The Unrecognized Benefit of Candor

stage audience

What was the best thing about 2015?

I posed this very question twelve times, on twelve days, to twelve senior executives over the past two months.

Now this was no casual, offhand question.  I was speaking with these executives on a ballroom stage, in front of an invited audience of 300 of their company’s mid-level leaders.  I was moderating leadership town halls all over the United States for a large client in the financial services industry.

In each session, I was on stage with one of the company’s executive committee members (ExCom).  The town halls were opportunities for each member of the ExCom to travel out to the various regions, meet people, share a business update, and answer questions the leaders had about the business.

To kick off the session, we’d arranged an icebreaker: a series of questions that I’d ask so that people in the audience could get to know this ExCom member better. (Most of the audience had never met this ExCom member personally.)  The last question in the icebreaker series I’d always ask was:

What was the best thing about 2015?

It’s a very open-ended question.

The answers could wind up all over the map. And at each of the twelve town halls, the answers varied greatly.  It all depended on the person.

  • Some people gave short, succinct answers.
  • Some replies were long and rambling.
  • Some got into minute details about a business “win” they’d achieved.
  • Some got very macro-economic and philosophical in their reply.
  • Some were strictly business.
  • Some were deeply personal.

While the variety of answers was interesting, what was really striking was how the answer set the tone for the rest of the entire town hall.

Later in the session, there was a Q & A (Question & Answer) portion.  During Q & A, the audience was invited to speak up and ask questions about the business to the ExCom member.

In some Q & A exchanges, the dialogue was robust, deep, and valuable.

In some Q & A exchanges, you could hear the crickets chirping.  While moderating,  I felt like a dentist pulling teeth, trying to get people to speak up.

Why such a difference between the Q & A sessions?

It boiled down to the initial candor of the ExCom member.

Not their honesty – their candor.

All twelve of the ExCom members on that stage with me were honest.  They all spoke truthfully, and within the range of “acceptable”.  But for nine of the ExCom members, their comments missed the mark.  They had a formal, reserved, and impersonal quality about them.

Their answers did not bridge the distance between them and their audience.

The word honesty comes from its Middle English roots having to do with honor and respectability.   Candor is quite different.  It traces back to the Latin verb candēre (“to shine or glow”).  When someone is candid, they don’t just validate — they illuminate.  Their frankness invites a connection.

What does candor offer that honesty doesn’t?  What is the unrecognized benefit of candor?

Candor is the key to effective collaboration.

Candor creates a sense of ‘psychological safety’—where people feel free to speak up and share their ideas and judgments openly.

As a leader, one of the simplest ways to create candor is to model it.   By doing so, you boldly tell others “Candor is welcome here.”

Of the twelve ExCom members, it was the remaining three who led especially open, dynamic, interactive town halls.  In their sessions, the audience felt comfortable speaking openly – sharing their thoughts, feelings and criticisms of the business.

Demonstrating candor can’t be reduced to a sound bite.  However, for these three, the way in which they answered the question What was the best thing about 2015? served as a valuable “candor litmus test”.   There responses were qualitatively different from the others.

Here’s how they responded to that question:

  1. Before I started in my new role here, I took 6 weeks off to spend with my teenage kids.  It’s the first time I’d ever done that in my professional career.  It was an amazing time.
  2. I’m so grateful to the entire compliance team.  We had some major regulatory challenges thrown at us, and they met every single one.  People went above and beyond the call of duty on a consistent basis.  I couldn’t have done it without such a great team. 
  3. (With an enormous grin) We found out we’re going to have a baby!

Forthright.  Frank.  Unreserved.

With their candor, these leaders set the tone for effective collaboration.

What actions do you take to demonstrate the value of candor?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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