Candor is a vital component of great leadership.

The Importance of Candor

Reed Hastings, co-founder and former CEO of Netflix, has long been recognized for creating a culture of candor. Netflix promotes open and honest communication at all levels of the organization. Employees are encouraged to share their opinions, provide feedback, and challenge ideas without fear of retaliation. This level of candor ensures the best ideas surface and that issues are addressed promptly. Netflix has gone through several large-scale changes and the ability of leaders and employees to engage in candid conversations has played a crucial role in the adaptability and resilience of the organization.

When I was speaking with the CEO of a mid-sized manufacturing company last week, the topic turned to the length of time it was taking the executive team to make decisions. She felt this was leading to missed opportunities in their fast-paced marketplace and frustrated employees who were bringing good ideas to the table, but the go-ahead decision was being stalled in the C suite. “How do I share this information with the exec team without people feeling like I’m criticizing them personally?” was her legitimate concern.

Candor vs. Criticism

This led to an interesting conversation about the difference between candor and criticism and the huge value a high level of candor could bring to her organization.

To help develop an understanding of the difference between candor and criticism, it’s important to clarify and illustrate how these two concepts diverge in practice.

Leaders that deal out criticism are giving feedback that points out others’ faults or shortcomings, often without consideration for the person’s feelings or the context of a situation. Their mindset comes from a belief that there has to be a ‘winner and a loser” in every situation. Their need to express disapproval or disdain makes them feel superior. Their approach tends to be blunt, negative and offers no constructive solution or development opportunity. By participating in Leadership Development Programs, leaders can learn to foster a culture of candor, ensuring open and honest communication within their teams.

Candor is about open, honest, and straightforward communication, delivered with empathy and a focus on constructive outcomes. A leader’s mindset going into a candid conversation comes from a keen desire to foster growth, understanding, and positive change for the betterment of the person and/or organization. They are focused on the situation or the behavior, not the person, and they deliver their message with respect and consideration for the person’s feelings and perspective.

Examples of Candor in Leadership

Consider this very common situation: a project is behind schedule and the leader wants some answers.

  • Leader 1: “This project delay is unacceptable. Do you not know how to do your job? You need to get it together.”
  • Leader 2: “The project is behind schedule, and I’m concerned about meeting our deadline. Can we discuss what’s causing the delay and how we can get back on track? Your insights are valuable for finding a solution.”

Which exchange do you feel would result in a more motivated, committed employee? What do you believe each leader’s intention was going into that conversation?

A leader who excels in candor is an intuitive and compassionate individual who does not shy away from difficult tasks such as giving feedback. They create a work environment where honest communication is encouraged, conflicts are resolved constructively, and the team can work together more effectively towards common goals.

Key Dimensions of Candor

There are three key dimensions in Candor: Critical Thinking, Emotional Distance, and Courage. To be exceptional in Candor, a leader must understand each dimension and use them simultaneously.

Critical Thinking

The first dimension in mastering Candor is Critical Thinking. Leaders with excellent critical thinking skills are particularly adept at handling emotional situations with clarity and composure. Their critical thinking and candor intersect to enhance their ability to manage and resolve conflict.

Strategies to Practice Critical Thinking

  • Name the emotion: Recognizing and acknowledging the emotions helps the person feel heard and usually diffuses the situation enough to have a productive conversation. “I can hear that you are really frustrated about the project’s pace.” By validating the emotion, you create a safe space for a productive conversation and move the focus towards problem-solving.
  • Focus on root cause analysis: By focusing on the problem, not the person, you redirect the attention to the place where problem resolution is possible. “Can we discuss what might be causing the slow pace and find a way to address it together?” This enables a more objective analysis and effective resolution of the actual problem.
  • Emphasize continuous improvement: Connecting the dots to that person’s development opportunities encourages them to think about solutions and preventative measures. “Next time you see this happening, what could be done sooner in the process to key in on the root cause so it doesn’t lead to this level of frustration?” Promoting continuous improvement helps develop critical thinking skills in others and prevents future issues.

Emotional Distance

The second dimension to mastering Candor involves the capability to create emotional distance from conflict. This skill helps leaders handle emotionally charged situations more effectively and use cooperation to deescalate them.

Strategies to Practice Emotional Distance

  • Pause and Breath: Take a moment to pause and compose yourself before responding to criticism. This helps in managing your initial emotional reaction so you can process the feedback objectively.
  • Listen Actively: Focus on understanding the feedback without interrupting or defending yourself. Listen to the specific points being made.
  • Seek Clarification: Ask questions and ask for some specific examples to understand the feedback better. This demonstrates a willingness to improve and shows that you value the other person’s perspective.
  • Separate Emotions from Feedback: Practice techniques that allow you to take a break from feedback, such as deep breathing, taking a walk, or journaling, to process your emotions separately from the situation.
  • Reframe Feedback: View feedback as an opportunity to learn and improve. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” rather than “What does this say about me?”


The dimension of Courage is crucial for effective Candor, as it requires bravery and confidence to voice your thoughts and advocate for yourself and others. Many factors come into play when determining one’s level of comfortability within their workplace, and without a solid foundation, we can find ourselves losing our voice. Fear of ostracization and anxiety over differing opinions can keep people from speaking up.

Strategies to Practice Courage

  • Create a Safe Environment: Foster a culture of open communication where team members feel safe to express their ideas, concerns, and feedback without fear of judgment or retribution. And model your own vulnerability. Show that it’s okay to admit mistakes and ask for help. This sets a precedent for others to do the same and builds trust within the team.
  • Address Difficult Issues Directly: Tackle problems head-on. Don’t shy away from challenging conversations or decisions. Address issues promptly and directly to prevent them from escalating. Approach difficult conversations with honesty and empathy. Focus on solutions and mutual understanding rather than placing blame.
  • Promote a Culture of Feedback: Regularly provide specific, actionable feedback to help your team members grow. Ensure that your feedback is balanced, highlighting both strengths and areas for improvement. And, encourage team members to provide feedback to you as well. Show that you value their input and are committed to continuous improvement.
  • Encourage and Support Risk-Taking: Create an environment where experimentation and innovation are encouraged. Allow team members to take calculated risks and learn from their failures. Offer the necessary support and resources to help your team succeed. Show that you are there to back them up and help them navigate challenges.

Self-Reflection for Candor

Stepping into your Courage as a leader helps create a positive, supportive, and innovative workplace culture. Candor is a vital trait in effective leadership, promoting a culture of transparency, trust, and continuous improvement. To develop candor, it’s essential to engage in self-reflection and ask yourself critical questions. Participating in Leadership Development Programs can provide the tools and strategies necessary to enhance these skills and ensure your approach to candor is effective and constructive. Here are some key questions to consider:

  • Critical Thinking: Do I avoid or confront emotionally charged situations? Am I able to stay focused on the problem and redirect the energy there?
  • Emotional Distance: How am I responding to feedback? Am I a good active listener? Do I ask good questions to clarify my understanding of the feedback being given? Am I intentional with my words when giving feedback, focusing on the problem and not the person?
  • Courage: What will the impact be on people if I raise my voice? Will it help or hurt communication? Am I in a position where I’m able and willing to be the unpopular voice in the room? Will it create clarity and urgency, or will it instill fear and inhibit open communication? Am I communicating in a way that fosters understanding and collaboration?