As the leader of a business, you're bound to recognize -- hopefully sooner than later -- that the reality is, much of the information you receive is not true. You may suffer due to others' sins of omission or commission, but lies are still lies.
This may sound harsh or even ridiculous, but the reality is that most people have a difficult time giving critical feedback.
Let me share a story from my early years (names and details have been changed to protect the innocent): I had just taken on a new senior leadership role and was trying to get to know the business, so I spoke with a couple of managers on the engineering team.
Their boss -- let’s call him John -- reported directly to me. And naturally I wanted to ask how things were going. So I asked the managers. Their answer? “Good.” What was John like as a boss? Again: “Good.”
I came away from the meeting thinking John was doing a solid job and the engineering team was in decent shape.
Flash-forward a couple of weeks; I went out for a working lunch with some of John’s team. We chatted, and I casually checked in again on how things were going. This time, the answers I got again were somewhat positive, but the team members' feedback this time seemed inauthentic. Perhaps it was just the relaxed atmosphere, but obviously something wasn’t right.
It took multiple meetings and more probing questions on my part, but eventually it became clear that John was causing significant issues in the business and we had to make a change.
The subtext here? We are conditioned from early childhood to avoid saying anything negative when we have nothing nice to say, and that mantra carries into our professional lives, sometimes causing business leaders to make decisions based on bad data. This article is about how you solve this problem.
We all tell white lies.
Clearly, we all like hearing good news. At first blush, when we hear something positive, we're inclined to assume that that’s the real answer. However, what I should have done in my first meeting about John was ask follow-up questions on “why” things were good, and to seek more substantive answers. That approach would have highlighted that things in engineering in reality were not that great.
Bad news, after all, travels very slowly up an organization. But the people who have to deal with the issue on a daily basis have a cllear view of the negative situation.
So, again, a reality check reveals that We all tell white lies. We tell our host at a dinner that the meal was terrific even when it was not. We say a meeting was productive when it was a complete waste of time. We praise a presenter for his or her insights when in fact we were bored to tears.
We try to avoid conflict, we seek to be kind, we feel the need to impress. IThat's all human nature. But the result is that we avoid providing critical feedback to colleagues.
To escape the consequences of all these accumulated evasions, organizations need to change: They need to establish a culture of constructive candor, where honest communication is encouraged. In doing so, employees will be able to focus on high-quality, well-informed decisions and doing the important work that allows them to react and succeed under changing business conditions.
In fact, just the opposite tends to occur; and I have seen this situation play out over and over again, with leaders misinformed, misled and worse.
This doesn't happen because people are genuinely trying to mislead you, but because it is so hard for people to say what they really mean. Difficult truths do not easily reveal themselves, even if someone has the opportunity to say something.
To be an effective leader, then, you need to find ways to uncover what’s really going on in the business. The lesson learned is that, as a leader, when you discover something awry in your business or organization, you have to immediately assume two things: 1) it’s far worse than what anyone is telling you; and 2) you are the last to know.
Then, if you don’t address the problem quickly, with the right questions, the real problem isn't that person or that issue -- the problem is you.
How to make constructive candor a part of your company -- steps:
First, look at your overall culture: To facilitate a culture of candor here at MongoDB ,we developed a set of core values, one of which is Intellectual honesty. As part of defining that concept, we define what it isn’t.
The second part is really important: People don’t need convincing that they -- that we all -- should be more honest. However, being “intellectually honest” can create an environment that excuses leaders' becoming jerks; and that's not helpful in developing a high-performance organization. We’ve now incorporated intellectual honesty into our onboarding and annual review process.
Second, adopt the right tactics:
Lead by example. Nothing can destroy credibility faster than leaders who don’t practice what they preach. Unless people see the leader himself or herself being honest, they’ll never follow. Don’t hide from sharing bad news or having tough conversations.
Invite direct feedback. Encourage employees to give you personal and direct feedback on all facets of the business. Give them as many channels as possible to do it: email, surveys, in-person communications or communications funneled through their management. Most importantly, recognize people publicly for doing this, so it’s clear to everyone that this behavior is genuinely valued.
Conduct skip-level meetings. Don’t meet just with your direct reports; have meetings with people throughout the organization. These can occur with groups or with individuals. Listen carefully for problems and ask probing questions, as junior people tend to be quite shy about being direct. But encourage openness, as they have a close-up view on where problems exist. This is the best way to understand what’s really going on and to quickly take action.
identify issues. Trust your gut: When something doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t. Dig into what doesn’t feel right -- be it a people, product, sales or customer issue. And keep digging until you identify the problem or get persuasive evidence that your gut was wrong. The reality is that your gut is usually right.
What’s measured is managed.
After taking the above steps, you will quickly get a sense of whether people at your company are embracing intellectual honesty, but anecdotes get you only so far. So, at our company we measure.
We use a tool called Culture Amp to gather data on how employees feel about the company, including how we live the MongoDB values. We do not hide from the data. In fact, we share all of the data with employees, and it gives us a chance to measure how well we’re operating and where we need to improve.
Once I personally embraced this philosophy, people who worked for and with me reported that they felt energized that we were talking about things as they really were. They were glad we were doing this instead of remaining disconnected from reality, hiding issues or kicking the can down the road.
The resulting atmosphere also engendered real trust between me and the rest of the organization. As I set the tone, the rest of the organization started to behave in a similar way, yielding even better decisions and results.
Enabling a culture of blunt and direct feedback
To be clear, I’m not the first person to have the revelation that it might be useful to have people be more candid. In fact, the trend of enabling a culture of blunt and direct feedback is viewed by some workplaces as necessary to drive optimal performance.
I've also done some reading in this area, and I’ve never come across someone with a better take on this issue than tech exec-turned-author Kim Scott. Following stints at Google and Apple, Scott has a new project she's created, to encourage what she calls Radical Candor, a framework for delivering and receiving honest and constructive feedback.
I was so impressed with Scott's work that I invited her to speak to our team. In that context, she pointed out that our company isn’t the only company embracing this approach, that companies like MuleSoft, OpenTable and Security Scorecard are implementing similar "candor" changes.
In sum, intellectual honesty isn’t easy. It can make for difficult conversations. But think back to the most important piece of advice or feedback you’ve ever received. Did it contain an element of bold honesty? Maybe that feedback included things that weren’t easy to say, or easy to hear.
But they changed you for the better, and that of course is the ultimate goal.