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Utilize candour to build trust with employees

Jack Welch believes one of the keys to success is candour.

"I would call lack of candour the biggest dirty little secret in business," the former chief executive officer of General Electric wrote in his best-selling book, Winning. "Lack of candour basically blocks smart ideas, fast action, and good people contributing all the stuff they've got. It's a killer."

Kim Scott, a Silicon Valley consultant, essentially agrees but worries that people intent on candour often miss an important aspect: The human element. You are trying to help the other person by being open.

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She asks us to seek "radical candour," the sweet spot between being obnoxiously aggressive and ruinously empathetic. If you come on too strong, focused solely on your needs, you can be obnoxiously aggressive. On the other hand, she says in an interview, "if you care and don't challenge the other person it's ruinously empathetic. That's the mistake most managers make – they don't want to say anything unkind and end up profoundly unkind over the long term by not helping the person."

In her book Radical Candor, Ms. Scott presents a matrix with caring personally about the other person on one axis and challenging directly on the other. To her, those are pivotal ingredients in communications. If people don't challenge directly and don't care about the other person when giving guidance, it's manipulative insincerity. Often, they are being political or intent on being liked. "They tell you that you did a good job to flatter you not because it's true," she says in the interview. That doesn't help anyone.

Ruinous empathy involves caring personally about the other person and therefore not challenging him or her. Ms. Scott says that may be nice, but it's not kind. To be kind, you have to help them in their career by telling them when things are not going well. Also, you must give praise, not just to strengthen the other person's ego, but to show what good behaviour is.

Obnoxious aggression – challenging directly without caring personally – may result in short-term gains, as you push people in the desired direction. In the long term, however, it will lead to colleagues mistrusting you and shutting down.

Seek a combination of the two attributes: Challenge directly and care personally. Radical candour builds trust and opens the door for communication that will lead to good performance. Ms. Scott stresses nobody spends 100 per cent of their time in the radical-candour quadrant. We move between all four types of communication. But you want to make sure you aren't spending excessive time in one of the lesser quadrants, and move towards more moments of radical candour.

The purpose is to get results and Ms. Scott offers helpful ideas about how to operate in meetings. During one-on-one conversations with employees, consider it their meeting. They set the agenda. Your job is to listen and help the subordinate clarify new ideas and think issues through better. "Be as supportive as possible. But you will still challenge in a way that can be supportive," she says.

A breakthrough for Ms. Scott as a manager was to stop viewing one-on-ones as calendar clutter. She realized she was scheduling lunches with people outside her organization she wanted to learn from and never considered employees she worked with as people to learn from over a meal or coffee.

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Most people consider large staff meetings a waste of time. To improve them, Ms. Scott recommends holding sessions on Monday morning and, after a quick round on everyone's weekend, look at the metrics in your corporate dashboard. Don't ask for oral updates at the meeting; leave those to e-mails, everyone listing three to five things they did last week, but schedule a 15-minute "study hall" during the meeting so those messages are actually read. Questions are asked outside the meeting.

Also, don't debate or decide issues in these meetings. Identify what's important and then leave those for separate "big debate" and "big decision" meetings, where important issues are tackled. At debate meetings, people directly involved in the key issues gather to discuss them. But don't decide at that meeting, since that rushes people too quickly to a decision. Instead, leave that for ensuing decision meetings. Each item being decided should have an owner, who makes the final call, but only after listening to others intently.

That sounds like a lot of meetings but Ms. Scott says separating them into different formats will ultimately save time and improve effectiveness. And, of course, make radical candour a key feature of all meetings.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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