In his book, Winning, GE’s ex-CEO, Jack Welch wrote, “I would call lack of candor the biggest dirty little secret in business,” adding, “Lack of candor basically blocks smart ideas, fast action, and good people contributing all the stuff they’ve got. It’s a killer.” These are hefty words for a topic that, in your leadership role, I’m guessing is probably not at the top of your list of improvement initiatives for the year. But according to Welch, you might be missing the “biggest” secret and end up a victim of this “killer.”
We could spend more time on why it’s so important to have candor as a primary component of your culture and why the practice of “telling it like it is” is so important to your team’s success but I’m going to focus on how to do it. And you can get amply educated for the benefit of your sales team, executive team, or any other team where there’s hierarchy and structure and where a leader can shape her own environment. You can also read Mr. Welch’s book or you can read Dave Kurlan’s article about your role in the sales environment, where he shares another important book recommendation. But read on if you want to know how to do it, what approach to take, and what must be present in your team environment to make it work.
Let’s look at two important areas of candor:
1. The environment required for candor
2. How to give feedback, especially criticism
And let’s face it, candor is not simply “telling it like it is” when things are great and when you have good news, no criticism, and nothing to worry about. Anyone can do that, and we don’t need to write about it, do we? Candor is a mindset, a habit, and a conviction about honest and direct communication, especially when the message isn’t all sunshine and cookies. It’s a commitment to open and direct honesty with your people. When there's concern the message won't be well-received, one could be uncomfortable delivering it, thus the need for commitment. When you reach a point where no one on your team is wondering what you really meant or believe and there is no mystery about how you will react and behave, then the corresponding trust frees them to get to work on the business problem, confident that they understand the full meaning of your communication.
THE ENVIRONMENT REQUIRED FOR CANDOR
First let’s talk about the environment, which we can break into two parts:
1. The conditions that must be present
2. How you can actively shape that environment
Conditions for an Environment of Candor
This one is simple: trust. Business author and thinker, Patrick Lencioni writes about this at length in his book, The Advantage. Starting with trust, he builds a case that there are building blocks one can visualize in the form of a pyramid that will lead to a healthy organization and to the top of the pyramid, which he defines as “Results.”
To build a healthy organization, start with trust. Trust allows for conflict, which is vital to airing out and understanding the issues. The team has to have trust in the leader and in each other to ensure that sharing ideas, no matter how radical, will be taken in the proper context. To fully vet an issue, opposing views are necessary, leading to conversational conflict or what Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy refer to as “Robust Dialogue,” in their important business book, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done.
Once there is trust, there can be a healthy form of conflict that gets to the decision more effectively. In Execution, the authors write:
“Robust dialogue starts when people go in with open minds. They’re not trapped by preconceptions or armed with private agenda. They want to hear new information and choose the best alternatives, so they listen to all sides of the debate and make their own contributions.”
Sounds like utopia, doesn’t it? That’s because none of that can happen if there isn’t a trusting environment, and what’s the probability of that? Zero, if there isn’t a purposeful effort to create it. And it won’t rise out of nothing all by itself. There will always be someone putting their own interests above that of the group, sometimes more than one person. When it is tolerated by leadership, it festers and grows like toe fungus. You have to own your environment and insist on ensuring its health, precisely so you can tackle the other building blocks that lead to the Results at the top of the pyramid of healthy organizations.
Lencioni puts them in sequence to build the pyramid:
1. Trust – in each other, and bringing our authentic selves to the table
2. Conflict – so we can be heard and so we can listen to understand the issues fully
3. Commitment – to the decision once it is made
4. Accountability – to the leader and to each other so we do our part
5. Results – what naturally follows from getting all this right
How You Can Actively Shape Your Environment
This is less simple. But here’s how. As a leader, get to know each of your people and develop a relationship with them, not so much to be friends, but to have mutual understanding and appreciation for who they are and how they see the world. Know them well enough, and understand their lives just well enough, and know how they interact with others well enough to be able to answer some fundamental questions about how they contribute to the environment you are shaping.
Next, take an inventory of everything that might impact the environment or indicate its current state. Make a spreadsheet so you can get a visual reference point when you have finished it. And then go to work on it and watch it improve. Place a check mark in every box where there is a gap. Examples might include is there mutual trust, is there respect, do they have the skills required, and do their beliefs support their success. If you are interested in finding out how hidden weaknesses limit their results, come to this webinar tomorrow.
These are just a few, and I do an entire workshop on this with sales leaders who consistently report that it’s one of the most impactful tools to building a world-class sales team. It helps them to see how they can directly impact the team and get results from any starting point with respect to the quality of their team. Our own research with clients who learned about shaping their environment has provided an interesting statistic: when leaders actively shape their environment, they hit their numbers. When they fail to shape their environment, they don't hit their numbers. There's a one-to-one connection.
One of the things that frequently comes out of my work with sales teams when managers do the above exercise, is that they find that it only takes one or two people to throw the whole environment off. They quickly see that a lot of their resources are wasted on the few to the detriment of the whole, leaving them with a caffeine-like boost of clarity on how to fix the problem.
GIVING CRITICAL FEEDBACK
Five years ago, I wrote an article on how to give criticism, parts of which I’ve revised below in the context of candor and the importance of “telling it like it is.” Most managers believe that when providing feedback, especially when it could be perceived as negative, one should pad it with positive comments on either side - a "criticism sandwich," if you will. It's Grandma’s mincemeat in between two pieces of cinnamon toast. Mmm. Sounds great!
In addition to the above approach, many managers will give a positive statement first, and then fire off the criticism, as if they've warmed them up so they're ready for bad news. The practice was studied by Clifford Nass and described in his book, The Man Who Lied to His Laptop. The brain goes into full alert, he explained, when hearing negative criticism, and enters a state called “retroactive interference” which results in near total loss of the memory of anything just preceding the criticism. It might take minutes, hours, or a couple of days for the memory to disappear, but your brain simply cannot hang onto those words of praise that came just prior to the criticism. If asked later if there was any positive feedback from the discussion, one simply can’t remember. "What cinnamon toast?"
But another interesting phenomenon occurs when you give someone criticism. In that same heightened alert state, one also experiences a new sense of awareness that Nass calls “proactive enhancement.” You’ve got their attention so now they are ready to listen and absorb whatever you say next. This is where the opportunity is often wasted. Most managers, at this point, provide what they regard as a soft landing by giving positive-sounding generalities. That’s the slice of bread on the other side of the sandwich. Generalities, it turns out, by their very nature are hard to remember. So we soon forget that slice as well. With all of the bread missing, what remains might leave us a little unsatisfied and hungry for more.
So how do we improve on this model? When coaching your sales force, finding optimal mixes of positive and negative feedback, while important, is not the real goal. Rather, the goal is improving sales effectiveness with honest, useful feedback. Criticism is important, after all, if you want to improve a specific behavior. And positive comments are also important to ensure you get more of the behaviors that are already working. When both forms of feedback are delivered in the same conversation, and you want both to be remembered, you need a better strategy.
Here are three must-do steps for effective criticism:
1. Tone – How you say it is more important than what you say
2. Order – Negative first, positive second
3. Actionable – We handle criticism better when given the recipe for improvement
First, your tone provides the signal for how you feel about someone. Is the person the problem or is it just their behaviors? If we stick to the behaviors, then we can still smile at them, love them, cherish them, be filled with gratitude for them, and remain firm that the behavior needs to change. Keep the list of negatives short and specific. Too many criticisms will feel like a barrage which can be depressing rather than instructive. A few helpful points will provide focus. Second, the order matters. Tell them the positive comments after the negative ones, and make the list of positives long and specific, rather than general. “ You’re basically doing a great job” can be replaced by, “You’ve been growing the front end of your pipeline by making more calls, which is really going to help you in the last quarter.”
Third, always provide actionable feedback alongside the criticism so they understand how to correct the problem. Don’t leave them hanging and wondering what it all means. General negativity makes us anxious and frustrated. Specific criticism with the steps to make it better leaves us empowered and provides a sense that someone is looking out for us. Is coaching an important part of your culture? Do your people regularly come to you for help? Do you look for advice and feedback in your own organization?
Candor, as so many successful business people have echoed, is a requirement for success. It starts with trust. The supportive environment you build that you, as the leader, must own and insist upon, is the foundation from which to build trust, leading to candor and healthy conflict, and ultimately to buy-in, accountability, and results. When we get good at building an environment where there is trust and open honest dialogue, where people aren’t “trapped by preconceptions” and “private agendas,” the full potential of our teams and ourselves can be achieved.
Photo Credit: Copyright, Igor Zakharevich