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Talking Straight

Stephen Covey in his book, Speed of Trust defines “Talk Straight” as honesty in action and it means telling the truth and leaving the right impression (which means communicating so clearly that you cannot be misunderstood). That’s the old-fashioned definition of candor. Candor is the quality of being frank, open and sincere when communicating with other people. Candor is critical is business because, according to Jack Welch, leader extraordinaire, 1) current and new ideas get debated and improved with greater frequency and intensity; 2) it creates speed because action and decisions happen faster; and 3) it cuts costs because unnecessary meetings, presentations and reports are eliminated in favor of meaningful, “real” discussions.The problem is, talking straight is relatively rare in business. From childhood people learn to people soften bad news and difficult conversations. We try to avoid conflict or hurt feelings by not saying what we really mean, withholding our comments or criticism. Candor in virtually every situation is so rare that it unnerves people. Most people don’t speak their minds because it is easier not to. When you tell it like it is, you feel like there’s a chance there will be a mess you’ll have to clean up. Not telling the truth, telling a little white lie, seems like the easiest, kindest thing to do.People are also often tempted to not be candid because they don’t see the big picture. They fear alienating other people and losing trust. The irony is that a lack of candor to avoid unpleasantness actually erodes trust.Lack of candor is most common in performance appraisals, discussions and reviews, though it is unfair to poor performers to not be 100% candid with them. They need to know what is working and what is not. The best bosses will be straight with you. However, there is a vast difference between criticizing and critiquing, between picking projects apart and picking people apart.When you need to give “necessarily honest” feedback, focusing on the work and not the person is vital. Criticism can impact everyone, even superstars. Negative comments and emotions are more likely to be recalled and relived. Knowing that can make it even harder to dole out straight talk. Finding balance is critical.Greg McKeown, business consultant, gives advice on this. His first piece of advice is to protect yourself from others. When evaluating feedback, you’ve been given, consider the source. Direct, cold personalities may give feedback that cuts deeply—it’s just how they communicate. A mistake to be made here is in listening too much or in taking comments to heart from someone who simply speaks in an abrasive manner.McKeown’s second piece of advice is to protect others from yourself. Candor does not mean disregarding other people’s feelings. If you’re the one giving feedback, it is strategically ill-advised to interact too boldly when you’re just discussing the quality of recent work. Confrontations should be reserved for the worst of behavior, not when letting someone know that some tweaking is needed. It’s important to create a safe zone for giving and receiving straight talk.#RealTalkHudl, a sports video software company based in Lincoln, Nebraska, has a system for feedback that they refer to as #RealTalk. Playing off of the slang “real talk” (curt honesty), the team utilizes the phrase to denote when a conversation has taken a serious turn. It’s an inside half-joke, used to inspire real candor among the teams. The phrase is one of 6 values read aloud at the start of every feedback time. It lets everyone involved know that calculated discussion about their project is going down—sharp feedback is imminent, and you shouldn’t take it personally.Imagine being in a debate with an employee where one of you is floundering about knowing what to say but not knowing how to say it. Asking for the “real talk” shuts this down and gives you the green-light to be as honest as you need to be. Leadership in any setting could emphasize a similar philosophy throughout the culture so team members know that when it’s time to talk shop, honesty and straightforward language is the name of the game.Brevity Encourages Straight TalkConsultant Peter Bregman puts into practice this belief: the calling card of dishonest talk is superfluous language. When a conversation is honest, it doesn’t need the “sugar on top.” When a point is being made in a roundabout way, fluff becomes a necessity. He argues that getting to the tough conversation first is a helpful habit that promotes candor. Suspense heightens anxiety and only serves to make the entire interaction worse. When you are in charge, lead with the part you’re dreading. Get to the conclusion in the first sentence. Handle the cringe factor fast and early. It requires emotional courage, but always is best. You can then focus on the solution.Ed Catmull, current president of Pixar Studios and author of Creativity Inc. preaches whenthis sort of culture is achieved among a talented group of people, magic can happen. The team HAS to quickly get to a place where we can hear honest, direct feedback about the work. It is never a matter of ego or about putting somebody down; it is always about the project.Instilling Straight Talk is Hard But Not ImpossibleIt is hard because you are fighting human nature, entrenched behaviors, and truly time consuming. Jack Welch says, “At GE, it took us close to a decade to use candor as a matter of course, and it was by no means universal after twenty. Still it can be done. There is nothing scientific about the process. To get candor, you reward it, praise it, and talk about it. You make public heroes out of people who demonstrate it. Most of all, you yourself demonstrate it in an exuberant and even exaggerated way—even when you’re not the boss.”Welch says you have to ask probing questions that have the power to change the meeting from a self-congratulatory parade to a stimulating working session. You may be afraid of that because you don’t want to look like a jerk. Truthfully, candid comments will freak people out to start. The more formal and top-down your organization is, the tougher it will be. Truthfully, there’s a risk, and only you can decide if you are willing to take it. For sure, you will have an easier time instilling candor if you are closer to or actually are the top. But Welch says from his own experience that straight talk can start anywhere. When he was an underling, he had the guts to be candid and made the case for talking straight.Welch said wherever, whatever level he led, the first cycle of straight talk was often awkward and unpleasant. People were not used to wide-open discussions about everything and anything.By the next review, they would already be seeing candor’s positive impact with a better team in place, and with each successive cycle, more and more people made a strong case for candor.Welch concludes, “From the day I joined GE to the day I was named CEO, twenty years later, my bosses cautioned me about my candor. I was labeled abrasive and consistently warned that my candor would soon get in the way of my career. Now my GE career is over, and I’m telling you that it was candor that helped make it work. So many more people got into the game, so many voices, so much energy. We gave it to one another straight, and each of us was better for it.”It’s really very simple—candor works because candor unclutters. You may still be reluctant. You say, “Candor is not natural.” Neither is waking up at five in the morning to be at work by seven. Neither is skipping lunch, so you can make an important meeting or date. But for the sake of what you really care about, you do a lot of things that aren’t easy. The good thing about candor is that it’s an unnatural act that is more than worth it.We don’t want a world where everyone goes around saying what they really think all the time. That would turn too many Facebook posts into reality! J Too much information! But in our teams, if what we do is important, if the mission matters, straight talk matters. Straight talk will change us for the better.

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