What Are the Best Ways to Build Candor on a Small Team?

What are the best ways to build candor on a small team? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Mills Baker, Product Design Manager, on Quora:

A first point: nothing you do will be effective unless everyone agrees that candor is valuable, that its benefits are worth its costs. After all, for every improvement to e.g. information transparency or coordination or hypothesis preservation, there is a potential cost to individual personalities, emotional and creative safety, and so on; and these costs are real even when subtle. As such, it’s worth having explicit reasons for pursuing candor both to persuade people to work on it at all and to have a framework for thinking about its benefits and costs in an aligned, collective way.

I won’t provide any arguments for (or against) candor here, as they’d not be strictly germane to this question and the issues involved are sufficiently complex as to merit their own discussion. But for what it’s worth: I’m personally sensitive to candor’s costs, and I’m ambivalent about the fetishist notions of candor popular in some circles. I do think correctly understood and practiced, candor is immensely positive, but I dislike that caricatural kind of candor that seems to mostly appeal to already-expressive personalities and cliques, the variety that encourages jerks, domineering tyrants, and so on. It’s also vital to respect genuine differences of personality, taste, culture, and etiquette; for every person that is thrilled to “speak their mind”, there are others who can feel crowded out, ignored, bullied, or disadvantaged in various ways by such a mandate.

All that said, assuming you have an explanatory framework justifying candor and want to respectfully build it on your team, the next point to remember is that teams are made of individuals, and from an individual’s point of view, “candor” can mean two things:

  • The individual is candid with others; and/or
  • Others are candid with the individual.

One of these is a more naturally palatable experience than the other! Indeed, the only reason why we’re not all naturally candid at all times with others is that we (accurately) predictively model their reactions: they will not like it, and they’ll then be candid –or worse!– with us.

As such, building candor is often more about demonstrating how to accept candor than it is about showing how to be candid. Leaders can do this by encouraging reports to be candid and demonstrating how they themselves accept such candor, even if they disagree or feel bad about it, sharing the tools they use to do so (for example, something as simple as “I try to wait one day to respond to challenging feedback” can be tactically useful for people to consider doing).

The hardest part of candid exchanges is avoiding reaction and remaining calmly open; the reason this is hard is because we’re conditioned to react to the treatment of our utterances, ideas, and criticisms as treatment of ourselves. But if you accept that people are not their utterances or ideas –that these change over time; that these all come from elsewhere and wind up elsewhere; that your team’s work is more like the scientific process than some “test” where the “good people” are separated from the “bad people”; that good information and ideas and perspectives can come from anywhere; and so on– it gets much easier. Note that these are abnormal concepts for a work environment, and in many team contexts talking about “what the self is” will seem bizarre. But if we want people to change their ingrained, socialized norms, it may be necessary to challenge the bases for some of those norms.

All that said: if you can establish a baseline expectation that everyone ought to be able to accept candid feedback and direct communication –an expectation you hold yourself to to an even higher degree, one you meet even when it’s painful for you– you can then move on to encouraging increasingly candid feedback.

So to sum:

  • Show that you can and do take candid feedback and direct communication, remaining focused on how it can help improve your work and the product even when it’s discomfiting.
  • Encourage everyone to trust that the team is committed to accepting candor, and therefore to be more candid (when it’s useful).
  • Be mindful of the need to show the benefits to the team; keep an eye out for instances in which candor leads to improved outcomes or processes or skills.

Note that improving one’s capacity for candor may have long-term benefits that you cannot point to immediately for members of the team. You can also emphasize those. Being able to clearly and directly communicate useful information no matter the emotional tenor of the situation is obviously a great skill to have, and one you’ll need in leadership and which is helpful in life generally, so it’s to everyone’s benefit to work on it.

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