“A ‘No’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Imagine you are in a meeting in the corporate office with senior management. An unpopular and emotional subject is being discussed: deciding what safety instrumentation needs to be included in the factory routine calibration and functional testing program. The amount of effort to routinely test all the control systems, alarms, interlocks and safety shutdown systems will strain the organization’s resources. A suggestion is thrown on the table to limit the scope of the testing to the automatic instrumented safety interlocks and exclude everything else, an approach that would keep the program somewhat manageable. About 20 people are in the room, and heads are nodding in agreement. It looks like the decision is about to get approved.
That meeting was one of many challenging ones I attended in the corporate office as a Risk Engineer. I sat listening to the negotiations, fidgiting in my seat, getting angry, frustrated and disappointed. I was surrounded by people many levels senior to me. But I had to speak up. “I have a real concern with this. If we decide to do this partial effort, you do realize that you are making a decision to do breakdown maintenance on critical alarm systems that are in place to prevent the release of chemicals?”
I continued: “The proposal on the table would also eliminate testing of critical control systems that we need to keep the factory process within defined limits.”
There was silence in the room, then a decision was made to study this some more. It took many more meetings to get consensus, but eventually a very comprehensive, safety-focused initiative was agreed upon, and I am proud that senior management did the right thing.
I would describe candor in the workplace as speaking up at meetings even when there is extreme conflict, when your opinion may be unpopular, or even when you are concerned you might sound stupid in front of your peers or upper management. It also involves the ability to confront people when they are making unethical requests or treating you inappropriatly. Candor provides an openness to encourage everyone to provide perspectives without retribution.
Sounds easy to incorporate? It’s not.
Candor is something that I have learned through more than 30 years of engineering. It has been a behavior evolution for me, and I can recall meetings where I kept my mouth shut and regretted it afterward. As I look back to situations that occurred several decades ago, I ask myself the question: “What prevented me from speaking up and providing information that might have been useful in the decision-making process?” In some cases I didn’t trust the people in the room, or I was avoiding the potential for conflict, or there was a very senior person in the room and I was uncomfortable.
How can we create a workplace environment where candor is encouraged and grows?
- A workplace that has a strong culture of respect, trust and camaraderie will find it easier to increase the level of candor.
- Create a culture where speaking up is rewarded. Consider the following scenarios; which one does more to support a balanced, effective workplace?
- You speak up at a meeting and the information you provide changes the outcome of the decisions being made. A manager in the room thanks you in front of your peers for bringing a controversial perspective and steering the group toward a more appropriate resolution.
- Picture a meeting where you speak openly, resulting in unsupported emotional challenges that distract from the issue at hand. As you walk away from the meeting, your adrenaline is flowing and you feel that you have been labeled a troublemaker who does not “fall in line,” and that your promotional prospects have been diminished.
- Provide communication-skills training to your workforce.
- Hire exceptional communicators, employees and leaders who actively listen, people who ask good questions, individuals who are ethical, people who do not manipulate others to get their way.
- Learn body language. If it appears there are raised eyebrows, shaking heads, fixed gazes or visual signs of withheld information, you may want to ask for feedback in a respectful way. I do not have a “poker face,” and at some meetings where I was thinking through what people had just said, the Vice President (VP) would glance at me and ask, “Dave, what are your thoughts?” I have always appreciated that form of prompt. It was one of the VP’s ways of making sure all perspectives were being discussed.
- Build rapport. Whether you are a front-line worker, manager or executive, why not turn up at meetings early and endulge in casual conversations to build your likeability and to get people comfortable talking with each other.
A FINAL NOTE
Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, is one of the most quoted leaders on candor in the workplace.
In his book “Winning,” he writes: “I have always been a huge proponent of candor. In fact, I talked it up to GE audiences for more than twenty years. But since retiring from GE, I have come to realize that I underestimated its rarity. In fact, I would call lack of candor the biggest dirty little secret in business. What a huge problem it is.
“Lack of candor basically blocks smart ideas, fast action, and good people contributing all the stuff they’ve got. It’s a killer. When you’ve got candor — and you’ll never completely get it,mind you — everything just operates faster and better.
“Now, when I say ‘lack of candor’ here, I’m not talking about malevolent dishonesty. I am talking about how too many people — too often — instinctively don’t express themselves with frankness. They don’t communicate straightforwardly or put forth ideas looking to stimulate real debate. They just don’t open up.
“Instead they withhold comments or criticism. They keep their mouths shut in order to make people feel better or to avoid conflict, and they sugarcoat bad news in order to maintain appearances. They keep things to themselves, hoarding information. That’s all lack of candor, and it’s absolutely damaging. And yet, lack of candor permeates almost every aspect of business.”