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10 Valuable Tips to Take the "Awkward" out of Workplace Honesty

Candor has long been an interest of mine. I make no secret about why: the most influential people in my life and career have been those who told me straight-up what was on their mind, even when what was on their mind hurt—as in, hurt me to hear and probably hurt them to say. Honesty can be uncomfortable.

Most corporate structures don't encourage frank conversation. In fact they actively discourage it. If it's a hierarchical, command-and-control type of culture, subordinates will take pains never to upset a boss. If it's an overly political and competitive culture, people worry that candor will come back to haunt them. Even in collegial office environments, people still worry that candid critique of someone's performance will be seen as overly blunt. It's almost as if they would rather see someone repeatedly fail than speak up and hurt their feelings.

Cultivating the kinds of professional relationships that can withstand candor is incredibly important. Studies have found direct links between:

  • strong relationships and revenue growth;
  • workplace camaraderie and productivity;
  • group candor and effective problem-solving.

To get you started, here are 10 tips for creating the kind of environment in which everyone feels enough safety and mutual commitment to say what they're actually thinking:

1. Make the first move. The person who initiates the move toward greater candor and transparency has to give a preview of what it looks like. This does not mean launching into immediate criticisms but rather using intros like, 'This is hard for me, and I'm a little worried about how this is going to go over, but because I care about the work we're doing, I want us to start having more meaningful conversations."

2. Do it in person. If at all possible, begin the move toward greater candor in person, when you can see how the other person is responding to what you're saying. Email is better for follow-up, and a perfect way to affirm someone by thanking them for their time and willingness to listen.

3. Encourage pre-meeting reflection. Giving a brief “heads up” as to what you’ll be discussing can produce greater insight, help avoid groupthink, and lays a groundwork for fruitful conversations that culminate in action items. No one feels blind-sided, and concrete next steps are formulated more quickly. It's a time saver and builds trust.

4. Coach, don't dictate. Use phrases like “I might suggest” or “Maybe think about this” to make it clear that this conversation is not going to result in a power struggle. Similarly, when receiving candid feedback, thank the person who offered it, but it's perfectly okay to say you'll get other data points on the subject to help decide how to proceed.

5. Be short and sweet. Mark Twain quipped, "I’m sorry for writing such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one." Boiling down our talking points to their most useful essence takes time, but we do people a favor by using our time to make sure we consume less of theirs.

6. Let difficult communications marinate overnight. Let several hours elapse between initial drafting of a critical email and hitting “Send.” In that interim revise and remove any loaded language. A good rule of thumb is to cut it by half, which sounds difficult but won't be after everyone has had some sleep.

7. Coach through questions. Research has found that ideas are often sparked by asking the right questions. A semi-structured approach works better for promoting innovation than unrestricted brainstorming. In short: the more thought and care put into your questions, the greater the value of the answers you'll elicit.

8. Invoke the larger vision. If a conversation starts to veer off course or get bogged down in messy details, nudge it back into line by invoking a larger shared goal: "We’re having this conversation because we're devoted to delivering a world-class customer experience, and you and I are both integral to making that vision a reality."

9. Say thanks. The gist of all candid conversations is ideally, I have some particular concerns but overall I’m grateful. If communicating by email, it helps to wind up with an invitation to respond. Use some variation on “I look forward to your thoughts.” Most importantly, regular expressions of appreciation and celebration are what makes the bitter pills easier to swallow. If it's all pointing out room for improvement, all the time, people quickly shut down.

10. Conclude with a promise. At the end of every candid conversation, it should be clear what the next steps are. Restate briefly what you're taking away from the conversation, and if there's any action item on your plate, restate your commitment to act and, if appropriate, include a rough date for when you hope to pick up the conversation. This maintains the relationship momentum and affirms that the contents of the conversation were important enough to warrant follow-up.

Which of these tips resonate, and what else has worked for you?


Karen Valencic's picture


Great list. I like your use of the word candor. Candor is really the ability to be comfortable with conflict in a creative way. I also find the ability to be personally 'centered' invaluable in these types of conversations. People respond overwhelmingly to the nonverbals. The ability to be calm and present trumps everything else!

Thanks for your good work! Karen Valencic

keithferrazzi's picture

Thanks :) Keeping the conversation constructive and focused on the value for the other person is the key difference between candor and conflict. Thanks for your comment!

Gregory Leiby's picture

@Make the First Move: This is leadership in action. Ask for people to be candid with you, then model the desired behavior when reciving a critque. People will watch, and based on your recation will know if this is real or the next silver bullet.

I have heard (but not documented) that Kenedy assigned a "Devil's Advocate" role after Bay of Pigs. The idea of a formal "Devil's Advocate" (with a rotating asigment so no one gets typcast) to look for holes in projects and ideas can go a long way in avoiding mistakes.

If you want to create an atmosphere of try, keep critiques off electronic media. Once you hit "Send" (even to one person) it is permanent. In person of possible (80% of communication is body language). I read about Ford executive that would hand-write critical memos to direct reports (assurance that they are the only two people to see it) and have his secretery typ positive memos (assurance that at least three people know about the good).

It takes a lot of trust to develop candor. And trust takes time.@Make the First Move: This

Allison's picture

The "Pre-meeting reflection" rule is critical to successful candor. I read this list after having two candid and cruitial conversations; one with my boss and another with a colleague about some changes we are planning in our organization. Both conversations were positive because we had time to think about what was important to the organization and to each other as well as our own point of view.

We each stated opinions and offered solutions in ways that respected the others' perspectives. Forethought and diplomacy is a real key to making headway in potentially firey issues.

mary's picture

Thank you, Keith, for these helpful points!

Regarding the "Pre-meeting reflection" -- I'd like to add that we must be mindful that a “heads up” might lead to worry or fear from the other person especially in undeveloped relationships. Being reflective and thoughtful in articulating the "pre-communication" is critical especially depending on the meeting content one plans to discuss, or the feedback one plans to give.

And, with regard to e-mail ... my motto is, "DON'T use e-mail!"

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