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  • Published Dec 03, 2023

Encouraging Candor without Compromising Psychological Safety

Unpacking the delicate art of honest conversation within a safe workspace, and how it influences your business strategy.

Dr. Cassidy Jenkins, Ph.D.
Dr. Cassidy Jenkins, Ph.D.

Psychologist, Professor

Four colleagues giving a high five to each other


A leader strides into a meeting room, faces a sea of eager faces, and sparks a dialogue marked by honesty, respect, and openness. This image of transparency in the workplace is a desirable one, but how do we balance candor with kindness? What if the same leader had really tough and difficult things to share with an underperforming division? What if one of the core parts of the conversation involved a team that had failed and was being disbanded.

This begs the question - how can a great leader maintain psychological safety when candid discussions are a core part of our business strategy? In this piece, we'll unravel this intricate dance and provide insight on nurturing an environment of trust and understanding.

With this guide's insights, you'll find yourself moving beyond mere survival in your workplace and thriving in a setting where empathy, trust, and transparency reign supreme. Let's dive in and unlock the secrets to a more fruitful relationship with your manager.

Three people in a meeting

Understanding the Relationship between Candor and Psychological Safety

John Delmatoff, a leadership expert and pioneer in organizational dynamics, frequently highlights the balance between candor and psychological safety in nurturing a thriving work environment.

Having spent years studying and advising global corporations on leadership development and team building, he consistently emphasizes the importance of open dialogue and mutual respect for everyone's contributions in an organization. Delmatoff puts it this way:

Quote that reads "There's a delicate balance between candor and psychological safety. Tip too far one way, and you risk stifling honesty. Tip too far the other, and you risk breeding a potentially toxic work environment"

"There's a delicate balance between candor and psychological safety. Tip too far one way, and you risk stifling honesty. Tip too far the other, and you risk breeding a potentially toxic work environment."

Let's delve into these ideas a bit more. Candor means having the courage to express ideas, feedback, and criticisms openly without fear of backlash or hostility. It's the heart of a transparent, communicative, and effective organization.

But candor on its own isn't enough. That’s where psychological safety comes in. Introduced by leading researcher Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is a shared belief that a team is safe for taking interpersonal risks. It gives team members the reassurance that they can ask questions, admit mistakes, and present new ideas without fear of negative repercussions.

Striking the right balance between candor and psychological safety can lead to impressive results. Recent studies suggest that leaders who encourage open communication and show openness to employees' ideas create an environment conducive to innovation. However, if candor overpowers psychological safety, it can cause stress, fear, and lower job satisfaction, throwing a wrench in the workplace.

Pie chart that shows the components of a healthy workplace - 40% candor, 40% psychological safety and 20% other factors

Famous Cases: Elon Musk and Reed Hastings

When you think about speaking your mind in leadership, two names come to mind - Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX (and now Twitter, or “X”), and Reed Hastings of Netflix. Musk has a reputation for a no-holds-barred type of honesty, which can seem a bit rough around the edges. On the other hand, Hastings, in his book "No Rules Rules," makes a case for what he calls "radical candor" - that direct feedback is the secret ingredient that fuels growth and shakes things up in the workplace. The different ways Elon Musk and Reed Hastings handle candor in their companies give us some really interesting food for thought.

Elon Musk is equally admired and faulted for his brand of honesty. His style of straight-shooting is seen by many as a vital driving force behind the groundbreaking strides his companies have made. However, some of Musk's former employees have likened working under him to being in a "pressure cooker," suggesting that his method might be too demanding for some.

In Vance’s biography of Musk, a former employee described the experience of working with Musk as "The candor you experience working with Elon comes with a measure of harshness. It's a give-and-take scenario.” This straightforward communication style, although it does create a climate ripe for innovation, sometimes strays into discomfort territory, creating a tense atmosphere.

Yet, Musk, despite his harshness, resonates with a segment of the workforce who appreciate his brutal authenticity. This realness, coupled with the opportunity to work in an environment that is innovative and fast-paced, draws individuals to Tesla, even if it means putting up with an environment that may not always be as "kind" as it could be.

Reed Hastings, on the other hand, while more gentle in his approach, is also admired for his authenticity and for creating a workplace that values both honesty and empathy. Reed is all about "radical candor." He believes in the power of honest feedback but is keen on making sure it's done in a way that respects and understands the person on the receiving end.

In "No Rules Rules," which he co-wrote, Hastings puts it this way: "Radical candor is not about blunt force trauma to your employees, but nurturing them with honest feedback while empathizing with their perspective." The idea here is that honesty is essential, but it needs to be paired with an understanding of people's feelings to create a healthy and productive workplace.

Even though the two leaders differ in their approach, they share one common trait: authenticity. They illustrate the complex dance between honesty and making sure everyone feels safe. Both leaders value directness, but they have distinct ways of going about it, which affects how their teams feel and perform.

A revealing finding comes from a recent Gallup survey, which showed that organizations that manage to find the sweet spot between honesty and making sure everyone feels safe have a 27% lower employee turnover.

So, what can we learn from these leaders? Both have created cultures that perform from a business standpoint,, and they've achieved this by being authentically themselves. Musk is more harsh, and Hastings more kind (and certainly more safe), but they both embody an authenticity that their teams can rely on. And that's the big takeaway - that the role of honesty in the workplace is complex, and it needs to be considered with authenticity and making sure everyone feels psychologically safe. The results can lead to a flourishing, innovative work culture.

Images of Elon Musk and Reed Hastings

The Leader’s Role: Promoting Candor while Ensuring Safety

At the core of a dynamic team is a leader who not only champions candor but also knows how to keep psychological safety intact. Such leaders are aware that their take on honesty can either boost or bust the team's sense of safety. Research shows that leaders can strengthen psychological safety by showing understanding, expressing empathy, and encouraging their team to express their thoughts and concerns.

Quote that reads, "It's a leader's job to create an environment where candor isn't merely tolerated but genuinely appreciated"

It's a leader's job to create an environment where candor isn't merely tolerated but genuinely appreciated. At the same time, they need to make sure this culture of openness doesn't threaten their team's psychological safety. This balancing act involves knowing when to provide constructive criticism and when to lend support, all the while fostering a culture rooted in trust and respect.

Take a study by Rhee & Sigler, for example. It found that leaders who keep their door (figuratively) open and continuously encourage team members to share their ideas and concerns, lay the groundwork for a culture where candor flourishes. At the same time, it's critical for leaders to reassure their teams that their ideas and feedback won't lead to negative repercussions. In this way, they strike the balance between promoting candor and preserving psychological safety, a key component in shaping a powerful and psychologically secure workplace (Fig. 2).

In this nuanced dance of leadership, promoting candor and preserving psychological safety aren't opposing forces. Instead, when handled with thoughtfulness and insight, they can coexist harmoniously, creating an environment where innovation can thrive, and team members can feel safe to bring their best selves to work every day.

Image of a man at work with a coffee cup at his side

Working with Different Styles of People

When you're leading a team, it's all about adaptability. Each team member is unique - they bring their own mix of personality, background, and work style to the table. So, the one-size-fits-all leadership approach? It doesn't cut it. In fact, it's like trying to play a piano with one key. You're missing out on a symphony of diversity, innovation, and potential.

Research shows that leaders who adapt their leadership style based on their followers' characteristics foster a psychologically safe and innovative work environment. Adapting leadership to individual team members is like using the right key for different locks. Using a single approach across a diverse team is not practical. Each person's unique characteristics need a corresponding leadership style, just as each lock requires its unique key.

Knowing what makes your team tick, from personality traits to cultural backgrounds, can really boost a leader's ability to strike that perfect balance between open honesty and a comfortable workspace. As a leader, your responsibility is to ensure that each individual's requirements are met adequately.

Picture this: extraverted team members loving a shout-out at the company meeting, while the introverts feel more appreciated with a quiet thank-you note. Or, some team members might become reticent unless you invite them to share their thoughts, especially if they come from a culture where speaking out isn't the norm.

In a study published by Harvard Business Review, leaders who understood and accommodated their employees' differences achieved better team performance and lower turnover rates.

A group of people sitting at a table

Strategies to Balance Candor and Psychological Safety

Striking that sweet spot between candor and psychological safety isn't about flipping a switch – it's a continuous journey. It takes consistent, intentional actions from leaders, and a shared commitment from team members. Let's break it down into five key steps:

  1. Be the Blueprint: As a leader, you're the one setting the stage for those meaningful, constructive conversations. Share your own struggles, triumphs, and lessons learned. This level of vulnerability and openness encourages the team to chime in with their thoughts and ideas. And here's a little golden nugget of advice – listen actively and respond with empathy. It shows that you value what they're bringing to the table.
  2. Trust - It's the Glue: The most solid foundation for psychological safety? That's trust, hands down. Keep your actions and decisions consistent, and your team will start to open up. They'll take calculated risks, and pitch their next big idea, all without that nagging fear of backlash. How to get there? Be transparent and fair, especially when making those big decisions.
  3. Rally for Inclusion: Building a psychologically safe space? It's all about diversity and inclusivity. Make sure every team member has their turn at the mic – their perspective is a unique piece of the puzzle. Embracing these diverse voices not only creates a sense of belonging but also gets those creative ideas flowing freely.
  4. Cue the Applause: Feedback is the breakfast of champions – and it's key to psychological safety. Tailor your feedback so it's specific, practical, and dished out with a good helping of empathy. And don't forget to recognize your team's hard work – it shows you value them and keeps them keen to stay in the game.
  5. Champion Growth: Adopt a growth mindset. Mistakes? They're not blunders, but stepping stones to growth. Nurture a culture that's all about learning, developing skills, and growing both personally and professionally. Encourage a little experimentation, and remember – the road to success is paved with failures.

One study revealed that organizations high on the psychological safety scale saw a 26% spike in employee engagement and a 21% jump in innovation. Plus, a Gallup Poll reported that a whopping 87% of employees felt more at ease sharing their ideas in a psychologically safe workspace.

So, cultivating psychological safety? It's not just a game-changer; it's a total transformation. It takes effort and commitment, but it rewards you with an environment where communication, trust, and inclusivity are the stars of the show. The result? A boost in employee well-being, job satisfaction, and a thriving, innovative organization.

Conclusion: Striking the Balance

Striking a balance between candor and psychological safety is a challenging tightrope act for leaders, demanding an insightful grasp of every team member's personality, background, and work style. This entails fostering an atmosphere where open dialogue and feedback go hand in hand with the liberty for team members to take risks and voice concerns without apprehension.

Through the lens of our best leaders, we gain a deeper understanding of how the journey toward genuine candor and authenticity can markedly shape an organization's environment.

Leaders who deftly navigate this delicate equilibrium aren't just cultivating a positive work environment. They're also stoking the fires of innovation, amplifying job satisfaction, and reducing employee turnover. Indeed, mastering this nuanced interplay between candor and psychological safety is a leadership skill worth its weight in gold.

As leadership expert John Delmatoff astutely observed, "Creating a balance between candor and psychological safety is not an easy feat, but it is the hallmark of great leadership."

For leaders, it's crucial to remember their pivotal role in shaping an environment where team members can truly shine. Only when candor and psychological safety find equilibrium can an organization cultivate a culture that's not only thriving but ripe for innovation.

Infographic of 5 key steps to balancing candor and safety in the workplace

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