How to encourage candor in your office

Hard truths—delivered well—are necessary for health and growth.
By Eddie Huffman

Matt was one of the most popular people in his office, but he wasn't getting the job done. His supervisor called him in after work on a Tuesday evening, tried to let him down in the most humane way he could, and then sent an email telling the rest of the staff that Matt no longer worked there. On Wednesday morning, Matt showed up for work as if nothing had happened—because his supervisor had not made it clear to him that anything had. Everyone stared in stunned silence.

"I've been fired, haven't I?" Matt said, then turned around and left.

That awkward, but true, story—albeit with the name of the employee changed—comes from Russ Laraway, co-founder of Candor Inc., a Silicon Valley startup now previewing an app called Candor Coach, and co-host of the "Radical Candor" podcast. While Laraway's story is an extreme example, it illustrates the importance of being completely open with your co-workers.

"If you can get that conversation wrong, you can get any conversation wrong," he said.

Candor may not be easy or comfortable, but it's essential to creating an effective, productive workplace where people can grow and learn from their mistakes, experts say. We talked to CPAs, etiquette coaches, and a business professor who studies organizational behavior to get some tips on how to create an atmosphere where respectful candor thrives.

Not every failure of candor leads to an incident as egregious or embarrassing as Matt's botched firing. But experts say lack of candor can decrease productivity, hurt morale, and give people a false sense of security about the way they're doing their job or interacting with co-workers.

John Sumanth is an assistant professor of management and organizational behavior at the Wake Forest University School of Business. He puts it in terms of creating an "environment of voice," where people feel free to speak up about issues and problems, whether between co-workers or organizational leaders.

"The research is pretty clear in terms of the benefits that accrue when people take time to invest in that," he said. "We get better decisions."

Lydia Ramsey, president and founder of Manners That Sell in Savannah, Ga., formerly worked as a supervisor in a hospital. She used to have to steel herself for difficult conversations with colleagues, but she learned that the outcome was usually positive.

"I found that people are grateful when you tell them what the problem is," she said. "People want to do the right thing. If they're doing something wrong, they want to hear about it, they want to correct it. Every time I did that, people would thank me for telling them what they could do to make it better."

Not everyone is receptive to hard truths, of course, and the way information is delivered can make a big difference in how it's received. Here are some tips for creating a candid atmosphere in the office, where everyone feels free to speak up and criticism is delivered in respectful ways that promote positive change.

Face the music. Don't deliver criticism by email or text, Ramsey said.

"If you've got a difficult issue, you can pretty much count on the fact that the other person's not going to take it the way you intended," she said. "So you need to pick up the phone. They need to hear your tone of voice. Or, better yet, you need to do it one-on-one—go to their office, go to their desk, whatever, and talk to them so they can see your body language and facial expressions and understand how you mean it."

Seize the day—after cooling off. Don't wait too long to address a problem, but don't rush in when emotions are running high, advised Benjamin Vance, CPA/ABV, a business valuation manager in the consulting department of Postlethwaite & Netterville in Baton Rouge, La. Raise issues only when you can do so in a calm, professional manner.

"I've tried to be candid but not let emotions take the lead on it," he said.

Ramsey agreed: "Give yourself time to cool off. Don't go to somebody when you're really mad about what they did."

Criticize the behavior, not the person. Avoid sweeping generalizations and focus on the immediate issue, said Gina Chironis, CPA/PFS, president and CEO of Clarity Wealth Management in Irvine, Calif.

"As an example, you wouldn't say, 'You're always late to work,'" she said. "You would say, 'You were 15 minutes late to our meeting on Tuesday—is there some reason for that? Is there some way we can work together so you'll be on time for the next meeting?'"

Praise publicly, criticize privately. It's fine to let the entire office know when someone has done well, but address criticism behind closed doors.

"I'm a big believer in being candid publicly with positive feedback," Chironis said, but negative feedback should take a quieter form, delivered in private, she added.

Watch the ratio. You should always praise people more than you criticize them. Candor Inc.'s app encourages managers to give detailed, sincere praise regularly.

"You should be giving 5-to-1 praise to criticism, because if you think about it, you're not firing everyone on your team," Laraway said. "They're doing an awful lot better than they're doing poorly, so it seems like there's a strong case to be calling out all the things people are doing well."

"And," not "but." If criticism follows praise, don't undermine the praise by saying, "You did a great job, but …," said Suzanne Nourse, owner of the Protocol School of Ottawa.

"As soon as you hear 'but,' you've forgotten the rest," she said. "All you've heard is, 'OK, now hit me with the truth.' If you use 'and' instead of 'but,' you change the way people look at things. It's just switching one three-letter word."

One size does not fit all. Recognize that feedback and criticism may require a nuanced, individualized approach.

"You have to build relationships with peers and supervisors and direct reports," Vance said. "Know what makes them tick, what their interests are. They need to trust you. With some partners, I know I can be more candid than with others. I give them clearance: 'You can shoot me straight, and I can shoot you straight.'"

Eddie Huffman is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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