I was in a meeting when a magical moment of candor occurred – I’ll never forget what happened.

While facilitating a large group discussion as the HR Leader for a tech start-up, I happened to ask this open-ended question, “What else might be getting in the way of us achieving our best level of customer satisfaction?”

A Customer Service Representative for this family-owned business decided to speak up about the considerable hold times customers were experiencing. She felt that the technical team often ignored her when she approached them for help while they were engaged in personal conversations.

In a culture where avoidance of conflict was a norm, it was an act of courage to point out such a sensitive issue. As I looked around the room, I saw expressions of disbelief, but there were also looks of relief on many faces.

The group agreed that this behavior was unacceptable and decided that customer service representatives would call out “Mayday!” when they needed help.

For the company, this was a huge turning point; the days of simply toeing the company line were over. Employees felt empowered to voice their opinion and discuss opportunities for improvement in other areas, as well. The renewed sense of commitment and hope was palpable, and there was a striking increase in the level of playfulness, collaboration and accountability among them. It was pretty astonishing to witness the culture shift.

Creating a Culture of Candor

I’ve reflected quite a bit on what worked in this situation because it was such a powerful pivot point for the team. It’s also served as a guidepost for me, as I’ve needed to create and sustain greater candidness in cultures throughout my career.

Candor is defined as “The quality of being open, sincere, and honest” in Merriam-Webster. In the organizational context, a culture that fosters candor is one in which employees feel free to express their ideas, feelings, assumptions and organizational perceptions.

Four things I’ve learned about increasing candidness:

Use Words and Stories to Create Shared Meaning

Sharing what candor looks like with an explicit example is simple – and effective. The breakthrough at the tech company ultimately required some groundwork to implement, and on many occasions we discussed the best aspects of the organization and our visions for the future. This was a safe place to start boosting participation and shared understanding.

Create Safe Spaces to Build Trust and Cultivate Self-expression

Leaders set the example when it comes to sharing feelings and concerns and when done authentically, the result is trust – and trust builds employee connectedness and a greater sense of wholeness at work. Employees at the tech company had something to say; they just needed a safe space to express themselves fully. According to Hard Facts authors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton:

“Presenting a self to the world that is not authentic is distressing and depletes a person’s cognitive and emotional resources”

Tell the Truth

Be vulnerable by admitting mistakes, and have the courage to engage in uncomfortable conversations. Reinforce candor through encouragement and recognize employee efforts to speak up.

I built trust by being transparent with traditionally sensitive information at the tech company, as it was important to demonstrate trust in the employees before they could trust the organization enough to open up. In their article, “A Culture of Candor,” James O’Toole and the late Warren Bennis state that,

“Sustaining a Culture of Candor is even harder than creating one.”

Listen and Act

Practice active listening by summarizing team input and make it a priority to take action on feedback.

For me, increasing candor requires a set of pre-requisites that include:

  • Shared meaning
  • Safe spaces
  • Trust

When these elements come together, the conditions are optimal for using candor as a means to create positive employee experiences that lead to higher performance.

There were several contributors to the measured improvements in employee engagement and customer satisfaction at the tech company, yet the tipping point was that initial moment of candor.

Is it time to say, “Mayday!” at your organization?