Is honesty the best policy?

Recently I came across an article in Harvard Business Review about the importance of creating a “culture of candor” at any business or organization.  “Candor” essentially means “honesty”, and the authors described the ways in which the lack of honesty (including not just lying but withholding information) led to sub-optimal decisions.  In health care or aviation, these omissions can lead to death!  One interesting observation that was noted was that often there are things that “everyone knows,” but no one shares with leaders.  Leaders that want to create a culture of candor can take certain steps to encourage staff to share information more quickly and without fear of punishment.

So why should the Social Innovation Lab care?  Sukhendra Da (Monitoring) shared with us today that “Candor is a prerequisite to innovation.”  If people don’t share their ideas or observations, there is no chance for others to improve on them and refine them, so the opportunity just passes by.  Candor about innovative ideas is really important, as is candor about failures.  There was recently a really interesting TED talk from a member of the NGO Engineers without borders about why they’ve started a public website on embracing failure and publish an annual failure report.  The failure, he says, is failing to admit mistakes and use them as learning opportunities.  Candor is required both to avoid making mistakes, but to admit when something was less than optimal, and have the necessary conversations to reflect on “how” and “why”.  While this may be difficult, I think it’s a necessary part of learning.  Good judgement comes from experience, and a large part of experience is learning from mistakes.  We probably can’t stop making mistakes; it’s the learning that’s optional and perhaps too often lost.

So I have two take-away points for our work at Social Innovation Lab–first, if we care about innovation (which we do!), we need to promote a culture of candor.  Within our team, and across BRAC to the extent that we can.  In meetings, I hope that my teammates will be extremely harsh critics of all my ideas, so that by the time we share them externally, they will have improved and reflect our collective intelligence.  We also maintain an internal blog with information on all of our meetings, so that the whole team has access to the information.  Finally, unless there is a GOOD reason not to, I try to copy at least one of them on all emails that I send.  If I don’t want to, I try to think about “why don’t I want to?” and assess whether it’s discomfort with candor or a deeper reason.

Second, and the Harvard Business Review article misses this dimension in my opinion: candor is more than just speaking the truth.  In fact, probably harder is the flipside of the coin, asking for and listening to the truth.  Typically, this is particularly true for leaders and managers (present company included).  Yet a culture of candor implies a candid conversation, which will require giving and taking.  Social Innovation Lab hopes to play a role in facilitating frank and constructive discussions (within our unit and across BRAC), and ensure that the lessons learned from these dialogues result in institutional wisdom (within individuals, but also captured somehow by the organization).

BRAC has a rich culture of listening to communities.  Are we still practicing it?  Do we listen equally as carefully to colleagues (and not just those above us)?  We must, if we are to remain true to our roots. David Korten, who wrote “When Corporations Rule the World,” wrote of Abed bhai in 1980: “Abed’s leadership style encourages open discussion of difficult issues and acceptance of apparent issues, yet provides firm decisions when they are needed.”   If you talk to “old-timers,” often they are quick to share stories of discussions about what wasn’t working, and ideas to fix them.  It was this culture that earned BRAC its recognition from Korten as, “the purest example of a learning organization one is likely to find.”  What a great compliment! Thinking about how we maintain and strengthen this as BRAC continues to grow is a challenge I relish for the Lab!

CANDID reflections about BRAC’s culture and what the Social Innovation Lab can do better are welcome!  I’ve linked to the free blog post on candor above.  For the full article, please visit our library on the 19th floor at the Head Office.

One thought on “Is honesty the best policy?

  1. Abed bhai chose to watch this TED talk a few weeks ago. He still seeks to learn. And to encourage BRAC to be a learning organization. I am sure he would applaud this call for a culture of candor. I do.

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