10 Tips for Creating a Culture of Candor

When I was in college, I had a roommate who had a goal to eat a bicycle. Every evening he would take out a file and file himself a teaspoon of bike. In the morning he would place the shavings in his cereal which he ate. During the year that I lived with him, he managed to eat half of his bike. Taking a large challenge and breaking it up into small pieces is the key to accomplishing big goals. 

In trying to help organizations improve their culture it is also important to take small steps to achieve much bigger challenges. Organizational leaders have long recognized that honesty, openness, and candor from employees can pay huge dividends in making improvements, serving customers, creating more innovative solutions, and expediting organizational learning, flexibility, and execution. The challenge is getting your employees to be more open with their ideas and feedback. Your efforts to inspire openness from the troops may seem small, but over time your efforts will deliver much-needed changes to improve results.

Here are 10 tips that you can implement immediately to encourage a more open, collaborative atmosphere.   

1. Invite perspective. By taking the time to ask others to share their perspective, you are demonstrating that their ideas matter. Too often we focus more on completion than we do on contribution and collaboration to create the best result. Sometimes when you ask others to share their thoughts, you will see their heads drop and they may be reluctant to offer their ideas. Recognize that people may not have had positive experiences with this type of interaction previously. It may take time for your team to come to believe that you are sincerely interested in what they have to say.

2. Be patient. If people don’t or won’t engage with you, be patient. Change takes time. Allow people to see for themselves that you truly are interested in their ideas and experience. Some people are hesitant to share things in front of others for fear of looking foolish. Others won’t share their thoughts without personally being invited to speak. Keep asking questions and offering invitations, and eventually people will get the message that you really want to hear from them.

3. Listen for what’s important. Once you get people talking, listen to them. Sometimes people have negative things to say or they may complain about what they don’t like. Rather than focusing on people’s negativity, ask yourself, “What is important to them?”  If you take the time to really listen and try to determine what they value, you will hear something in their message that you have never heard before. If after listening you are unclear about what matters to them, ask clarifying questions to help define what the person is really expressing.

4. Don’t push your point of view.If you are sharing an idea and you begin to experience resistance, quit pushing your point of view and ask questions. When people are resistant to your ideas, it is often because they have a perspective that they may think is being excluded. Perhaps they are testing or exploring your idea in the context of their own thinking. Unfortunately, most people don’t know how to respectfully disagree or offer an alternative view. They may begin a display of resistance by saying, “Yes, but….” When this happens, give up sharing your opinion for the moment and explore their thinking instead. Figuratively, this is like emptying a glass of water so you can add more water into the glass. Once you have taken the time to understand another’s perspective, they will give you their time and attention to understand your perspective.

5. Take your time. When holding difficult conversations on tough topics, take the time to share perspectives and create mutual understanding. These types of conversations often take more time than you might expect. If you don’t currently have the time because of other priorities, schedule the conversation when you have sufficient time to avoid interruption then give your full attention to the person with whom you are speaking. Don’t be in a hurry to get it over with. Being preoccupied with other issues and not being present will send the message that the person and their ideas are not important.   

6. Gently challenge assumptions and negative projections. When heated conversations progress, listen for people to make wild assumptions or even negative projections about what will happen in the future. This catastrophizing tactic is often used to avoid talking about an issue in depth. When this occurs, listen for facts or data that would support a person’s point of view. If you don’t hear any evidence that backs a person’s perspective, ask for it. People often base their thinking on past experience or current concerns. Seek to uncover the reasoning behind their thinking to more effectively understand their perspective. 

7. Don’t assume anything. Don’t assume that a person has understood you even though you think that you have clearly explained your position or given clear direction. Summarize what you think they have heard and ask them to confirm or disconfirm your perspective. Don’t be afraid to ask for examples or applications to insure that you have understood them or that they have understood you. And, don’t be surprised if you discover that there has been a misinterpretation of what you thought was clear. We all have filters and mental models which cause us to hear things differently. Take time to clarify so misunderstandings don’t occur. If you assume you have understood or that others have understood you, prepare to learn that your assumptions trumped your understanding.

8. Don’t take things personally.When people become defensive, their behavior should signal that they have a different perspective. If you respond to their defensiveness with a dose of negative or reactive emotion of your own, your conversation is bound to spiral out of control. Remember that others’ emotions are the result of the way that they are thinking. When negative emotion shows up, remain calm and ask questions to try and understand the other person’s point of view. Asking questions should help restore rationality to your interactions with others while maintaining respect for the individual and their ideas.

9. Offer support. If in the course of your conversation you find that a person is struggling with something, don’t hesitate to offer support or encouragement. You might even ask if there is something you can do to assist the individual. Too often we become consumed with our own work and isolate ourselves to the detriment of others. Look for opportunities to use your expertise to support and help others.

10. Thank others for sharing.If you ask people to share their perspective or invite them to push back and disconfirm your point of view, always thank those that have the courage to do so. When others are willing to disagree with us, we should take that disagreement as an opportunity to learn something that is outside our perspective. Unfortunately we often counter resistance with resistance, rather than trying to create and achieve understanding.

Creating a culture of candor and openness takes time. Because a person may not have come from such a culture, they may be apprehensive about sharing what they are really thinking. There may be some fear of retribution for disagreeing or speaking up. Creating a collaborative culture requires patience and consistent effort.  Utilizing the tips above will help you on your way to fostering a more effective, synergistic culture.

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What people are saying

Dani Ellerton | August 9, 2018 | REPLY
I'm a senior 911 Dispatcher; while I'm in a non-leader position, I am constantly interacting with my peers, and there are many valid points in this article. There are so many tips in here that would be applicable in my home life, too! I feel my husband and I communicate well...most of the time. Where we fall down, when we do, is in point 7; assuming that we explained ourselves clearly when the other didn't understand. Thank you!
John Stoker | August 9, 2018 | REPLY
Dani, Thanks for your comment. I have to say that my assumptions get me in trouble from time to time. Our thinking is so automatic that we just don't often stop and check it out. The challenge is to just keep working on #7! Have a great day!! j
Lisa A McConnell | August 9, 2018 | REPLY
I have found one of the most effective techniques to challenge false thinking/belief systems is to ask, "do you really believe that?" in a gentle tone. This tool has been priceless because the question causes the brain to stop (our brains like answers!) and evaluate. The process is lightning quick but has incredible value. On another note, I always appreciate your expertise, John! Cheers to you and all the lives you influence!
David Whipple | August 10, 2018 | REPLY
I am evolving several cultures now. I will use some of this for them. Thank you very much.
John Stoker | August 10, 2018 | REPLY
Great Dave. Hope it works out great. If you have any questions call me. j