Let me be candid.I squirm when someone utters those words. Not because I fear what he’s about to say. No, my first thought is he is not going to be candid at all. And nothing leading up to that comment was candid.What, we were just killing time here?Gary Pisano, a Professor and Associate Dean at Harvard Business School, is one of the world’s leading researchers in the fields of innovation, strategy and competitiveness. And he is keen on the notion of candor. In his thought-provoking book “Creative Construction: The DNA of Sustained Innovation,” Pisano describes 5 characteristics of cultures or environments that sustain innovation. Trait #3:Psychologically safe but brutally candid.Does the word brutally freak you out a bit? We’re not talking about the quality of the delivery here - personal attacks and all that. Brutal in the sense of fully, not partially. Fearless, not timid. Unapologetic, not dressed up.Brutal candor can be delivered without inflicting psychological harm onto others.Last week I became intrigued by the media scandal involving Oprah Winfrey, the film directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, and their documentary about the sexual harassment allegations against hip hop mogul Russell Simmons. The public response to the situation was fueled by what smelled like a lack of candor. On January 10, 2 weeks before the film was set to premiere at The Sundance Film Festival, Ms. Winfrey abruptly withdrew as the film’s Executive Producer. Her public statement suggested that she felt the film was being rushed and needed a little more work.None of my friends in the media industry bought that statement.A transparent lack of candor.It set the rumor mill on fire.Had Russell Simmons tried to silence Oprah? Was this a race thing – Oprah was championing two white directors who were tearing down a mega-successful African-American male? Did Oprah no longer believe the accusers, public declarations notwithstanding? Was she influenced by the rapper 50 Cent’s social media campaign that smeared Simmons’ female accusers? Had someone else gotten to her?When CBS This Morning aired an interview on January 15 with 3 of the women featured in the documentary, Gayle King - Oprah’s proxy and a co-host of the morning program - offered an anguished explanation of how difficult the decision had been for Oprah.King flubbed her way through her statement.Nobody bought it.Two days later, the New York Times published an expose about this controversy. Oprah had decided to share more details with the Times reporters about what had led to her withdrawal from the documentary. It no longer seemed like a sudden 11th hour decision. The details told a much more complex story. They had the whiff of truth. They made sense.Oprah had been forced into candor.Here’s what gets me. None of the new details were “horrible.” They added complexity and humanized Oprah’s decision process for me. Couldn’t she have said some of this right away?There is, of course, no psychological safety in the arena of public life. And yet, with Oprah’s level of power comes the privilege of more candor.Candor is contextual. Always. Oprah’s comments were made in the context of her professional life. So let’s talk about you and me for a moment, shall we. How candid are we in our professional lives? Brutally candid? Occasionally candid? Depends-on-the-situation candid? Is our workplace psychologically safe enough to be candid? How do we “show up” when we have an opportunity to be candid?I invite you to be clear with yourself about your level of comfort with a candid professional conversation. Personal impact and influence are diminished whenever we shy away from candor for too long. In Oprah’s case, her perceived lack of candor may do long-term damage to her credibility.
When you sit in a meeting and don’t agree with an idea, a proposed course of action or a set of stated values – do you speak up? Are you willing to put forth a divergent set of facts or point of view, or are you prone to remain silent? Do folks around you know when you disagree, or do you cleverly camouflage your thoughts?Note: There are situations when it may be strategically wise to not disagree. If we, however, habitually don’t speak up when we disagree, we have rendered ourselves voiceless. We have given up our power to influence events. We eventually become irrelevant.
When things are messy and challenging in your domain at work, when things aren’t going well, when your team and you face unexpected challenges and barriers, do you have the courage to fully face this reality or are you more likely to put a positive spin on things? Cherry-pick the details you divulge and intentionally avoid the messy matters you don’t wish to face?Note: I trust the dark side of habitual sugarcoating is clear. The peril of brutal candor, however, can be our desire to over-tell, to paint a darker picture than a situation warrants, to become a fear-mongering “drama queen.”
There is safety in numbers. It is easier to be candid when others around us are candid, as well. When we are not the only one in a meeting who dissents. Are you willing to be candid when you have a sense that nobody else sees the situation as you do? Are you willing to be the one who stands out from the pack? Are you comfortable with being the disrupter?Note: You may be a significantly more powerful contributor in your world by having the courage to be candid, even when no one else seems to agree with you. Your candor may ignite a change that is desperately needed. However, beware: Become the habitual outlier, and you run the danger of being dismissed as the "black sheep of the group." The one with no influence at all.Context matters. Always does. For Oprah and for you and me. And yet, without candor there is no forward momentum in any situation.In case of doubt, opt for more candor. And when you choose to be candid, don’t begin with Let me be candid.