This article originally appeared on HBR.org.
I was meeting with a client last week, the CEO of a global financial services firm. At the end of our conversation, he asked me what feedback I had for him about his organization. Since this is a firm for which I have deep respect and admiration, I shared a very long list of positive observations on the people, their culture, and their impressive accomplishments. And then I told him that I thought the single biggest opportunity for improvement was to create a more candid and feedback-rich culture. I was happy to hear him respond that he wanted to do exactly that — and I wasn’t surprised to hear him say that he didn’t know how to begin.
Building candor and feedback into any culture is challenging, but this CEO had a particularly difficult set of issues to address because the predominant descriptors of his current culture are nice, respectful, cordial, warm, relationship-focused, and calm. And while these qualities are real strengths of the organization, they can also create barriers to candor and feedback.
Some of the challenges that this organization faced, like so many other “nice” organizations, include:
- No one wants to hurt a colleague. Most leaders believe that they may hurt someone if they share a strong different point of view or critical feedback. In fact, research shows that feedback can cause physical pain. In most organizations people do not want to hurt each other, and this is all the more true in “nice” cultures.
- Behavior is expected to be poised, respectful, and professional at all times. In general, these are wonderful, positive qualities. But learning a new skill (like candor and feedback) is inherently messy. We are all unskillful when we try something new. And this messiness and poor initial skill can easily be interpreted as unpoised, disrespectful, or unprofessional — all of which are unacceptable in a “nice” culture.
- There are no role models — particularly at the top. When people in this organization look at their senior leaders, they see very warm and positive leaders who are typically not candid with one another and rarely offer positive or negative feedback. Sure, they say “nice job” and offer praise for a job well done, but they rarely talk specifically about behavior with a developmental lens to help people get better.
- You don’t mess with the culture. When a culture is known for its niceness, people have pride in it and loyalty to it; the niceness is part of what attracted them to the organization and what retains them. They enjoy the culture, and are typically reluctant to try anything that may jeopardize it. Edgar Schein, the renowned expert on organizational culture and professor emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says that once cultural norms such as not giving feedback are established, it’s easier for people to resist change “by denial, projection, rationalization, or various other defense mechanisms” than to change their behavior.
With these barriers, how can a nice organization create a culture of candid feedback?
It’s possible, but it’s not easy.
Based on my experience coaching hundreds of executives, I know that leaders — in nice organizations and even not-so-nice organizations — can create a more candid and feedback rich culture by following these seven steps:
- Start with yourself. Since the only one you can actually change is you, focus on that first. Demonstrate you are serious enough about shifting the culture to do the hard work to personally improve. Commit to being better at candor and feedback and share a plan to get there. Tell your team about your commitment and ask for their help. Robert Cialdini’s research on commitment and consistency shows that if we publicly commit to a goal we are more likely to honor it because it becomes part of our identity and we dislike operating in ways that contradict that identity. By doing starting with yourself, you’ll be modeling good behavior and demonstrating your commitment to the shift in culture.
- Ask for feedback and really listen to what you hear. Request big picture feedback (“How can I be a more effective leader?”) and micro feedback (“What could I have done differently in that meeting so it would have been more productive?”). Listen carefully and openly to what you hear, and be genuinely curious about the other person’s perspective. No matter what you hear, do not resist, explain, defend, or push back. You can process it all later and decide what you want to act on, but in the moment just take it all in. And say thank you.
- Focus on thoughtful, caring attempts to help a person or situation improve. Increasing candor and feedback does not give any of us license to say whatever we want, however we want, whenever we want. This is not about venting or getting something off our chest. The intention in creating a culture of candor and feedback is to help someone else develop and be more effective or to help a conversation, decision, or group be more productive. We share our perspectives in service of the other people, to be helpful. It has nothing to do with us feeling better.
- Expect and lean into discomfort and mistakes. Like learning any new skill, getting better at candor and feedback will be uncomfortable and you will do it unskillfully at the start. We learn by trying, getting it wrong, understanding our errors, and then trying again. Since candor and feedback involve other people, there will likely be misunderstandings, hurt feelings, or other kinds of conflict. Don’t expect yourself to skip this part of your learning or for this to feel natural or easy. Neither will happen. Your discomfort and mistakes mean you’re on the right path.
- Clean up your mistakes once you make them. Making mistakes is natural. Not repairing any damage you do is unkind and not leader-like. If you hurt someone, say you are sorry. If you are misunderstood, own your part in the confusion, explain your intent, and apologize for any upset the confusion caused. You’ll not only be doing the right thing by owning and cleaning up your mistakes but also sending two powerful messages to your organization: leaders make mistakes when they are learning something new, and they say they are sorry.
- Understand when not to be candid or give feedback. There are legitimate times when candor and feedback are not the right answer. As my colleague Deborah Grayson Riegel said in a recent article, giving feedback is not the right course of action when the aim is to place blame rather than seek solutions; when you’re overly emotional (think HALT — hungry, angry, lonely, tired); when it’s focused on personality rather than on behavior; when it’s based on hearsay; or when you’ve given lots of other feedback recently.
- Adopt a continuous improvement mindset. Watch what you are doing well, and learn from that. Notice where you are avoiding candor, venting, or delivering feedback unskillfully, and learn from that, too. Analyze what is working and what is not, then create strategies to improve. Like learning any new skill, it’s an iterative and never-ending process. I’ve yet to meet a leader who believes she is good enough at candor and feedback.
If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. There is nothing easy or simple about becoming better at these crucial leadership skills. As Warren Bennis once said, “Leaders know the importance of having someone in their lives who will unfailingly and fearlessly tell them the truth.” Be that person for others.