Honesty or Candor in the Workplace -A Leadership Lesson

Trust is what drives an organization and its people. It is the invisible chain that connects everyone in the organization.

Trust is engaging and intimate. And, Earning trust takes time.

Being Honest -A few experts say that being consistently honest and transparent is one of the ways to earn trust in a work environment.

Ray Dalio writes, “Being radically truthful and transparent with your colleagues and expecting your colleagues to do the same with you ensures that important issues are apparent instead of hidden. Learning is compounded and accelerated when everyone has the opportunity to hear what everyone else is thinking. It builds trust.”

Many professionals suggest that we need to be brutally honest in our work environment. Companies can’t innovate, respond to changing needs, or function efficiently unless people have access to relevant, timely, and valid information. In other words, be radically transparent. Don’t be sympathetic.

Do you agree?


When asked, most of us would admit that honesty is necessary for the work environment. The reality -being brutally honest is very hard and non-empathic.

There are several good reasons not to be honest in the workplace. We don’t want to hurt or embarrass somebody. We don’t want people to lose confidence in themselves and ruin their lives. We need to be empathetic. Humans survived in this world because of empathy.

Can we leave our humanity at home? Is it good for the office environment?

Human Relationships -Several studies reveal that workplace relations between management and its employees are one of the defining factors in building trust. The research also shows that Workplace relationships provide a source of employee motivation, which is essential to maintaining productivity.

Are we not breaking the relationship if we are brutally honest?

Honesty and relationship -Are they mutually exclusive?


Blackstone CEO, Steve Schwarzman says that people are the most important asset in a company. Their relationships are important. If you see a problem with any of your team members, you have to strategize it out -You want to be nice to everybody but you have to accomplish the objectives. So, sometimes it would take two years to do something that you know should happen in ten minutes. But if you did it in ten minutes, then you would break so much glass through the organization that you would threaten the institution or you would threaten the core people. And, there’s a way to work that out. Regarding people, you need to be careful with every move. You have to give people dignity. At the same time, you have to accomplish objectives. So, time is something you give up.

Therefore, sharing criticism could affect the relationship, team dynamics, and productive collaboration to achieve business objectives. On the other hand, withholding information results in poor decisions. Companies can’t innovate, respond to changing needs, or function efficiently. A real dilemma!.

The Problem With Honest Opinions

Let’s come to an important question -Why do people feel agitated on hearing honest opinions?

As hunter-gatherers, we have evolved to be a member of a group, as a means of survival. It assures protection, safety, and support for our gene’s future. So, we are social beings. Over millions of years, we have evolved to instinctively react against any threats that would jeopardize our membership to the group.

Regarding criticism in a work environment, the subconscious brain automatically perceives it as a threat to push him/her out of the workgroup. So, the mind immediately activates fear instincts, making him/her react unexpectedly.

It’s an instinctive reaction that deepens over time as the mind would continue to pick up clues to validate the threat. The process happens automatically in some corners of the subconscious mind. So, it is difficult to repair the damage once done. The best way is not to break the glass.


So, how to create a culture of honesty without hurting anyone? Is there a way that honesty can help everyone to grow?


Ed Catmull, the Pixar CEO, writes in his book, “Replace the word honesty with another word -Candor. It has a similar meaning with fewer moral connotations and obligations. Candor means forthrightness or frankness. It’s not so different from honesty, yet, in common usage, the word communicates not just truth-telling but a lack of reserve. We all know that sometimes, being reserved is healthy, even necessary for survival. Nobody thinks that being less than candid makes you a bad person. People don’t get punished for holding back their tongues at times.”

The word Candor places a lighter pressure on people & the information they share would be genuine. So, create a culture of Candor.


Once, in Bridgewater Associates, the management committee began to explore the idea of focusing only on core competencies and spin-off activities that would fall beyond the core capabilities. One of the ventures, the committee focused on was Bridgewater’s back-office operations. The company had built the back office team from the ground up. It had hard-working, close-knit employees who had built excellent relationships with other employees of Bridgewater associates. They were like part of an extended family.

One of the choices, the committee investigated, was to incorporate the team within the Bank of New York. At the start, it was just an exploratory study. The management was not sure whether they would pursue the idea.

Now, the critical question -When would you tell the back office team that you were thinking of spinning off their group into another company? Would you wait till things are in place for spinning off?

Don’t you feel that the team deserves to be in control of their choices? The research shows that people are happier in life if they make their own choices. In that circumstance, they need information as early as possible to make educated decisions. As a leader, will you delay the discussion of the idea?

Candor Begins with Leader -Ray Dalio, CEO of Bridgewater, writes that in most organizations, this would be kept under wraps until the deal is confirmed. Because the bosses would be afraid of creating uncertainty in the minds of employees, affecting morale and productivity. However, in Bridgewater, the leader-in-charge announced the idea, truthfully and transparently. She also frankly spoke that there was a lot she didn’t know yet and several questions she wouldn’t be able to answer. That’s called Candid Discussion.

In a culture of Candor, the leader sets the tone by prioritizing open communication.

Personal Care for People -The leader’s announcement in the exploration stage of the idea showed that she cared for her employees. That’s the first step -Care for your people, personally. Be Empathetic. Think and feel from the shoes of your employees. Spend time with them. Listen as much as possible. If you care for your people, then you’d find a way to tell the bad news.

Always Explain the Reasons -Do you know what else could make an information/criticism/discussion appear as candid? -Explanation of the reasons behind the information/criticism/actions. The Bridgewater’s leader spent time and clearly explained the reasons behind the spin-off idea and also revealed the team about the business’s changing environment. As a leader, are you taking your time to share information and explain the reasons?

Being Candid About Oneself -The Bridgewater’s leader was also open about her vulnerability -She frankly told the team that she didn’t know many things yet. As a leader, are you open about your mistakes and your lack of knowledge/experience? If you aren’t, then rethink.

The back office group was eventually separated, but they continue to have enjoyable relationships with the Bridgewater people. The team cooperated fully through transition and also helped in finding a hosting company -The company also gains from transparency. They continue to be a part of an extended family of Bridgewater.

People are the most valuable asset. Building a relationship takes time -but easy to break.

Building a System to Practice Candor

It is a leader’s job to create systems and norms that lead to a culture of candor. Ed Catmull, in his book ‘Creativity Inc.’ mentions one example.

At Pixar, Ed Catmull had formed a team of smart, passionate people called Braintrust to create the culture of candor. Braintrust’s meetings had shown ways to practice openness for Pixar’s employees. It helped in spreading the concept.

The Braintrust’s objective was to meet and help people in identifying problems and solving them. The only condition for the team was to be as candid as possible with one another during the meetings.

Gather Multiple Perspectives -One of the ways is to establish candor is to seek different views. It would, sometimes, highlight the presence of hidden biases. As the Braintrust team had leaders of diverse disciplines, the information flowed from many directions and perspectives.

More the information, the lesser the hidden problems and better the decisions.

So, gather multiple perspectives on the problem before opening up with your colleague or your team.

Forget Job titles and Have Mutual Respect -The team had a mix of leaders and people from multiple hierarchy levels. Everyone was given equal importance during the meetings. There’s no particular respect for job titles and hierarchies.

The above point is an essential ingredient for practicing candor -Ignore job titles and focus on the content.

Mutual Respect -In Braintrust meetings, everyone saw other participants as their PEERS. They respected each other.

Mutual respect should exist.

For mutual respect, everyone, including the leaders, should firmly believe that every individual in the organization is inherently valuable. That is an essential requirement for establishing Candor.

Criticize ideas, not People and no Rewards -Usually, the Braintrust meetings focussed on how the new movies are panning out. The team talks about what they feel is not working well for them, what could be better, and what’s not authentic. Remember that Ed Catmull had encouraged the team as candid as possible.

In the meetings, Ed Catmull created an environment where nobody had to fear of saying something stupid, hurting somebody, getting offended, or being retaliated. He asked each of the participants to focus only on the film(or problem or idea) and not on any hidden personal agenda. They earned no credits or rewards for their feedback on the project. They would gain no favors from their supervisors.

Being candid has to become a way of life in the work environment.

Criticize, Suggest Possible Solutions, but No Authority -The Braintrust team does not prescribe how to fix the problems they diagnose. They make suggestions. It’s up to the director-in-charge of the story to establish a path forward. The Braintrust has no authority. The director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given.

Ed Catmull believes that the Braintrust team’s solution won’t be as good as the solution thought by the director himself. The story-in-charge had been living with the problem/idea for several days. Naturally, he or she would be the best-equipped person to find a suitable solution.

It is another crucial element of practicing candor -While giving feedback to a person, the leader can only share the diagnosis and suggest possible solutions. The leader could bring the real causes of the problems to the surface but should not demand a specific remedial action. The ultimate choice should be with the other person. As long as he or she is in charge of their decisions, they won’t feel threatened. They won’t feel hurt or embarrassed.


The bottom line is that brutal honesty is impracticable, at times & Candor is the way forward. The leaders need to be role models for establishing the culture of candor. They must care for the people, share more information, explain the reasons, spend time listening to the people, look for counter-arguments, dare to admit their errors, be approachable, set systems that can create a culture of candor, and be candid as they want others to be.

References: Principles by Ray Dalio, Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, Radical Candor by Kim Scott.

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at mmshah8@gmail.com. or https://www.shahmohammed.com