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.



Arshad, S. (2014, August 9). Liverpool Players Salaries List 2014-15 (Contracts). Retrieved from TSM Plug:

Vollmer, L. (2005, April 1). Jack Welch: Create Candor in the Workplace. Retrieved from Stanford Graduate School of Business:

The Prospect of Nudges Generating the Biggest Shove

Remember the time you promised to lead a healthier lifestyle? Or the time you vowed to procrastinate less? It all starts out the same– determined individuals with a drive for change. Yet, a majority find themselves right back where they were.

Indeed, convenience, habit and temptation often hamper even the most conscientious goals. Thankfully though, all hope is not lost. The concept of “Nudge”, made famous by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, provides vast insight on how judgements and choices can be made easier, without resorting to coercion. In fact, nudges pervade our lives!

A case in point would be Google. Although the organization has earned the reputation of fattening up their staff with food on demand, Google has adopted nudges to advance healthy eating initiatives. Similar to IKEA’s design of food placement as mentioned in class, the salad bar is placed strategically within sight upon entering the cafeteria. This is reinforced by studies that have shown that people tend to fill their plates with whatever they see first. Thus, by adjusting the ease and access to the leafy greens, while positioning Desserts down another line of sight, Google has successfully encouraged higher nutrient uptake.

Google has also successfully adopted environmental cues. Before a Googler grabs an empty plate, he is faced with a sign that people with bigger dishes are inclined to eat more. While the sign does not tell him what to do, it affects his behaviour. This increased small plate usage by half, to 32% of all plate traffic.

Nudges can also be observed closer to home. I am sure most of you would be familiar with the following promotion materials. With names like Move-In Martin and Give-way Glenda, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) hopes that these avatars can be embodied in commuters.

By appealing to social pressure, LTA hopes to encourage commuters to act with social grace.

As with all such campaigns, success rate varies and the inevitable question comes to mind: What are the reasons behind the different success levels resulting from different types of nudges?

To answer this, I would like to introduce a video titled “All Washed Up”, which focuses on influencing behaviour change. Specifically, combining the following four influences help significantly when trying to modify behaviour, i.e.:

  1. Personal Motivation
  2. Change Environment
  3. Deliberate Practice
  4. Social Influence

Such findings do shed some light on the differing success of nudges adopted by different organizations. Consider the following examples:

The first is the “Travel Early, Travel Free” program by LTA. Many incentives were introduced to encourage commuters to travel early. For one, as evident from the poster below, 15 McDonald’s outlets gave out free coffee to early commuters. This incentive encouraged commuters to travel early, by bundling the positive (incentives and freebies) with the dreaded (setting off earlier). This uses personal motivation to effect behavioural change.

To facilitate pre-peak train travel, LTA assured that there will be more train trips during the pre-peak morning period to ensure sufficient capacity. Further, LTA actively worked with employers to facilitate their employees to travel pre-peak period. Thus, LTA initiated changes to the environment by adjusting the ease and access of pre-peak travel.

LTA also relied on social influence to encourage the masses, evident from the following poster. By putting a name and face to a member of the public, it allows us to relate to the individual and hence increases the appeal to participate in the program.

Using three of the four influences highlighted in the video, the campaign has seen 7 per cent of commuters shifting to the pre-peak hours since the introduction of the scheme, and the scheme has since been extended till June this year.

On the other hand, the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) had set up a kindness popup café to offer customers discounts on a cup of coffee by saying “please” and “thank you”. Relying solely on personal motivation to drive polite behaviour did not sit well with the public, as some felt that basic manners should not be inculcated by way of monetary gain. Thus, although nudges may be well intentioned, it is imperative to consciously review the message an organization is sending through their nudges.

In closing, the efficacy of nudges, like all tools, depends largely on how we utilize them. The video shared four key influences to successfully drive behavioural change, and the class has touched on other influences such as adjusting ease and access, social pressure and bundling—all of which strive to make hard choices easier to make. That said, despite the appeal of nudges, organizations should exercise due diligence and thought when nudging people to a desired behaviour. Notably, organizations should be mindful of the message they are sending through their nudges. However, when effectively utilized, nudges may very well generate the biggest shove.

Kuang, C. (2012, March 26). 6 Ways Google Hacks Its Cafeterias So Googlers Eat Healthier. Retrieved from Co.DESIGN:

Kwara, M. (2014, May 9). Free early-morning MRT train rides to the city extended. Retrieved from Yahoo! News Singapore:

Land Transport Authority. (2013, April 16). Travel Early, Travel Free on the MRT. Retrieved from LTA Main Website:

Law, J. (2014, June 13). ‘Kindness cafe’ sends wrong message. Retrieved from The Straits Times:

Lim, J. (2014, June 20). LTA’s Thoughtful-Me campaign is just waiting to get trolled. Retrieved from

Tyers, R. (2014, April 08). Nudge yourself better: how to become your own Choice Architect. Retrieved from The Society Pages: