How can you make sure people feel comfortable telling you anything?
Once we attain a certain level of authority, it becomes increasingly difficult for our employees to bring us genuine feedback. Everyday feedback you once valued so highly is gone, and the constructive criticism you used to climb the corporate ladder is now much harder to come by. What can leaders do when they no longer have honest opinions from their team? How can you counteract the fear employees have to ask their bosses tough questions?
Matt Kincaid is a managing partner at Blue Rudder, a top rated professor, and a former innovation consultant. His new book is Permission to Speak Freely: How the Best Leaders Cultivate a Culture of Candor. I recently interviewed Matt for the LEADx Podcast, where we talked about the roadblocks to gaining feedback and how leaders can create an environment of honesty. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Why is candor so important in the workplace?
Matt Kincaid: It's a super question and it's one we really dove into for about three years while researching this book, and put in the simplest terms, candor is important because as leaders, we need all the help we can get.
Research shows, as we climb higher into organizations and take higher leaderships roles, that actually people are less honest with us, and less direct with us. We just don't get the candid things we need. And so, we've got all kinds of research that shows people are hesitant to ask questions. They're hesitant to share their uncertainties. They're hesitant to offer up their own ideas. And they're really, really hesitant—almost to a level where they never do it—to provide their leaders with honest feedback.
So the higher you go in an organization, the more people tell you what they think you want to hear. And then you couple that with other research that say if we can actually have candid communication in our organizations, we know that things get better.
From a company perspective, innovation goes up. Ownership increases. We get a much higher level of engagement with people. Research shows only about 30% of people are engaged with their job. It's a pretty sad statistic. Only 1 in 3 people are actually fired up to go to work. And so, we also know that just overall performance increases.
We start to see solutions we couldn't see before when people can just speak freely and tell us what's on their mind and say, “Hey, boss. I didn't like that approach,” or, “Have you thought about this?”
I mean, how often do you go to your boss and say, “Hey, I have this idea. Have you thought about this?” It sounds super simple, but nobody does it. Because of course they've thought about it; they're the boss. Or I'm afraid of saying that for a variety of reasons, which we get into in the book as well.
Kruse: You're saying we can actually create that environment where people won't hesitate. Tell me more about that.
Kincaid: First off, you've written best-selling books, and you say you struggle, I don't want this to come off as I'm one-upping you, I think it's just a different perspective. We're saying this idea of the “right words.” We're arguing that things would be a lot easier and a lot better if there was no such idea as saying things the right way, because what that requires people to do is run their true thoughts, and their authentic feelings through a filter, we call it ‘Verbal Photoshop.’
But they have to run it through that to say things in your own safe language. And so what we're saying is that if people could speak freely, the way they know how to speak, instead of translating into your own safe language as a leader, they could be heard more. And we would hear them more.
We're shifting the responsibility a little bit from all the people in the world, trying to say things the right way, to the leader, saying, “Hey, there is no right way. Tell me your thoughts and I'm going to receive that well,” and so instead of sending 400 nurses to training to teach them how to speak the right way to the doctor in the O.R., let's work with the 12 doctors and say there's no right way anymore.
It's a little bit counterintuitive. We're flipping the idea of articulating things correctly on its head. And don't get me wrong, there's a bunch of really good books—I've read them all and I love them—and they're sort of aimed at how do we get people to say things the right way, so we're trying to flip that on its head and say, “Hey, we're putting the onus of responsibility on the leader's shoulders to create a culture and an environment where there is no right way.” Where you just tell me what you're thinking. However you say it. Whatever's your way of communicating.
Kruse: Should the bosses be a little more accountable for getting the words right, or do you think it's getting in the way of coaching people honestly?
Kincaid: I think it's a tough question. I think there's definitely value there, obviously. There's a lot of research and things that go into how do we communicate with people, I'm not undermining any of that. I think there's sort of two pieces.
I think that if we can build successful cultures of candor, that starts to go away. But coupled with that, I don't think for the actual leader, it's ever completely gone. And the difference though is it's really difficult to speak truth to power. If I'm the employee, it's really hard for me to go to the boss, because—like you mentioned earlier—I'm really vulnerable. I'm afraid of being judged. I don't want them to think I'm stupid. We have all kinds of narratives that we tell ourselves when we're thinking about our next conversation with our boss.
The boss is less threatened. There's no power struggle. There's no, “I'm going to say something to my employee and they're going to fire me,” so it's a very different dynamic, and that's why we're shifting that responsibility. In a sense, what we've done for a long time, is we write all these books telling employees how to speak to the boss, but they're already faced with the tougher job. They're insecure about a number of different things, most likely. And so we're saying, “Hey, the boss should take that on.” And yes, they do need to be careful how they speak and they do need to consider the way they're communicating. All that stuff, that's all relevant. We're just saying the boss, the leader, whoever that is, that should be on their shoulders.
Kruse: You say we should assume positive intent and make sure it's a safe environment. Dignify every tribe. Be genuinely curious.
Kincaid: A guy we know, he's an amazing leader and amazing coach, his name is Bruce Brown, he runs an outfit called Proactive Coaching. We have a quote from him in the book that says, “If someone doesn't trust you, it doesn't matter how well you measure your words. The other person will misinterpret you. If someone trusts you implicitly, it doesn't matter how poorly you phrase something, the other person will assume you meant well.” There's sort of this under-girding of trust that has to happen for all of this to work, so that goes into what you opened with, being vulnerable, building trust with your people.
I'm never going to be candid with my boss if I don't trust my boss. And trust can mean a lot of things, but even in the sense that I don't trust their reaction to what I'm about to say. I might be able to give them my credit card and have them babysit my kids, that kind of trust, but there's a lot of different pieces of trust. The idea is we've gotta build this trust, and so to your question, let's just stick on this idea of positive intent.
What we're arguing in the book is the first step. And for us, this is what we call the center of gravity. Everything hinges on this idea of creating positive intent inside your organizations, on your sports teams, inside your families. And the idea is whenever we're speaking with people, whenever somebody says something to us, we're making a choice on how are we going to respond to this person. Dr. Gum, at the University of Washington, would say “Are you turning towards, or are you turning against, or are you turning away?”
And what we're saying is, we've got to just assume that everybody around us is telling things to us for the right reasons. Which sounds a little crazy, but when anybody comes up to you at work, and they say, “Hey boss, why are we doing it this way?” Even if their tone doesn't sound super positive, we have a choice. I can assume they're asking me that to be condescending or question my plan, or I can assume they really want to know why we're doing it this way because they have 12 people on their team who want to know the answer.
We're just saying, assume positive intent with everybody around you. We get challenged. People say, “What about someone that's going to pull one over on you?” And at the university I teach at, “What about people who are just skipping class?” First of all, I don't care, because I don't think my class is the most important thing in the world, but we're arguing it's the benefits of everybody starting to embody this idea of the people around them doing things for the right reasons. The benefits of that are exponentially greater than a couple of people pulling one over on you once in awhile, right? And that's on them, anyway. That shouldn't concern you.
The idea of positive intent, we dig into it for a whole chapter, and it sounds super simple, but it's really, really hard. It's really hard to just assume, when people come up to and ask you questions or give you feedback, that they're doing it for the right reasons, for good reasons, but we're arguing that's the first step. And that's the foundation of this whole thing. Just assume positive intent. Somebody says, there's not enough time to finish this project, you can assume they procrastinated or maybe there actually isn't enough time. You can address that whichever way you choose in that moment.
Kruse: “In the tough times, just imagine the most generous explanation for your spouse's behavior. And then believe it.”
Kincaid: Absolutely, yeah. In the way this sort of plays out is… there's a psychology theory called the Pygmalion Effect, which basically, essentially saying, you get what you expect. What the research shows is your belief in others can have a causal impact on their behavior. It's not an ESP thing; it's nothing like that.
If you look at facial expressions and study tones, languages, reactions, and body language, we know when we're responding to people, they're hearing way more than just our words. If we're training our brain to respond to them in a positive light, assume positive intent, they're going to pick up on all that, and pretty soon, their response to us becomes different. All of a sudden, we start building this idea of positive intent throughout the organization.
Kruse: I always challenge our listeners to get 1% better every day. What's one specific thing that we can do today to foster this culture of candor?
Kincaid: I would say to stay on the same thing, this idea of positive intent. So I would say that as a listener, try it. Try for one day to assume positive intent with every single person you have a conversation with. The shy person who rarely speaks up. The highly extroverted person who it feels like is questioning you often. Your boss. Your secretary.
If you really want to take it all the way, do it at home. Assume positive intent, like you just mentioned, with your spouse, with your kids. So that looks a certain way, right? They come up to you, and say, “Hey, I think we should go do this.” And instead of saying, “No, I don't think we should,” you say, “Hey, tell me more. Why do you think that? That sounds like a good idea.” Just assume they're telling you, whatever they're telling you, “Let's go to dinner at my mom's house,” and deep down, you're like, “No, I don't want to do that.” Don't tell them. “Hey, that sounds great. What made you want to do that?” Receive their message in a bright light. And just try it for one day. And then try it the next day, especially with your spouse and your kids, it really can change the feel of your life all around you. It's really interesting. We've challenged people with this and we've had people write us letters. “I don't know if I'm doing better at work, but man, I'm a way better little league coach,” or, “I feel like my relationship is way better with my significant other,” and “Wow, I got the promotion I wanted because my boss said they noticed a change in me.” We've heard from a lot of people. I'm not taking credit for it. I just think it's cool when people actually do the hard work and make it happen.
I would argue that I think it would probably help you more than 1%, honestly. It's a shift and it takes practice and you gotta do it over again. You gotta do it tomorrow and you gotta do it for two weeks and three months and you'll go up in down, it's not going to be perfect everyday. But after a little while, it'll start to feel natural. And you'll notice some differences in your lives, I think.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.