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Alyssa Freas
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
by Alyssa Freas

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:

  • Bullying, abusive, or abrasive behavior. Do your reactions make people afraid to raise sensitive issues with you, even if it is the right thing to do for the organization? Are you known to shoot the messenger?
  • Closed-mindedness. Are you perceived as closed to input due to overly strong advocacy of certain positions?
  • Complacency. Are you seen as so happy with the status quo that you are not open to making changes?
  • Overextended. Do people see you as too busy or spread too thin to listen to input?
  • Conflict averse. Do people believe you would rather not fight for change?

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?

  • Be consistently aware about the signals you send. What behaviors are you rewarding (or punishing)? Do you say you want risk-taking and innovation but punish in response to failure of a new idea? If you want to receive messages, don’t shoot the messenger.
  • Do not tolerate disrespectful or bullying behavior in anyone. If you see it, call it out. Set an example.
  • Understand the impact you have on others in the workplace. Know that the more senior you are, the more your every phrase or gesture is over-interpreted.
  • Really, really listen to people. Make sure they know you appreciate their contributions (whether you agree with them or not). If you do not agree, extend the courtesy of acknowledging their idea and giving a complete explanation as to why you may be staying your own course.
  • Make your boundaries clear. If there are parameters that are off-limits for change, be clear about that. Also let it be known in what areas you would be open to changing the status quo.

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.  

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Alyssa Freas is the founder and CEO of Executive Coaching Network Inc.