When my wife asks me "Does this outfit make me look fat?" I tell her the truth. And she does the same for me. It reflects the open and honest nature of our relationship. My wife wants me to present my best possible self to the world, and I want the same for her. We trust each other to take the information in the spirit that it was intended, and also... not to freak out.
This approach is surprisingly successful in the workplace. I recently attended the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX) Mashup and I was pleasantly surprised to hear themes of love, trust, and candour being brought up as hot management priorities, and a demonstration of the willingness to break traditional leadership boundaries.
John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods, often speaks about finding "friendship, love and community" in the workplace, Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, is famous for believing that we "function best when we can be ourselves" and Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL, radically promotes "creating trust...by pushing the envelope of transparency."
Management guru Gary Hamel has coined the term Management 2.0, which seeks to reinvent management in a way that is fit for the future and for humankind. Trust is a key tenet of this school of thought. As Hamel says: "Trust is not simply a matter of truthfulness, or even constancy...we trust those who have our best interests at heart." And it's not just the management mavericks in search of new ways to manage who are emphasising the importance of trust. Warren Bennis, a distinguished academic authority on leadership, identifies four competencies that leaders need to develop in his book Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge. He lists building trust as the "lubrication that makes it possible for organisations to work."
In my personal experience, putting the principles of love, trust and candour into action at work can have a powerful impact. I realised some years ago that I felt most cared about at work when a colleague took the time to candidly share his observations on my behaviour with me, and the impact I had on him and others. His feedback increased my awareness that my behaviour could have consequences that were often not visible to me. I know he provided this feedback because he genuinely cared about me. It did not show up in a document, email or performance review and my supervisor was not informed. Instead, it was simply a small gift from him to me. When I realised the value of these observations and the enormous amount of gratitude and trust it generated in me, I decided to test out the model myself.
The realisation that — with a foundation of trust — candid conversations (both positive and negative) can be shared quickly and easily with tremendous results laid the stage for what has become a lifelong practice of sharing quick observations with colleagues and family members. My first guinea pig was Terry. Terry was a co-worker on a project we had to deliver together. I made a point of giving her immediate, frequent feedback, such as: "Terri, during your presentation you looked at me straight in the eye... thanks, that made me feel important" or "Terri, you arrived 10 minutes late to the team meeting... that made me feel like our work wasn't a priority for you." I was unsure how open she would be to such candid feedback and was pleasantly surprised at how much she valued my willingness to share my quick observations. She particularly appreciated the speed at which they enabled her to gain an objective understanding of the impact she was having, and enabled her to tailor her actions according to her desired intentions. Terri admitted that while she was generally aware of her strengths and weaknesses, understanding the impact of her behaviour was a blind spot for her and something that direct feedback could help her address.
Seeing the impact this approach had on Terri, I decided to train the entire department in this simple method. The result was a safe and honest environment for dialogue and a new level of trust and respect between colleagues. Given this new freedom to speak our minds, we saw team behaviours in the department shift from a culture of passive acceptance to engaged and active participation in each other's development.
Of course, even if this model is entrenched in the organisation's culture, you can't expect candid feedback to be delivered and received well every time. There will be occasions when feedback is not warmly received; maybe it wasn't delivered in the right way or maybe the recipient misinterpreted it and felt judged. In such cases, try to understand what has gone wrong, but don't lose faith in the principal of honest feedback as a whole — be brave enough to try again.
This type of regular, informal, non-judgmental dialogue between colleagues stands in stark contrast to the typical feedback processes I see in most organisations — most of which are set up as a formal means to document what employees do well or need to work on. They are often designed as a corporate requirement rather than a way to truly support employee development and help a colleague be successful. They are commonly driven by senior leadership at the end of the year as part of the annual evaluation process and typically generate a level of anxiety amongst colleagues. To make matters worse, end of year evaluation feedback forms are routinely sent out to a vast number of the employees' co-workers, who are asked to recall what it was like working with them during the year. This can be challenging for an employee like me, who can barely remember to pack his pants for a business trip. But even for those colleagues who have steel-trap memories, feedback provided at the end of the year is interesting at best, and more often than not, no longer relevant or so devoid of situational context that it is often not actionable. Sharing immediate and personal feedback with colleagues shows that you genuinely care enough about them, their success within the organisation, and their career well-being to provide them with information that will help them fulfil their aspirations.
How do you create an environment of trust, love and candour at work?
Jordan Cohen is a knowledge worker productivity expert at PA Consulting Group
He is the recipient of the 2010 Grand Prize at the Management Innovation eXchange (The MIX) for his previous work as creator and Head of pfizerWorks at Pfizer Inc.
To view the article online in HBR, click here.