Cultivating a Culture of Candor: Transforming Workplace Communication for Better Outcomes

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Does it Feel Better to Be Vulnerable or Candid in a Workplace?

I've learned so much from Timothy R. Clark of the firm LeaderFactor, author of the excellent book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. I can't recommend his work enough–including his free podcasts, webinars, and more. I was fortunate to go through a formal certification course with him on Psychological Safety.

He was a guest on my podcast, “My Favorite Mistake.” He was kind enough to write a blurb about my book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation.

Clark defines “Psychological Safety” using language that's similar to Harvard Prof. Amy Edmondson's definition. To synthesize them, Psychological Safety means a person:

Feels or believes it is safe to speak “without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way” in a given situation.

The part in quotes is from Clark's definition. Edmondson says it's a belief that “one will not be punished or humiliated” for speaking up about things like “ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

Clark uses a pithier definition of Psychological Safety:

What is Psychological Safety?

So What is Vulnerability?

One challenge with that definition is the meaning of–and the implications of–the word “vulnerable” or “vulnerability.”

As I've taught and coached others on the “4 Stages of Psychological Safety” frameworks that I was trained and educated in, I could tell that the word “vulnerable” was causing a bit of a barrier for people–they said as much.

As I've heard and discussed with people, vulnerability sounds bad. People quite often don't want to be vulnerable. They think being vulnerable means being weak or that they're bad.

Quite the opposite–but the perception is reality.

The definition of vulnerable that Clark uses is helpful:

“Exposure to the risk of harm or loss.”

A “vulnerable act,” such as disagreeing with your manager, could expose you to the risk of harm or loss. And that's a problem. The problem there is the manager, not the employee.


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But we label the employee as “vulnerable” or say they are “being vulnerable.”

It's the environment–the workplace culture–that causing the vulnerability. We'd be better off labeling this as “a vulnerable environment” or “a dangerous setting” instead of labeling the person as vulnerable.

Here's the problem: When we encourage people to “be vulnerable,” we are asking them (in some settings) to expose themselves to the risk of professional harm or loss.

What Should We Be Doing?

When we're asking people to expose themselves to risk or danger, we're asking them to be brave or courageous.

It's even better, though, when leaders can act in ways that reduce the risk or danger in a situation.

Is it dangerous to point out problems or to admit mistakes? Instead of telling people to be vulnerable, leaders can react in kind, helpful, and constructive ways. Leaders can “reward the vulnerability” or they reduce the risk which means there's less vulnerability.

People will speak up about such things when they feel like it's safe and effective to do so. When there's a low enough level of fear, and when people feel like it's not futile to speak up, they are willing to be more candid.

And that's what we want: Candor.

A Culture of Rewarded Candor?

As Clark writes and talks about, what we're aiming for is candor.

What is candor? It's different than “honesty.” Honesty is about telling the truth. Candor is choosing to speaking up with the truth instead of protecting yourself (in a dangerous setting) by holding it back.

Candor is:

“Being frank, open, and sincere in speech.”

When more people feel safe to be candid, we are able to work our way to better solutions and higher levels of performance. When people share their concerns and ideas, instead of holding them back, we'll be better off for it–but if, and only if, leaders are able to not just tolerate but REWARD the candor.

Lower levels of risk and danger (less vulnerability) –> More candor –> Better outcomes

People I work with are more positive about being candid.

Do you want to be vulnerable? No. Of course not; people don't want to work in a culture of fear.

Do you want to be candid? YES! If it's safe and effective to do so.

Summary

So to summarize… instead of encouraging employees to be vulnerable (exposing themselves to risk), leaders need to act in ways that reduce the risk or danger.

Instead of encouraging people to be vulnerable, we can encourage them to be candid–which they will do if leaders have cultivated a feeling of psychological safety… a belief that people will be rewarded for their candor instead of being punished for it.


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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

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