Jack Welch, ex-CEO of America’s giant General Electric Company, is famous for his insistence on ‘candor’ in business: the burning need to get to the heart of the problem without social niceties. But this approach has its potential downside.
Jack Welch, the world-famous ex-CEO of General Electric, noted that, because we are social beings, we tend to avoid confrontation; we don’t actually tell people what we really think about their new haircut, their new partner, their house, or the meal that they have just served us. But, says Welch, this kind of approach is deadly in business; in business we have to address hard truths.
In his book ‘Winning’, Welch says this:
“Now, when I say ‘lack of candor’ here, I’m not talking about malevolent dishonesty. I am talking about how too many people – too often – instinctively don’t express themselves with frankness. They don’t communicate straightforwardly or put forth ideas looking to stimulate real debate. They just don’t open up.
“Instead they withhold comments or criticism. They keep their mouths shut in order to make people feel better or to avoid conflict, and they sugar-coat bad news in order to maintain appearances. They keep things to themselves, hoarding information. That’s all lack of candor, and it’s absolutely damaging.”
Carly Fiorina, in her own book Tough Choices, makes the same point: when she took the helm at Hewlett Packard she says of her colleagues,
“They were friendly but not collegial. They were polite but not candid. No one would challenge anyone directly . . . individuals would give me their opinions about other people privately. When I asked direct questions in this public forum, people were taken aback; I was ‘coached’ that this sort of discussion was better left to a one-to-one meeting. Underperforming bureaucracies always dissolve into politesse . . . Real performance takes real candor, and straight talk is required when tough problems exist.”
But there is a downside to candor – precisely because we are social animals (which is why we invented lack of candor in the first place). And some societies are more sensitive than others.
Jun Tang, former president of Microsoft China, points out that, in China, blunt speaking by managers may be seen to cause unacceptable ‘loss of face’ to colleagues while they, in turn, may be reluctant to bring problems to a manager’s attention, since this may imply that the manager is at fault:
“One can hurt someone’s feelings forever. American culture is very direct. But [Chinese] people are so sensitive. Sensitivity is part of their 5,000-year-old culture.”
The Japanese former China president of Sony, Seiichi Kawasaki, argues in turn that the Chinese are much more direct than the Japanese:
“Japanese people are very vague. We guess at each other’s meaning. But the Chinese are much more direct and clear. This open communication is much more effective.”
It’s a tricky business, precisely because we are all human.
Encourage candor is further explored in 100 Great Leadership Ideas