Candor, it’s your duty to speak up

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An agile, dynamic high-trust team requires much more than honesty. It requires candor.

Candor is the willingness to speak the truth as you understand it without prompting.

At the Navy Fighter Weapons School (aka “Topgun”) and the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron (aka “Blue Angels”), everyone knows it is their responsibility, their duty to speak up if they disagree, if they see an issue that needs resolved. This certainly applies in the air and equally on the ground as they move rapidly through their hectic schedules of meetings, briefings, and flying.

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Woe be to someone who recognized a problem and didn’t speak up while flying or during a decision meeting.

This emphasis on candor is supported by a culture of respect for differences of opinion and the value in getting all the cards on the table.

The leader nurtures this culture by ensuring everyone has the opportunity to speak up and when a contrary view is expressed, it is welcomed and given consideration. The Blue Angels have a ritual of “going ’round the room,” calling on each attendee for any final comments before a decision is made.

To have someone sitting silent with an opposing view not expressed risks the team making a bad decision and is the organizational version of aerodynamic drag on an airplane.

Bob Frisch and Cary Greene address this in an HBR article:

Most bosses assume that, when they directly ask for feedback, people will offer their thoughts candidly and directly. It’s great when that happens. But it often doesn’t, especially in public settings and high-stakes situations. If you get unanimous, but mostly unvoiced, support for a decision that you thought might be contentious, it should be a warning sign.

Why do people hold back from weighing in? In some cases, junior people may hesitate to disagree with bosses or senior colleagues. In others, the most powerful team members may be disinclined, for political or other reasons, to express candid opinions in front of the group because they know they can always get access to decision-makers or launch a covert campaign to sway support their way after the fact.

How can you prevent this from happening? Set one key ground rule: “Silence denotes agreement” or “qui tacet consentire videtur,” as it’s been known for centuries.

These three words do a great job of forcing people to open up, no matter how reluctant (or passive-aggressive) they may be feeling. Explain to people that if they don’t say anything when given a proposal or plan, they’re voting “yes” to it. Silence doesn’t mean “I’m not voting” or “I reserve the right to weigh in later.” It means “I’m completely on board with what’s being discussed.”

Sometimes the establishment and reinforcement of “silence denotes agreement” as a ground rule is enough to get the opinions flowing. But if you sense that some participants are still finding it difficult to express themselves freely, consider the following tactics, which allow perspectives to be aired in a way that focuses on the ideas rather than the individuals voicing them.

  • Take anonymous polls. Ask people to write down questions or concerns on index cards, put them into a bowl and read them aloud without using names. Better yet use a polling app or device to query meeting participants and see their answers in real time.
  • Heat map the topic. Put poster-size charts of the components of an idea or plan on the wall.  Ask participants to place yellow dots on the charts where they have a question, and red dots where they have a significant concern. Use the dots to guide the conversation.
  • Break up a big group. People are more likely to participate in small group discussions. So divide people into teams with specific instructions to discuss any challenges to the proposal at hand. Appoint a representative from each group to summarize their and their colleagues’ thoughts.
  • Ask them to empathize. People are often more willing to speak on others’ behalf than their own. So when you solicit opinions with a question like “What objections or concerns might your direct reports have?” it can open the floodgates of reaction. That’s because it allows those in the room to externalize criticism.  It’s not what they don’t like. It’s what they think their people won’t like.

When you enforce the discipline of “silence denotes agreement” and use the tactics above, everyone is incentivized to say what they really think immediately, and discuss it openly, rather than flagging problems after the fact.

Be a High-Trust Leader: develop a culture of candor that drives engagement and ownership of decisions.

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