Managing the Risks of Candid Feedback

Friends, 

Last week I wrote about the refreshing quality of Bill Ford’s candor.  (I have posted the full interview; to hear it click on this link: www.danmulhern.com/bill_ford.mp3.  It’s about a half hour long, so it may take a bit to download).  Readers blogged on this RFL, each shining a light on a different aspect of candor.  As one reader put it, “If Mr. Ford had difficulties in changing the culture, where is the hope for others?”  She wrote that candor creates peace of mind, but those who express it “compromise their career growth because the existing culture does not accept them.”  This theme of the risk of candor was repeated by others.  It begs further comment.  

First, it is risky.  One of our teenage daughters was talking about how hard it is to confront their friends or to tell us things that might get them or others in trouble.  She wanted me to “get” that, to appreciate that telling the truth is fraught with some danger.  I did appreciate that.  But I also told her: Telling hard truths will never be easy.  It’s not easy to tell your husband something that will make him uncomfortable and make you unappreciated.  It’s not easy to tell someone you think they have a drinking problem.  Not easy to discipline a worker you really like, or challenge a boss whose close-mindedness is getting in their way.  But real relationships and strength of character are built not on deception but on the gift of truth telling.  And these dynamics of relationship and character get multiplied in organizational cultures. 

You may lose a friend.  May lose favor in the company.  Or lose a job.  At some point there may be that kind of either/or, go-for-broke moment. 

Yet being candid is not always played at this brink.  If you’re feeling compelled to confront someone with a tough truth, there are steps short of suicidal bomb-throwing.  Begin by gathering data.  Are others seeing things the same way you are?  Gather data not to prove yourself correct, but to genuinely learn what’s out there; you can’t afford to be overly partial when the risks are high.  Second, consider with great seriousness the times in the past when you have seen the intended recipient of your candor receive feedback: When have they accepted feedback? Who delivered it?  How did they do it?  What’s the listener’s likely initial reaction based on past situations?  Does someone standing their ground help in their eyes, or do they need to be approached gently and given to think about it?  This approach also forces you to do one of the hardest things of all: Figure out why they should care about it.  To be successful you have to put it in terms of their values, e.g., for you it’s about their not hurting people’s feelings, but to them it may be about not hurting the bottom line; so you have to show how rough treatment generates lousy results.  

Finally, consider employing the power of a good question.  Taking a firm position, stating an opinion without equivocation, may be necessary at some times, but not always.  Asking: “Have you considered the possibility that . . .” is a whole lot less likely to create dangerous defensiveness than, “You don’t seem to realize…”   Try inquiring before declaring.  Seek to understand what it is they actually know, rather than being committed to have them see the world through your eyes!  

These are some key steps before speaking truth to power, to 

Lead with your best self. 

Dan