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  • Eric Hicks

5 Ways to Build a Culture of Candor

Great leaders establish a work environment of open and authentic communication.

I recently asked a good friend and head of a consumer products company what he thought was the biggest challenge about being CEO. He said without hesitation, “Getting the people around you to tell you the truth.” I probed and asked why that is so difficult. His answer was thought-provoking.

“It’s not them. It’s me. As the head of a company you get used to people fawning all over you and asking for your opinion on everything. After a while you start believing that you really are the smartest person in the room. No one tells you anything different. It feeds your ego and feels good. You then stop listening and start subconsciously punishing push-back in various ways.”

Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say – Andy Stanley

Many leaders I coach have faced the “emperor has no clothes” syndrome at some point in their careers. They may genuinely say their “door is always open” and that they encourage candor, but when I interview their direct reports and ask how comfortable they are disagreeing with the boss, I get a different story. The boss makes decisions, but they are not always the best or most informed decisions.

Research on why employees don’t speak up more often reveals that self-preservation and retaliation avoidance are deeply wired into the human psyche. Employees hesitate to test the waters of disagreement with the boss without absolute assurance that push-back is wanted and protected. Building this bridge of trust is hard work and requires thoughtful planning and action. Ironically, many leaders passively believe that it is obvious to everyone on their team that they positively welcome rigorous debate and disagreement with their ideas. Most of the time, it isn’t obvious at all.

Following are five ways you, as a leader, can establish a culture of candor and bring out the best from your direct reports:

1.      Stop pushing your point of view before you hear your team’s best thinking. Maintain a curious mindset and lose the egotistical approach.  Confidence is different from hubris. Ask yourself, “What if I don’t have all the answers? Wouldn’t I be a better leader getting better results if my team always gave me their best thinking?” If you constantly need to prove you’re the leader by creating an environment where people are afraid to speak their mind, are you REALLY the leader?

2.      Respond to facts, not emotion. Unfortunately, some people don’t have the verbal skill to respectfully disagree with you or offer alternative thinking. If you get offended at heightened emotion, your direct reports will quickly retreat to “Yes Boss” territory. When emotions run high with your employees, gently ask for the facts that influenced their emotions. Stop sharing your viewpoint temporarily and explore the facts that support their ideas. Then, share your thinking. By doing so, you will be able to create an environment where rigorous debate can exist without defensiveness. Your direct reports will also be more willing to share their best thinking without fear of reprisal in the future.

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. – Winston Churchill

3.      Tell stories of how you spoke up to your boss and gave your opinion, especially if your idea wasn’t adopted. Employees often determine their answers on what you say and do. Share something like “I gave my best thinking on the project to my boss. She listened but decided to go another direction. What I really appreciated was that she listened and considered my input.” Such examples give your direct reports an indication of how you will respond to their contribution and even disagreement.

 4.      Encourage candid participation during discussion.  Establishing a culture of candor doesn’t mean always agreeing with new ideas or push back. You can disagree more on the key points that you feel strongly about when your direct report doesn’t feel it is personal or that you are feeding your ego as the boss. An example: “Keith, thanks for bringing your thinking on this – please keep it coming. I have thought about this for some time and want to go another direction, for these reasons…” People need to be continually reminded that you value them sharing their best thinking over having them always agree with you.

Successful people become great leaders when they learn to shift the focus from themselves to others – Marshall Goldsmith

5.      Reward candid participation after the discussion.  Constant reinforcement is critical to getting people to repeat a behavior. Right after your team discussion is a perfect time to take a few minutes to reward the team for bringing their best thinking. Here’s one way to frame this: “Before we break, I want to thank everyone for your passionate engagement and thought contribution. To get to the best decisions, we need everyone’s thinking, even if we don’t land on your idea. Naomi and Bill, you did a great job of offering counter viewpoints today. We’re not going that direction, but your push-back is exactly the kind of leadership we need at this table. Thank you!”

It takes self-control to refrain from being the “smartest person in the room”. It takes hard work to establish the trust necessary to convince employees to constantly offer their best thinking – especially when it is contrary to the boss’s ideas. The best new ideas, however, most often come from rigorous discussion and opposing viewpoints.  As a leader, you can tap the best ideas by actively creating a culture of candor. Are you ready to start this journey?

If you found this article useful, please follow me, like it, comment, and/or share it with someone else.

If you decide to build a culture of more candor, send me a note or comment and tell me about your experience! I can be reached at


Eric T. Hicks, Ph.D. is an Executive Coach, Team Coach, Global Cross-Cultural Facilitator, and Principal at Insight for Leadership. He works with leaders to gain clear personal insight, identify core passion and talent, and achieve their unseen and unrealized potential.

Follow me on Twitter @Hicksology for updates, articles, and inspiring thoughts on leadership, teams, and global cross-cultural understanding.

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