Timothy R. Clark: Leaders must weigh the consequences of candor

Published: Monday, Aug. 20 2012 7:10 a.m. MDT

Personal feedback: Is candor the right thing?

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Leaders have a duty to be candid. They shouldn’t disguise things or say they’re better than they are. When the arctic explorer Earnest Shackleton put an advertisement in a London newspaper in 1913, he was candid about what his recruits would likely encounter on their ocean voyage. There was no trace of false advertising, no bait and switch, no silk waistcoat on the hog:

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

But what if we’re talking about personal feedback? Is candor still the right thing? Is it an absolute? The answer is no. That may surprise you.

In leadership development, we often talk about the quality of being coachable. A highly coachable person is someone who receives feedback well. The more coachable a person is, the more capacity that person has to accept the truth of his own behavior and performance.

The ability to receive candid feedback is a measure of character. It would be nice if we could all withstand a full and unsparing reflection of ourselves. But we can’t. Actually, I should qualify that. We can, but we’re unwilling. We reject the feedback we are unwilling to act on. We cover our ears and sing to block out inconvenient truths. We engage in denial to avoid a state of cognitive dissonance. For example, Thomas Jefferson was perpetually unwilling to live within his means and died with enormous debt which he bequeathed to his family. He refused to confront the reality of his own behavior.

In my experience, it’s only a small fraction of the population that can consistently withstand full self-disclosure. So any candor given beyond a person’s ability to receive it is wasted and can at times be destructive. It's like putting a steak in front of a toddler. You may be able to blend in small pieces of meat with a carrot puree, but that’s about it. The rest is not consumable. Here’s the principle: Leaders must weigh the consequences of candor in order to best serve the person and the organization. That’s not easy, especially when a person is performing poorly and lacks the desire to be self-aware.

I know a leader who likes to remind people that he’s blunt. He advertises this quality as a sign of courage. He takes pride in the fact that he treats everyone with unmitigated candor, as if to imply that most people are too political and self-serving and can’t approach his level of dispassionate judgment.

In reality, this man is thinking of himself, is not attuned to the needs of those around him and is not exercising careful judgment in the feedback he gives. Instead, he flock-shoots by carelessly spewing whatever is on his mind. He’s the one that needs a full dose of candor in order to comprehend that some people can only handle it in small doses. He’s full of bravado and it doesn’t help.

The question is this: How much candor is a person willing to receive? That’s a judgment call. If you’re paying attention, you can usually tell when someone reaches the limit, as if they’ve eaten a hearty meal and can’t take another bite. At the point of satiation, people show signs of stress overload and retreat into patterns of fight, fright or flight. Candor is no longer useful because it’s no longer actionable. More is worse.

As parents, we see this with our children. As coaches, we see this with our players. As leaders in organizations, we see this with our employees. As husbands and wives, we see this with our spouses. We always hope the capacity to receive honest feedback will increase.

In the end, each person decides how much reality to let in. Those with moral strength swing wide the door. Those without it turn the key on the dead bolt. Sometimes we have to force open the door with tough love. But even then it’s a choice to receive the candor. We need to remember that.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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