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“Creating a Culture of Candor”

Originally published March/April 2006

On April 17, 1961, 1,300 members of a CIA supported Cuban exile force stormed the beaches of Cuba at an area called the Bay of Pigs. The invasion ended in total failure; when it was over 114 members of the brigade were dead and 1,189 had become Fidel Castro’s prisoners. Moreover, it quickly became a foreign policy debacle for President Kennedy barely three months into his presidency. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, writing in his memoirs years later, noted that he had done the president a disservice by never raising his deep concerns about the invasion during the planning phase. Rusk wasn’t alone; several members of Kennedy’s senior staff harbored deep misgivings about the Bay of Pigs operation, but their concerns were never raised within the planning team.

Kennedy learned key lessons from the Bay of Pigs, one of which related to his own behavior: his frequent presence in the planning meetings apparently created an atmosphere in which people told him what they thought he wanted to hear. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, made the same mistakes when it came to Vietnam. Johnson harbored his own doubts about the war, but he tolerated no dissent from others. When Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara started showing concerns about the war, Johnson replaced him.

THE CULPRIT: GROUPTHINK

In 1972, psychologist Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink” to describe situations like those described above, in which people conform their opinions to the group’s (apparent) consensus. Janis found that in many situations, people’s desire to support group cohesiveness outweighs their willingness to think and speak honestly.

Groupthink is an understandable phenomenon. After all, who wants to be shunned by peers and colleagues? And there’s safety in numbers; if the boss is starting a new initiative and I think the idea is loony as hell, but nobody seems to be objecting, why raise doubts? If the idea somehow succeeds, then nobody will accuse me of having opposed this obviously “brilliant” concept. And if it ends up crashing and burning, well, nobody else saw it coming, did they?

The problem, of course, is that what appears to be safe for the individual (namely, to avoid disagreeing with the group and the boss) is potentially lethal for the organization. It was lethal to 114 Cuban expatriots at the Bay of Pigs; it was lethal to over 58,000 American troops in Vietnam (and approximately 1.5 million Vietnamese); and it is proving lethal in our Iraqi policy today. That was the conclusion of the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee in 2004, when it studied the intelligence community’s pre war assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Senate committee decided that groupthink was alive and at work among the intelligence agencies that were advising the White House on the probability that Iraq had large stockpiles of WMD.

Groupthink has affected our Iraq policy in other ways. One example (among many): in February, 2003, weeks before the Iraqi invasion, senior Army General Eric Shinseki told a Senate committee it would require several hundred thousand troops to manage post war Iraq. He was publicly ridiculed by Pentagon civilian leaders and his career was effectively ended.

CAUSES OF GROUPTHINK

Why is it that senior leaders allow a culture of groupthink to develop around them, given the obvious costs and risks? There are many reasons, including:

  • Leader’s personal insecurity. It’s reassuring to hear others echo your own words when you aren’t sure of yourself. Such leaders sometimes surround themselves with “yes men/ women.”
  • Leaders too convinced of their own brilliance. This is the opposite of the first cause. These people are used to being the “brightest kid in the class.” They can be brutal with others whose intelligence doesn’t match up, and many people don’t want to take the risk of incurring their wrath by disagreeing with them.
  • Leaders’ strong persona, oversized ego. Some people are used to running things, of being the driving force in all meetings, of being numero uno. That’s fine, as long as they know their limits. But when subordinates play up to (or are threatened by) their strength, these leaders can easily fall into the trap of expecting continual agreement.
  • Subordinates’ ambitions/too eager to please. Some leaders are plagued by subordinates whose ambitions outweigh their integrity; they are so determined to get ahead, they’ll tell the boss almost anything in the pursuit of career goals.
  • Leaders who place too much emphasis on loyalty. Loyalty is an important management trait … as long as it doesn’t interfere with candor. The ultimate loyalty, of course, is telling the boss what s/he doesn’t want to hear, but needs to hear (especially when the boss is about to step on a land mine).
  • Leaders too fond of the look in the mirror. In some organizations, managers and leaders create a self perpetuating culture in which they hire people who look like, talk like, and think like themselves. I once knew about a basketball coach who only hired assistant coaches who’d previously played on her teams. They had good chemistry, which is important. But these assistants never gave the head coach an alternative point of view; all they knew was her system. The same thing happens in many corporations, where executives get comfortable by hiring people who “fit in.” This fit often leads to a culture in which the dominant norm is, “to get along you have to go along.”
  • The perceived risks of being candid. It’s common to hear office stories about poor old Charlie or Barbara, who are “no longer with us because they took the risk of speaking their mind.” I’ve checked out some of these stories and found that they’re frequently not true (Charlie or Barbara were canned for other reasons, or left voluntarily), but the myth persists. It’s striking how many people are quite willing to believe these stories, even when there’s little evidence to back them up. My hunch is that people often believe the stories because it makes it easier to play it safe, and not tell managers what they need to hear.

CULTURE OF CANDOR & HOW TO GET IT

Candor is the opposite of groupthink. Strong, secure managers and leaders find ways to gain candor from their employees, because they know that only candor gives them the best of their staff members’ thinking.

Some leaders create a culture of candor through structured methods. This story offers one:

Alfred Sloan, legendary CEO of General Motors, once convened a meeting of a high level committee. Someone pitched a proposal to the committee, and Sloan asked the members for their views. Every person strongly endorsed the idea. Sloan also liked it. Then he stunned the group by saying, “Since all 12 of us likes this proposal, and none of us can find anything wrong with it, we’ll table the idea. If we can’t see any down sides, we haven’t thought it through.” The committee considered the idea at the next meeting, and voted it down.

In other words, leaders can gain candor by routinely insisting on a full vetting of an idea’s pros and cons. I sometimes suggest that clients use a simple system to do this; put three symbols on a flip chart when considering a proposal – a plus, minus, and question mark, and ask the group to offer comments under each one:

Once the proposal is explained, everyone knows that they’re expected to give negative as well as positive comments on the idea, and list their questions. This typically frees people up to think and speak openly (assuming the leader shows an openness to all feedback).

Another formal method for gaining candor is by anointing one member of a management team to be the “designated devil’s advocate.” This person is expected to look for the holes in an argument, to ask what happens if a project goes south, etc. It depersonalizes conflict when someone is expected to play such a role.

Others use informal means to create a culture of candor. A senior leader I know has been working for months on being more candid with those he has directly report to him. He tells them he needs their best thinking and performance because the organization is starting a huge fundraising drive that will seriously challenge their ability to succeed. As he models the candor he needs from others, he’s finding that they are stepping up to the challenge and being more open with him and each other.

A simple, informal way to increase candor is for managers and leaders to thank those who offer straight advice and ask tough questions. Employees tend to watch their boss very carefully when someone disagrees with the boss. That person’s immediate reactions are studied to provide clues about the boss: does the individual take it personally? Is the subordinate criticized for being candid? Is this a place where we’re able to be open?

And for managers and leaders who sometimes get defensive when a peer or subordinate disagrees with them, here’s a tip: invite disagreement. That’s right, ask others what they see as the potential holes in your argument. At least two good things will happen in the short run: others may show you a weakness in your plan, and you’ll be less likely to feel defensive when facing criticism. And in the long run, you’ll help grow a culture of candor.


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Russ Linden is the principal of Russ Linden & Associates, a management consultancy based in Charlottesville, VA. He is a management educator and consultant, specializing in organizational peformance and change methods for those in the public and nonprofit sectors.

He has written four books; the most recent is Working Across Boundaries, which you may order by clicking here .