Critical Obstacles to Leadership Candor

Attendee Conversation - Flickr

“If there is one place many of our company’s leaders could improve, it is having candid discussions with people about how they are doing, especially if these people are failing to deliver on expectations.” Do you know any organizations like this? Since I regularly hear statements of this type in my line of work, I am guessing that you probably are familiar with at least one organization. It may even be the one that pays your salary.

If candid discussions are challenges, consider these points:

  • Most people value and want more information about how they are doing.
    • Officevibe survey results showed that 82 percent of employees appreciate feedback (both positive and corrective forms) and 65 percent said they want more feedback.
  • Preferences for positive versus corrective feedback may surprise you.
    • Zenger/Folkman survey found that 57 percent of respondents preferred corrective feedback compared to 43 percent who preferred positive feedback.
  • People perceive corrective feedback to be instrumental to their work.
    • According to Zenger/Folkman, 92 percent of respondents believe appropriately delivered corrective feedback is effective at improving performance.
  • Candor carries more weight than you think.

Clearly, candid discussions are wanted and have an impact on performance. So, what is getting in the way? I discovered two critical obstacles:

1) Confusing Work Behavior with “Goodness” as a Person

I often ask leaders what prevents them from letting colleagues and direct reports know that they are missing targeted objectives. The typical answer I get is that the colleagues and direct reports are good people.

Although this response may at first seem like the leaders are skirting my question or not understanding it, this is not the case. They just have mistakenly equated providing constructive feedback to colleagues and direct reports with devaluing them as individuals in some way. Of course, corrective feedback presented in a demeaning manner could be seen as devaluing people, but merely having a candid discussion does not.

Quality people can still demonstrate behaviors that are not productive. As a leader, your role entails helping your direct reports, colleagues and the organization overall to more effectively execute the strategy of the business so that goals are accomplished. Therefore, the act of making direct reports and colleagues aware of unproductive behaviors that hinder these things does not devalue them as people. It is really giving them a way to become better at what they do as well as a way to enhance business performance.

This obstacle is really about perspective—the view you take of discussions with colleagues and direct reports. Therefore, adopt a perspective based on fairness and optimization. When done well, candid discussions provide opportunities for all involved to course correct and realize their full potential.

2) Discomfort Prevents Proficiency

The second obstacle is that leaders feel uneasy having the candid discussions. They do not like the discussions and dedicate little (if any) time to become better at them. As a result, one or both of the following things occur:

  • Leaders talk around a key issue but never really get to the crux of it which leaves colleagues and direct reports no better off than before the discussion.
  • Leaders hope that someone else takes the time to let colleagues and direct reports know that things are not going as well as they should be.

As a stakeholder (and possibly a shareholder) in your organization who benefits from its success, how much do you want to play a role in ensuring this success? If your answer involves being more active in making it happen, then conducting candid discussions with ease is an essential skill to have in your leadership repertoire. Here are key starting points:

  • Take a few minutes to pinpoint the elements of candid discussions that make you uncomfortable.
  • Identify a couple people who do these elements well.
  • Observe these people to see what they do and/or ask them how they developed their skill at these elements.
  • Try one or two things you learned from them using your own style in a low risk situation (e.g., a practice scenario).
  • Gauge how it went based on your own assessment or input from others.
  • Make refinements as needed and try again in other situations.

Candid discussions with colleagues and direct reports do not have to be difficult. Adopting the right perspective and spending some time to experiment will help them become second nature.

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Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Attendee Conversation, Flickr)

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