How leaders can encourage candor
What you need to do—and not do—to empower your people to tell you the truth.
February 18, 2014
Open and honest communication between direct reports and their supervisors is a crucial component of a high-functioning organization. Direct reports need to have the courage to deliver important, sensitive messages up the leadership chain. Leaders need to establish an environment in which their people know that tough messages are expected and welcomed.
In November, we examined the case of Stephen and Geoff, fictional executives in a financial services firm. Stephen possessed competitive intelligence that contradicted assumptions that Geoff, the CEO and Stephen’s supervisor, had used in developing the firm’s strategic plan. After much soul-searching, Stephen took his information to Geoff and the issue was resolved.
Another issue was not addressed, however. Geoff believed that he had established an open-door policy in which his direct reports were not only comfortable challenging his directives but were expected to do so. Instead, Stephen and Geoff’s other direct reports had received the message that Geoff would feel attacked if someone were to challenge his strategy or direction.
How did this happen? How did Geoff come to believe he would receive all critical intelligence “no holds barred,” while his direct reports were reluctant to speak up?
Fear is a huge driver of “organizational silence.” Fear of speaking up is not reserved for just ethical concerns, like the reluctance to say that you think your boss is cooking the books. Many people also are afraid to suggest changes to address ordinary business strategies or problems—as in, “wouldn’t it be more cost-efficient to shut the whole production line down for 48 hours?”—if such a suggestion runs counter to what the CEO seems to believe.
What creates this fear? Our experience indicates that leaders shut down communication by exhibiting one or more of the following five traits or tendencies:
As a leader, you must set the tone to ensure you always hear important messages from your organization, even if they may be irritating, contrary, or time-consuming. Why? The hard messages can save you time and frustration; better still, the knowledge gained might make you more successful. In the role of leader, you must go out of your way to ensure people are comfortable saying what needs to be said, testing your assumptions, and providing contrary views.
What can you do to ensure open communication and candor in your organization?
Make sure that you are having the impact you want to for yourself and your organization. If you follow the guidelines above, you will go a long way toward creating an atmosphere that supports the healthy exchange of ideas and productive conflict.
Alyssa Freas is the founder and CEO of Executive Coaching Network Inc.