Apr 4, 2022

Want to Achieve Great Results at Work? Be Candid. Apr 5

Want to Achieve Great Results at Work? Be Candid. Apr 5

Want to Achieve Great Results at Work? Be Candid. Apr 5

Nathan King

"I'm going to be honest with you," my client told me. 

We were having a conversation about some complex project that my company hadn’t implemented seamlessly. As soon as she said that phrase, I knew I would receive criticism about some shortcoming in the services I had provided. I braced myself.

Isn't it strange that we only tell someone we are “going to be honest with you” when we pair it with something critical? 

But my client didn’t really mean to imply that she was occasionally or even consistently dishonest at other times. “Honest” meant “candid.”

Speaking candidly with one another is difficult, and we avoid it. Often, we avoid it too much. Ed Catmull, former CEO of Pixar, realized that candor was indispensable to creating great movies, a feat he clearly achieved with creations like Toy Story, Wall-E, Up, and The Incredibles

He worked tirelessly to incorporate candor into the culture of Pixar.

In Creativity, Inc, Catmull's memoir about building Pixar, he illustrates how candor is crucial to an environment that produces great work. 

Candor Is Necessary, But Unnatural, for Great Work

To collaborate effectively with our co-workers (co-creators), we must reveal our true perceptions of their work – the confusing bits, the less compelling arguments – which helps them improve. We must be candid. But our own fears about losing reputation, getting fired, or hurting someone's feelings cause us to filter ourselves, to hold back. Consequently, our work projects often fail to reach their full potential. 

To create an environment where people can freely and productively offer candid feedback, a leader must:

  1. Establish candor as an organizational value and ensure people understand the opportunity and responsibility of candid behavior.

  2. Implement a process in which people routinely meet in a let’s-put-our-heads-together meeting to provide structured, candid feedback while a project is in development.

  1. Establish Candor as an Organizational Value: How Does It Make Us Better? How Do I Do Candor?

Candor is an organizational value. Leaders must routinely make the effort to explain to the organization what makes candor important, and how to use it. Those individuals who will receive candid feedback must understand that receiving it does not equate to being judged. 

"Early on, all of our movies suck"

Catmull understood that people choose not to be candid instinctively. At Pixar, leadership owned the responsibility of accounting for human nature. People experience a range of natural fears about about candor, that being candid will 

  • Hurt someone's feelings

  • Create negative conflict

  • Cause retaliation

  • Result in getting fired for not playing nicely 

Catmull also knew that without candid feedback, their movies would not rise to the level of storytelling that would make a commercial success. To get people past this, he routinely reinforced how much better off everyone on the team was with actual feedback. 

Leadership encouraged writers to run with ideas, no matter how bad, and then used the process of candid feedback to shape those ideas into excellence.

The Responsibility of the Person Receiving Feedback 

This starts with having people understand how to take candid feedback. The biggest risk to being wounded or offended by feedback is by investing your identity in the work product. Catmull taught his people

You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. 

A creator must acknowledge that she has to give up some control. She has to understand that she is creating for other people, not for herself.

The 5 Characteristics of Candid Feedback

A leader I once worked with sat through an especially incomplete presentation from a subordinate to a group of internal stakeholders. After the subordinate finished speaking, he responded to him with a sardonic tone: “That’s it?!? Did you just get out of bed and jot that down on your slides?”

One could argue that this is candid. But it isn’t helpful.

“Candor isn’t cruel,” says Catmull. Instead, candid feedback:

  1. Points out what is missing, unclear, or confusing

  2. Is offered when there is enough time to fix it (i.e., not after the presentation)

  3. Doesn't say how to fix it, or what you should do, but often offers potential solutions

  4. Is specific

  5. Is grounded in empathy: it is offered in the spirit that "we are all in this together," and demonstrates that we have the same goal

2. How to Implement a Process for Candid Feedback

Pixar created "the Braintrust": an advisory group for every project. For instance, Up, whose transformation while in production I’ve written about previously, had its own Braintrust. This group met on a routine, periodic basis, and improved upon a common process in Hollywood. With other movie studios, when a director has completed a “draft,” or cut, of a film, executives view it and “give Notes” to the director, often critical suggestions of what should be done to make it better. 

The Braintrust uses the concept of giving Notes, but follows the 5 characteristics of effective candid feedback above. There are two other essential ingredients to Braintrust meetings:

  1. The Braintrust is made up of people who have been through the process themselves or have skill in the process of storytelling. 

  2. The Braintrust has no authority. The person responsible has to decide how to incorporate, or not, the feedback. Even if someone's boss participates in the Braintrust, she doesn't have power over anything. 

Those of us who work in more pedestrian industries than Hollywood – services firms, technology product companies, or even non-profit organizations – can easily apply this approach with our own teams. It’s simply a matter of educating your team on: 

  • How candor can make mediocre ideas great

  • Encouraging team members to give and receive candid feedback well

  • Implementing a Braintrust process for the key players in an important project

What If You Want More Candor and Don’t Lead a Team?

If you don’t currently lead a team or have authority in your organization to set culture, or expectations, pushing for more organizational candor can be complicated.

The reality is that if you are in that situation, you can still arrange a Braintrust in your life. Catmull argues that outside of work, this is a valuable concept:

Here are the qualifications required: The people you choose must (a) make you think smarter and (b) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time.

The use of candor at Pixar shows that it doesn’t require creative genius to achieve great work product. It is a simple, available process of incorporating candor effectively that can lead to great outcomes in my own realm, helping me to create my own Toy Story.

That’s why when my customer told me that day, “I’m going to be honest with you,” I knew to translate “honest” to “candid,” and I knew the result of this conversation was that we were going to have an improved working relationship.




I help leaders and teams achieve clarity and alignment so they can reach their potential


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