Candor is one of the most misunderstood words in the English language. The word comes from the Latin word meaning “whiteness, brilliance, unstained purity,” and has evolved to mean speaking openly and honestly. The mantra following the banking scandals of the last decade is the need for candor and transparency. Renowned leaders and experts like Jack Welch, Daniel Goleman and Warren Bennis have published numerous books that cite the importance of candor. In fact, most books on leadership cite candor as a key element of a successful company, an instant panacea cure-all for corporate America.

It’s not that simple. Huge hurdles exist in companies, families and individual relationships that fundamentally block candor. To promote candor without first addressing why its absence is so prevalent is a formula for disaster. Telling someone to “be candid” is like telling someone they need to come to work tomorrow and speak a new language, and a really tough one, like Latin. Oh, and by the way, membership in your most important relationships relies on how well you speak Latin tomorrow.

Candor is a fundamental skill that is in many ways like learning a new language. The underlying assumption of all the books and articles I’ve read is that people just need to speak up; be forthright. Just do it! The truth is that candor follows power, so it most often works one-way: down. People with power can speak with candor to those below them (parents, teachers, supervisors, leaders, etc.). It’s a risk often not worth taking for the rest of us, however.

You Can’t Impose Candor

Candor cannot be imposed. Period. You can’t wield it like a club as punishment. You can’t extract it out of people. No matter how convincing a president, executive, leader, or parent is in “selling” the concepts of candor, the pleas are lost in translation on many people. The truth is that people creative enough to establish conditions bringing on the need for candor will be just as creative finding ways to avoid candor. Sometimes this creativity is deliberate, but more often it’s not.

I am not diminishing the value of candor, it indeed is the key to building the best possible relationships. We all see the benefits of candor in theory. We want candor. We envy those who enjoy the benefits of candor in their relationships. Our desire for openness in our relationships and workplaces is vivid. You see the desire played out every day in negative behaviors of politicking, dominating, gossiping, complaining (to the wrong people), job jumping, giving up, losing hope, are of these behaviors are forms of rebelling against the lack of candor in our relationships.

It’s Not About Courage…

Candor is not about courage, or the lack of it. That’s another false assumption that high profile people promoting candor often make. “You need to find the courage to speak up and say what needs to be said when it needs to be said.” These pronouncements make candor sound like a necessary evil, a blunt force weapon that is “for your own good.”

High profile whistle-blowers like Sherron Watkins at Enron are most often heralded as the best example we have of candor. This is very misleading. Confrontational candor should not be put up as anything but an extreme example of the kind of candor needed in Corporate America. The “one person who risks it all to confront evil” image is usually false. By the time Watkins acted, most of the real damage was done at Enron. She was jumping off a heavily hemorrhaging ship.

“Cowboy” Confrontation is one of the most difficult forms of candor to manage and also does the most harm. It’s what people do when their membership is beyond repair. Only those with great skill can pull this off without destroying relationships. People who use confrontation act because have nothing to lose so they don’t mind risking it all: losing their job or some other vital membership, walking away from a critical relationship.

People resist candor for true-life reasons. They would be foolish to risk their jobs, their livelihoods, their most important relationships. The supervisor with a tyrannical boss is better off better off putting in for a transfer. The newest partner in a law firm with a new mortgage and family is better off finding an acceptable way to deal with his boss’s behavior. Candor is not always a good course.

Confrontational candor also often only benefits certain people. You have to have more than just guts to pull it off. You have to have credibility and respectability to be heard. I’ve been in the workplace for 31 years. I’ve seen good people stand up for what is right and get fired. I’ve watched friends finally reach a point in marriages where they made a dramatic move that took the relationship to the point of no return. “Cowboy confrontation” is very risky. Many times, it only serves to force you burn one bridge and leave no choice but to move painfully on.

The reason we don’t speak up is simple: we don’t know how. What we do know is that we, as individuals, are only part of the problem. Candor practiced in isolation can be suicide in the wrong relationship. Speaking out risks membership, being outcast, or singled out as a target. This is why in most relationships, both work and personal, we operate with elephants in the room, some small and some enormous.

We All “Unlearn” Candor

Have you every tried to “unlearn” how to ride a bicycle? That’s what candor requires of most of us – having to “unlearn” a deeply entrenched aversion. Candor comes to us all naturally as children. This is where I see the “whiteness and brightness” still ringing true. Anyone who has spent time with children has experienced pure, unadulterated candor. As parents, we marvel, cherish, and enjoy repeating the stories, the innocent honesty about how children explore their worlds.

Our natural sense of candor is systematically stripped away as we grow up and move into more structured social settings. We’re taught:

  • “You can think that but don’t say it.”
  • “Stay away from bullies.”
  • “Mind your own business.”
  • “Be polite.”
  • “Just do what I say.”
  • “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.”
  • “Don’t ask why.”
  • “Don’t start trouble.”
  • “Don’t talk back.”
  • “Don’t ask so many questions.”

We learn not to challenge, not to question, to mimic our elders and do whatever it takes to “fit in.” And it’s this subtle stripping away that is reinforced over and over during our formative years that gets ingrained so deep in our values that we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Candor Skills Are Not Innate

Candor skills are not an innate gift that people are born with. The skill requires continuous self-examination and openness to constant personal challenge. These qualities are the exception rather than the rule for most people. In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell points out that outstanding performers share a “10,000 Hour” rule. They have accomplished 10,000 hours of “feedback-rich, mentor filled” practice before they reach “outlier” status of success. And it’s that practice alone that gives them an advantage.

I argue that candor skills are just as demanding and they have to be practiced in a safe, “feedback-rich, mentor filled” setting to constantly challenge the natural aversion we all share. “Outlier” leaders who enjoy the benefits of candor most likely do so because they have more practice than the rest of us.

Specific conditions have to be in place for candor to grow and thrive. An individual’s contribution to candor is only one part, and can easily fail. The relationships and culture in place determine whether or not an individual’s attempts to be candid succeed or fail, and it’s these forces that are so often overlooked or misunderstood by leaders.

The purpose of Grid is to show that candor has to be integrated into individual relationships and culture in ways that encourage it to flourish. Attempts to force it on people or use it in isolation can well do more harm than good. Grid candor skills show people how to practice it in realistic everyday terms that apply to all relationships, workplace, personal, and otherwise.

The only way a person can learn and change behavior is to understand how personal behavior impacts people and results. Sound behavior critique builds candor without malice when comments are given out of a sincere desire to help. Behavior critique is like any skill—it has to be practiced, tested, and adjusted over time to fit every person and team. There is no strict formula or guideline that fits every situation, but there are several characteristics that can make giving and receiving it more effective.

There is a proven approach that will accelerate the process of developing and managing relationship defined by candor and transparency. The process is involves learning candor skills and using them in your relationships the same way you would a physical workout. The more you use these skills, the stronger and second nature they become. For more information, please contact us.

“Pretty much all the honest truth telling in the world is done by children”
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.