Don’t let politeness kill performance

Don’t let politeness kill performance

Don’t let politeness kill performance

Don’t let politeness kill performance

The ability to open up and engage people in high quality conversations about how we can improve, and what is holding us back, is key to creating a high performance culture. 

The frequency, quality and openness of these conversations is one of the most striking characteristics of the high performing organisations we have studied – whether it be in elite sports team like the All Blacks, creative powerhouses like Pixar and Apple or examples of operational excellence like Toyota.

Likewise, the absence of these skills is a huge contributor to failure and under-performance. 

Creating a more candid culture

Unresolved issues within your organisation can often be the result of the inability of individuals with important insights to speak openly and skilfully about what they see or think. 

Common examples include unvoiced frustrations between functions, and team members not giving feedback to poor managers on the impact of their style.

As line managers, we often don’t give people honest feedback about something that is holding them back because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. 

This politeness can have a serious impact on the bottom line. 

When researchers in the US asked employees to estimate the potential impact on profit that could be realised if the business talked more openly about issues that weren’t been addressed, their estimates ranged from 20 – 40% better performance.

So, what do high value performance conversations look like? Examples include:

  • Accountability conversations – checking progress toward a goal or agreed action and reminding people of an agreed standard
  • Raising - and jointly working through - a specific issue or area of under-performance
  • Giving feedback on a specific behaviour
  • 'Good to great’ conversations – engaging an already good performer in a conversation around how they can raise their game further

The key to the success of these conversations is combining the creation of psychological safety (which comes when the other party trusts both our intent and our desire to hear their views) with clear and direct candour. 

Why the word candour instead of honesty? 

Whilst candour and honesty essentially mean the same thing, the word candour has much less emotional baggage attached to it.  

While we would resent anyone accusing us of not being honest, all of us would admit that we make daily choices about how ‘candid’ to be. 

Using the word candour frees us up to be more honest with ourselves about how comfortable and skilled we are in challenging directly.

Radical Candour

Kim Scott, who has worked for both Google and Apple, has developed a simple framework that is incredibly useful in raising our self-awareness around these skills. She calls her model ‘Radical Candour’ and has recently published an excellent book under the same name.

(Image courtesy of: https://www.radicalcandor.com/about-radical-candor/)

This model highlights the importance of two skills critical to speaking up with what we call ‘skilful candour’. 

The vertical axis is about caring personally. It’s about believing in the person and their potential. It’s about respecting them. It’s also about the interpersonal skills of creating ‘safety’ in the conversation so as not to awaken people’s defences - by communicating your belief in and respect for them. 

The horizontal axis is about challenging directly and speaking candidly. 

To illustrate how the model works with an example - let’s say a member of your team is a great performer and has great energy but simply speaks too much: 

  • An ‘aggressive’ response to this would be to call the behaviour out in front of everyone – ‘Simon, enough already okay. You have verbal diarrhoea.’ While he may say less, he will also feel less confident, less motivated and less trusting of the person who publicly embarrassed him. 
  • A ‘ruinous empathy’ response would be to notice the pattern, note to yourself how much it is both affecting the team and everyone’s respect for Simon but not to say anything because you don’t want to hurt his feelings. This is the most common response in this situation and it is actually worse than the aggressive. At least the aggressive response does give Simon necessary feedback and a chance to improve his performance in the team.
  • The difference between ‘ruinous empathy’ and the ‘insincerity’ response is a subtle but important one. An ‘insincere’ response is when we choose not to challenge - not out of a concern for the other person but out of concern for ourselves (maybe we depend on Simon and don’t want to risk the relationship). Because our focus is on protecting an important relationship to us, it is not caring. An even worse example of the ‘insincere’ response would be where it serves us for Simon to have less respect in the team so we let him keep making the error!
  • So what would ‘skilled candour’ look like? Ideally, you would find an opportunity to speak 1 to 1, perhaps during a break in the meeting. You might say something like this. ‘Simon, do you mind if I make an observation. I love your contributions to the team, particularly around your unique expertise in ‘x & y’, and I’ve noticed you’re speaking a lot. I think it’s affecting both our timekeeping and the opportunity for others to contribute. Are you aware of that?’ If you had to challenge live and publicly during a meeting, you might say something along the lines of ‘Simon, do you mind if I interrupt you? I’d like hear what others have to say.’ You might then check in with him at the next break.

Note: delivering a piece of skilled candour like this will not be comfortable and it will ‘sting’ a bit for Simon to hear it. But he is unlikely to be annoyed with you for saying it because of the skill you used and respect you communicated. More importantly, there is a very good chance you will save his credibility in the team. That is what a loyal friend would do. 

While these skills and a culture of using them are rare, they are surprisingly easy to learn. If you only had time and resources to invest in two skills for your managers, we believe this - along with coaching - will have the greatest impact on performance. 

Three steps towards creating a culture of candour


1.    Start by seeking criticism and candour from others towards you, before you build up towards giving more of it.

By modelling an openness to direct challenge from others, we normalise it, and this makes people more open to receiving it. 

Chances are people have a lot of useful feedback you could learn from which they are choosing not to share out of deference to your position as their line manager. As managers it is easy to underestimate how scary it feels to challenge upwards. By actively seeking people’s critiques for a while, people will learn to trust your response and you will soon have confidence that people are comfortable sharing whatever they are thinking. 

To encourage new recruits to speak up Toyota challenges people to come up with three potential improvements or issues they see on their first day in the job.


2.    Create an appetite for feedback by setting a high standard and communicating your belief in people’s capability to reach it.

One of the key differences we’ve noticed when researching high performing cultures in sport is how open to feedback athletes are. The reason for this is that athletes want to be the best in the world, they want to reach for their full potential and they realise getting there depends on high quality feedback. 

We can create a similar appetite for feedback by challenging people to genuinely aim to become the best in the world at what they do. Make high standards a point of pride for the culture and say to people they should expect to be challenged. Not because they are sub par but because the goal is to be world class.


3.    When you first start being more candid in your feedback with people, put a lot of effort into the ‘caring personally’ axis.

Communicate your belief in people and highlight their genuine strengths. As an example of how this can be done, I recently had some great feedback from a colleague on the speed with which I spoke when we were both delivering to a European audience. He said ‘John your insights are brilliant - and the energy you bring into the room is great - but I’m not sure if you realise that when you get excited your speech really speeds up! A number of people in the group are really struggling to follow you.’ 

Time for more candour?

If you‘re interested in learning more about our half day workshops around these skills - including our open programmes - email John Bull on john.bull@managementfutures.co.uk

Similarly, if you’d like to evaluate the quality of candour in your own team or organisation, send a request to highperformance@managementfutures.co.uk and we will send you a link to our ‘skilful candour’ questionnaire.