Several years I started a new job as the head of learning and leadership for a pharmaceutical company. It was a new role for this company and the employees were excited about the opportunity for personal development that would come as I built out my team and function.
Soon after I started in the role, several colleagues approached me and expressed a genuine interest in getting feedback from me. They were in leadership roles and they said they would value my candid comments on their performance as leaders based on my observations and my experience in working with them. I was impressed that these leaders were keen to solicit feedback.
So off I went and began to provide the candid feedback they wanted.
What I immediately found was that these leaders were very open and eager to get feedback when it was positive in nature. They would bask proudly when I would point out the good things I observed.
However, the moment I began to provide more direct and candid feedback on their shortcomings and areas of development, I could immediately sense their discomfort, and in some cases outright resistance.
This is a pattern I’ve seen over and over again in my work with leaders and through my own leadership roles.
At a personal level, I can completely relate to the reactions. I don’t always look forward to getting truly candid feedback on my many shortcomings as a leader. Most of the time I react not because of the feedback itself, but because it reminds me of how much better that I still need to get as a leader. So I get frustrated with myself.
In the end, I end up doing what many leaders do – avoid candid feedback. But here is something else I’ve observed. If you stop seeking personal feedback, invariably you avoid being straight-up with those you work with as well. Or worse, we end up being overly nice with everyone, superficial feedback, as not to hurt anyone’s feelings.
The bad news when this happens is that no one has a good sense of reality. Our desire to be nice, masks what’s really going on, and problems are allowed to fester forever.
The good news is that more and more organizations are starting to put a spotlight on this issue of candor. They are starting to question our propensity to be nice, over being candid.
A good example of this is the recent excitement around the idea of “radical candor” or what’s being hailed as the “front-stabbing” movement.
For the uninitiated, radical candor refers to the practice of encouraging peers to speak to each other openly about performance or other work related issues. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, that appeared over the holidays, proponents of radical candor defend the practice as “more big-hearted and caring to being confrontational” in an upfront way than it is to “go behind someone’s back.”
In part, the radical candor movement is a response to the fact that not enough of us are engaging in honest and tough conversations at work. It’s one of the ideas I explore in the second edition of my book, The Leadership Contract. It will be something I will explore further in future Leadership Gut Check blogs.
As more and more organizations begin to confront the need for genuine candor, it will mean more of us as leaders will need to get comfortable being candid and having tough conversations at work.
To me, the very first step begins with what I call self-candor. Can you be honest with yourself? Can you confront the reality of your gaps as a leader? Or do you chose to be nice with yourself? Do you preferring to live in delusion about your own effectiveness as a leader?
Before going around being candid with everyone else, start with a healthy dose of self-candor. Begin with an honest analysis of what you do well and where you can and must improve. If you can demonstrate you can be honest and candid with yourself, you’ll set the tone for others.
This may not be the message you want to hear early in 2016, but you know you could use a good dose of radical candor. We all can as leaders.
This week’s Gut Check question asks: Can you be truly candid with yourself?
The second edition of The Leadership Contract is now available in hardcover and a Kindle edition.