“Candor sounds simple in theory but is apparently ridiculously difficult in practice. No need to beat around the bush. No excessive indulgence in shaping words so they won’t offend. No innuendo. Just straight talk. The very best teams appreciate civility, but they love candor.” – Dr. Todd Dewett

The Case for Candor

The topic of communication is fascinating. There is no shortage of advice out there dedicated to helping you become a better communicator. Certainly, we need help! I don’t think anyone would argue that point. There are many issues to consider: the art of listening, the beauty of brevity, embracing empathy – the list is long. However, only one issue can occupy the top spot and I’d like to make the case for embracing candor.

Candor sounds simple in theory but is apparently ridiculously difficult in practice. The definition is simple enough. Candor is about being open and honest, frank and to the point. No need to beat around the bush. No excessive indulgence in shaping words so they won’t offend. No innuendo. Just straight talk.


The benefits are clear. Teams that know how to use candor perform better. They waste less time. Decisions are faster and more widely agreed upon. People sense less ambiguity because they know how others feel and generally what they are thinking. More candor means more tough conversations take place, more ideas are shared, and more progress is made.


Aside from these benefits, there may also be an ethical reason to embrace candor. In essence, people are paid to show up at the office, communicate honestly, and work together to get the job done. For leaders in particular, their work is largely predicated on communicating: coaching, delivering feedback, working with clients, etc. With these responsibilities, it seems being candid is an ethical mandate. Sure, there are things we can’t share due to competitive reasons, the protection of intellectual property, and so on – but where these constraints don’t exist, candor should rule the day.

2016 Photo of Dr. Todd Dewett on HRExaminer.com

Dr. Todd Dewett | Founding member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Let me ask you – who owns this valuable asset? Whose job is it to maximize the value of this asset? You might say the top brass, HR, or the L&D team. Reasonable suggestions, but the answer is all of the above and everyone else. It has to be a lived norm, evident in the behavior of every member of the organization.

A minority of people actually communicate with candor

So, it’s good way to communicate, and, maybe an approach we’re obligated to embrace. It’s terribly useful, but you know the reality: a clear minority of people actually communicate with candor. What’s the deal? There are many reasons an otherwise productive person might not be candid. People don’t want to risk being perceived as offensive. They don’t want to hurt feelings. They value the safety of being politically correct. They see a lot of censoring and understand it as a norm to be followed. They might even feel that to be candid too often might lead to more work! It simply becomes a learned behavior, a routine that is hard to break.

I’ll admit that making positive change of this nature takes a little time. I’ll also admit that during a few months of behavioral transition, it can be odd, or weird, or tense; but it’s worth it. Okay, then how do we make it happen?

Don’t say that you value candor, show them candor

Making candor work undoubtedly begins with engagement by the boss. That means a few things. First, the team leader must talk about it on occasion. The more you talk about it, the more honest you become about the topic, and, eventually, the more candid your other comments become. On a related note, the boss also has to model the way. Don’t say that you value candor, show them candor! It also means that when you see good examples of this behavior, you thank the person appropriately to reinforce the action.

Next, realize that candor is about being helpful, not negative. To be candid does not mean to be harsh, overly critical, or lacking in supportive tone. It can be associated with those things, but not if you want it to be a long-term conversation catalyst. The idea is to shape what you say constructively. Don’t say, “That idea won’t work.” Instead, try, “Have we considered how the team in legal will react?” Or, “Have we thought through the costs thoroughly?” These examples allow your view (that the idea won’t work) to become more specific and helpful without being ambiguous or unnecessarily critical.

Testing the water

Next, always remember that effective candor is smartly measured. In the moment, err on saying less instead of more. This is about testing the water to see how your candor is received before offering more. In fact, let’s back up one more step. Before you engage in candid comments, be sure you’ve opened your eyes and ears to examine your conversation partner(s) to ensure the mood feels appropriate for heightened honesty. Candor rocks, but sometimes you’re wise to check it until people seem a little more prepared to accept it.

Candor is a two-way street

Last but not least, for candor to flourish it has to be engaged in a two-way fashion. You’re striving for candid dialogue, not one-way candid comments. Thus, when you speak candidly, you should expect candor in return. So, speak, then pause and allow others to engage. If you’re the boss, be on the lookout for anyone who might be too domineering – including yourself! You have to encourage them while also keeping them in check enough to allow more voices to be heard. Similarly, look for underrepresented voices and ask for their view on occasion.

Candor is one of my favorite examples of something that truly helps us become better yet doesn’t cost a penny. It simply requires a little thoughtfulness and a few well-chosen words. So, don’t forget, the very best teams appreciate civility, but they love candor.

Read previous post:
HRExaminer Radio Executive Conversations Badge Podcast Logo
HRExaminer Radio – Executive Conversations: Episode #338: Christy Whitehead, Chief Talent Economist, ENGAGE Talent

John Sumser speaks with Christy Whitehead, the Chief Talent Economist at ENGAGE Talent. Christy leads the development of the science...