How Candid Is Your Company Willing to Be?

Honesty is the best policy—unless your boss happens to be standing over your shoulder, and doesn’t have a sense of humor but rather, an enormous sense of self.

One way to prevent bosses with oversize senses of self from eclipsing everyone else’s ideas is candid conversations. That thought occurred to me when reading a Q&A in the August 15 issue of The New York Times’ Corner Office column. The Q&A with Don Charlton, founder and CEO of recruiting software firm Jazz, notes the importance of having conversations about misgivings and dissatisfaction openly, rather than as fodder for gossip.

“After we have a big meeting with all of our employees, I might say, ‘Hey, you know that conversation you’re going to have over lunch or at the bar, where you might say, ‘Why don’t we do such and such?’ Well, that’s the question you should ask right now,’” Charlton told The Times.

What are some other ways to openly, yet diplomatically, let the boss know his ideas aren’t necessarily as great as he thinks? Or, more productively, how his ideas could be made better?

One way to do it is to not have the boss be the leader of the meeting, but, rather, just one of the presenters. Everyone still will know he’s the boss, but taking him out of the role of meeting leader, and appointing at random a moderator for the meeting, sends the message that all ideas at the meeting are up for grabs, and none are automatically better than the others.

Another way to bring conversations into the open is to offer an incentive for improving ideas presented by the boss and others. Rewards could be as simple as a gift certificate for dinner at an upscale local restaurant or a $50 Visa gift card. After the meeting is over, all those in attendance could vote anonymously on most valuable meeting participant. Another way to do it would be for the boss to choose the employee who made the greatest contribution to the meeting, although that might raise the question of favoritism. “Greatest contribution” would be defined as the person who doesn’t just note possible weaknesses in the ideas or plans presented, but comes up with a viable alternative idea, or another, more productive way to think about the challenge.

In addition to motivating employees to come up with new ways of thinking about challenges, and new solutions, in meetings, it should be part of the company culture that managers are humble. Do your company managers tend to speak in directives or declarations, rather than asking questions or letting people know that the ideas they present are just possibilities and not set in stone? Some companies value the authoritative voice over the humble voice, and that can lead to the kind of bosses employees are afraid to candidly speak and express new ideas to.

If you’re not sure which kind of managers your company tends to breed, I have an exercise for you: Imagine your managers were writing their ideas and thoughts about the company as newspaper or magazine headlines. Which (if any) would write their headlines as questions, and how many would write them as declarative statements? It’s the difference between a manager writing her headline as: “How Do We Drive Growth in New Product Development?” And another writing: “Growth in New Product Development: Sustained Focus Required.” The first headline invites discussion of how that growth in new product development could be achieved, while the second offers just a vague (meaningless) declarative statement. You might notice that at least some of your managers prefer to be strong and declarative, even if what they’re saying isn’t of much value. When you’re in a meeting headed by a person like that, how comfortable would you feel about questioning and offering new ideas?

How do you encourage candid conversations in meetings? What kind of managers are best poised to have those conversations, and how can Learning & Development professionals help to create those kinds of managers?

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