In Permission to Speak Freely: How the Best Leaders Cultivate a Culture of Candor, authors Doug Crandall and Matt Kincaid describe a Miami (Ohio) University experiment in which Professor Gary Stasser asks groups of students to solve a murder mystery. Three suspects have been identified, and within the packet of materials divided among the members of the group are all the clues necessary to solve, without a doubt, who committed the crime.
For some groups, a leader is designated. Other groups have no designated leader.
The groups without a leader were better at solving the mystery. Even though all of the clues were contained in the package, the groups with leaders solved the mystery only 25 percent of the time, compared to a nearly 60 percent solve rate for groups without leaders.
In other words, having a leader significantly reduces the performance of a group.
According to Crandall and Kincaid, the reason leaders undermine their team’s performance is clear: Leaders impede communication. People are afraid to speak if there is a leader present.
In their book, Crandall and Kincaid pinpoint how leaders impede communication. First, the authors write, “a leader’s power suffocates.” While one would expect domineering leaders to silence their people, in truth any level of power or authority is going to make people hesitate. The authors tell the tragic story of a submarine with visitors on board that struck a fishing vessel, killing nine. No one was going to question the captain’s decisions in front of 16 distinguished guests.
The second root cause of impeded communication, according to the authors, is “the fear of judgment and disapproval.” People don’t speak if they know that the leader does not want to hear what they have to say or if others will harshly judge for what they are saying. Crandall and Kincaid note that none of the players involved in Watergate considered the break-in a good idea but kept this notion to themselves to avoid judgment and disapproval.
The third way that leaders undermine communication and candor is continuously rejecting the ideas and contribution of their people. In the end, the authors write, “rejection leads to fatigue”: People give up on presenting ideas to their bosses because they know nothing will come of it.
Four Paths to Candor
Since leaders cause the problem, they can solve it. Crandall and Kincaid lay out four specific steps for leaders who want to develop a culture of open communication.
Assume Positive Intent. According to the authors, assuming that every time people speak up, their intent is to help the organization is the “center of gravity” for a culture of candor.
Prove It’s Safe. Leaders need to be explicit about their desire for openness. Showing their own vulnerability will also help: “Vulnerability begets trust,” the authors explain.
Dignify Every Try. Not every idea is a good idea. But every idea should be treated with dignity, not mocked or rejected without explanation; this ensures that when the person does have a good idea, he or she will not be afraid to put it forward.
Be Genuinely Curious. Leaders have to make a deliberate attempt to discover the new ideas that employees might not be sharing. The authors offer a compelling example of a unit created by the U.S. Army with the express purpose of communicating and connecting with Afghan women, who played an important role in garnering local support and intelligence in the war on terror.
The importance of candor is not new, yet it continues to bedevil organizations and their leaders — sometimes with tragic consequences. This concise manual is an excellent tool to help leaders take concrete steps to overcome this frustrating and potentially dangerous problem.