign you an identity that’s not accurate. This can hamper your own development as a professional, jeopardize your opportunities and frustrate you in your relationships with others.

If you believe in something, you should be free to express that belief, even if it conflicts with what others think. This applies not just to professional subjects but also to general debate.

What does a safe space look like?

A safe space means allowing people the freedom to express their own views and opinions at all times, even if they think others will disagree or might be offended. It’s about invoking a feeling of comfort, instead of anxiety about possibly saying the “wrong thing”.

The truth is that it’s impossible to establish a conflict-free workplace. So instead of trying to do that, it’s better to create an environment in which it’s OK to disagree. A frank disagreement is much safer than resentment harbored secretly, in which tension bubbles beneath the surface and is not dealt with.

As long as people don’t intend to hurt others, they should be free to say what they feel. Some of the best people I’ve ever worked with could be described as tactless at times. And while we should all strive to behave with dignity and class, it would nonetheless be wrong to stifle and punish these people simply to appease weaker performers who are easily offended.

The first step to creating a safe space is establishing that there are no rules about what can be expressed, as long as the intention is not to harm, belittle or marginalize others. Managers should be able to use their own discretion when it comes to communicating with their team.

How to encourage candor

There are a few steps that you can take to build a culture of candor and frankness.

You should begin, naturally, by being frank and honest yourself. Demonstrate integrity and consistency in the way that you act, and others will follow. If you show the courage to speak up about something, your peers will feel safer as a result. This doesn’t mean you need to have an opinion about everything. Knowing when to speak up and when to let others speak is an important skill. The key is to be consistent.

Even if you’re confident in your ideas, invite others to challenge them. Firstly, this makes people feel safe to express views that might not align with yours. And secondly, it allows you to reconsider your own perspective and account for any pitfalls that you hadn’t thought about.

Just acknowledging that people commonly have trouble speaking up is a positive step towards establishing a culture of candor. If you’re running a meeting, ensure that everybody is heard. Assume that some people probably have ideas that they aren’t sharing. The worst thing you can do is assume that a typically quiet person doesn’t have a valuable contribution to make. These people tend to get increasingly shunned as time goes on, when what they really need is an opportunity.

Building a culture of candor increases the potential for conflict. Of course, conflict can and should be healthy — but it needs to be managed properly. This means empathising with both parties, not just appeasing the person who complains. Try to understand the intentions of the perceived “aggressor”. Are they actually doing harm, or are they just frank in their manner? What outcome is best for the business?

Creating a safe space for all opinions and viewpoints to be heard is a great way to foster trust. And trust is an invaluable resource not just for a highly-functioning team, but in creating an enjoyable environment for everybody involved.

I’m Philip J. Keezer, president and founder of management consulting firm Grindstone Capital. Dedicated to hard work, learning, positivity and accountability.