In All Candor

This is most definitely not an article about business-to-business (B2B) email marketing. Just the same, I trust that you will stay on the bus because the topic I’ll be discussing — speaking candidly — affects your every business endeavor.

If there’s one thing I prize almost above all else, it’s good conversation. It’s a tough thing to find these days, because it requires sustained attention and time. It doesn’t serve your interests to go looking for it, anyway. You must rely on the grace of accidents and the tugs and nudges of minor gods. Good conversation does not yield itself to your will. There is no Tony Robbins course that will “get” you good conversation.

Often, good conversation involves a kind of masked play in which the people involved hide behind images or predetermined roles. If you think this kind of artifice is the enemy of good conversation, you’re wrong. It’s going to be a part of many interactions anyway, so why fight it? We are creatures of pretense and display — no less so than the big, black-blue grackles that, during the mating rituals of spring, stand in the grass or on telephone wires, shaking like Elvis.

There can be, and often is, candor to be found behind the masks. On occasions, a mask enables far greater candor than would normally be possible — and, as you walk in the garden of the rest of your life, candor becomes increasingly important.

I want candor in business. One can argue that I am now, after 19 years, in a position of some power. But our company is small and, in any case, I’m not sure about power’s significance when your primary joy is working with bright, talented people.

Still, I have this lofty title, and I know that, on occasions, it does get in the way of people speaking candidly with me. I know this because I’ve seen how titles work in far larger organizations. No matter how secure or “empowered” a colleague may feel, sometimes one has to drag the candor out of him. Even then, you get only some of what you need.

(Wait a minute. Who am I kidding? Do I really want candor? Do I really want to be told when I’ve taken a mistaken course of action? If told that I’ve been insensitive, inept, or cruel, mightn’t I just stonewall or be dismissive? Wouldn’t my life be simpler if I just avoided candor altogether?

Intellectually, I know that candor is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone. It shows itself in forthright counsel and well-informed criticism. Still, it’s not an easy gift to receive.)

In some organizations, candor is allowed to enter only through dimly lit service entrances: humor, alcohol, anonymous email, and investment discussion boards. Or it breaks in during a time of stark, personal choices: “I’ve got nothing to lose, so I’m gonna tell that SOB everything I’ve been wanting to tell him for 10 years.”

(Speaking for that SOB, let me tell you: Don’t wait 10 years. Don’t wait 10 days even.)

Sometimes, candor is the seemingly exclusive province of CEOs. After dozens of years of swallowing their pride and “playing the game,” they’ve now earned the privilege of speaking their minds. They find this experience to be liberating. I believe everyone, not just CEOs, should experience this liberation.

Anyone who’s been in business for a while knows the conditions that discourage candor. There’s a reason that candor, in many organizations, flows only one way, from management to managed — fear prevents people from speaking out. You don’t want to lose your job by saying the wrong thing to the boss. A simple remark, that you hope will be constructive and taken in the spirit you make it in, might be misconstrued.

But, it’s time to start imagining the conditions that will allow candor to thrive.

Can we create new structures, forums, and opportunities that will, taken as a whole, amount to a “candor system” within our business organizations? Could a consultancy create venues that encourage candor and ensure complete confidentiality? Is there such a thing as “mediated candor,” a candor that is collected and refined? Is there any way to ensure that powerful people will listen when others speak what they think is the truth?

This is not a small or unimportant issue. Billions have been spent on reengineering business processes and implementing complicated supply chain management and enterprise resource planning technologies. The goal is to create the seamless, real-time enterprise — with no walls or constraints.

Yet, there has been so little attention (if any) given to the subject of breaking down the barriers preventing truth and candor.

Some of you are saying, “Yeah, sure, and I want us all to be nice, decent people, too. But, you can’t train niceness and decency, can you? This sounds like feel-good, hug-your-ficus, pass-the-soy-pellets-and-limewater Deepak Chopra holistic management hokum.”

Maybe. Truth to tell, I’ve watched some Chopra, and I’d watch him again. But, before I bow too deferentially to the skeptics, let me ask a question: Is there something you’ve long wanted to tell your CEO, something that you think might even change the fortunes of your company? Why aren’t you speaking candidly?

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