The Slow Demise of Candour in the Workplace

Workplace bureaucracy creates a stifling environment throwing organizations into the sinking depths of mediocrity. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, pushes for more candour in the workplace, calling it the biggest “dirty little secret” in business to succeed.

Jack Welch, former CEO of GE

In the large and ambiguous middle ground of organizational life—where the facts don’t speak for themselves, the lack of candour also fuel politics in the workplace. Superiors or colleagues may shy away from providing candid feedback for fear of upsetting each other. In my last internship, my supervisor told me that she would praise me less as another intern had voiced unhappiness in not being praised as much. That left me perplexed, as I always thought that good work should be recognized. Failing to differentiate employees for fear of negative feelings would be detrimental in the long-term, with good employees feeling they have not been given due recognition, and the remaining employees not able to develop to their full potential.

GE implemented a forced ranking system dividing employees into three distinct segments: the top 20 percent of performers, the middle 70 percent, and the bottom 10 percent. Even though GE’s “20-70-10” system methodologically weeds out the bottom 10 per cent of employees yearly, which could lead to some controversy, I do see the merit in such a system.

What is of particular importance to employees is for them to know where they stand. No sugar coating and no brutality, but the necessary truth. When tough decisions must be made and people have to be let go, the last thing I want is for my faults to be made known only then, when it could have been done so earlier for me to take the necessary corrective action. That said, such a system raises legitimate concerns. For one, this “zero-sum” system inadvertently leads to cut-throat competition, where one perceives that to succeed someone has to take the fall.

However, this would very much depend on the values and behaviour espoused by the organization. Consider star players like Steven Gerrard as opposed to others like Raheem Sterling. Are these players paid the same? Of course not! Gerrard’s salary is more than three times that of Sterling’s. Yet, as a team, they command victory. The idea then, is to entrench the behaviour desired in the organization’s culture to guide employees. So if you have in place remuneration systems and policies that reward cut-throat behaviour that is what you get.

The idea is for the middle 70 per cent and the bottom 10 per cent to realize they could be rewarded if they raise their performance. This then boils down to motivation. It is important that these employees do not feel disgraced by their labels, but instead, have the self-efficacy that they can deliver much more to the table. To fuel better performance, expectancy that effort will lead to good performance is but one factor to the equation of Vroom’s expectancy theory. Instrumentality also comes into play, which relies on systems and policies to assure employees that good performance will lead to rewards. To facilitate candour in the workplace, these systems and policies must be communicated in a transparent manner. Lastly, valence comes to play, in which the rewards must be aligned to the values of the individual.  Leaders have a key role to play here, as the right combination of rewards and recognition (or — as Welch puts it — the appropriate mix of “cash and plaques”) could very well foster a high-performance work environment. It is important for leaders to be aware of the right mix of “cash and plaques” for each of their team members, as the desired balance varies across individuals.

There are some specific strategies leaders can adopt to reward excellence in the workplace. Having small celebrations for every little victory on the way to reaching goals is one way of exciting people on what’s to come. Send them to training and make them feel like worthy investments. These strategies serve to make people feel valued and inspired to work that much harder!

All in all, candour is meeting its slow demise in the workplace, as employees engage in “false kindness” to prevent upsetting others. The idea of providing honest feedback has been misconstrued to be offensive, and the idea of adopting a forced ranking system has been likened to a zero-sum game. Yet, such systems and policies do not exist in silos. Espoused values and behaviours as entrenched in the organization’s culture could determine the difference between a toxic workplace environment and an effective one. When you enter the organization, it tends to be all about ‘you’. But, the day you become a leader, it then becomes all about ‘them’. Your job is to take people who are already great and make them exceptional.


 

References

Arshad, S. (2014, August 9). Liverpool Players Salaries List 2014-15 (Contracts). Retrieved from TSM Plug: http://www.tsmplug.com/football/liverpool-players-salary-list-2014/

Vollmer, L. (2005, April 1). Jack Welch: Create Candor in the Workplace. Retrieved from Stanford Graduate School of Business: http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/jack-welch-create-candor-workplace

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