Your worst enemy is your greatest asset

Your worst enemy is your greatest asset

I’ve always been a huge proponent of candour, talking it up to General Electric (GE) audiences for more than 20 years. But since retiring from GE, I’ve realized that I underestimated its rarity. I would call lack of candour the biggest dirty little secret in business.

When you’ve got candour— and you’ll never completely get it, mind you—everything operates faster and better.

“Lack of candour" is not about malicious dishonesty. It’s about how too many people—too often—don’t express themselves honestly. They withhold criticism to avoid conflict, and they sugar-coat bad news to maintain appearances.

This lack of candour is damaging, yet it permeates almost every aspect of business, at almost every level.

I’ve listened to employees at hundreds of different companies describe the complete lack of candour they experience in every type of meeting, from budget and product reviews to strategy sessions. People talk about the bureaucracy, politicking and false politeness that lack of candour spawns.

They ask how they can get their companies to become places where people share their opinions and debate ideas from every angle.

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Forget outside communication—sometimes, your worst enemy is the way you communicate with one another internally.

The candour effect

Candour leads to winning in three main ways:

1. Candour gets more people in the conversation.

When more people are involved in the conversation, many more ideas are raised, discussed, dissected and improved. Instead of everyone shutting down, everyone opens up and learns.

2. Candour generates speed.

Ideas that are shared openly can be debated rapidly, enhanced and acted upon. That approach isn’t just an advantage; it’s a necessity in a global marketplace. You can be sure that any upstart five-person enterprise down the street or in Shanghai can move faster than you, but candour is one way to keep up.

3. Candour cuts costs.

Although you’ll never be able to put a precise number on it, candour eliminates meaningless meetings and reports that confirm what everyone already knows.

Candour replaces fancy PowerPoint slides and mind-numbing presentations, whether they’re about company strategy, a new product introduction or someone’s performance.

Put all of its benefits and efficiencies together and you realize you can’t afford not to have candour.

It can be done

Even though candour is vital to winning, it’s hard for any group, no matter the size, to fight entrenched organizational behaviours.

At GE, it took us close to 10 years to instill candour, and it was by no means universal even after 20 years.

Still, it can be done. To achieve candour, reward it, praise it and discuss it. Acknowledge the people who exemplify it. Most of all, demonstrate it yourself—even when you’re not the boss.

Picture yourself at a meeting where the subject is a unit’s performance. The managers, self-satisfied, talk about double-digit growth and pound out slide after slide displaying their success. Top management nods in approval, but you know there’s room for that department to improve. To compound matters, the people presenting the slides are your peers, and it’s understood that if you don’t challenge their presentation, they won’t challenge yours.

The only way I know out of this bind—and to introduce candour—is to poke around in a non-threatening way:

“What a terrific job. This is the best business we’ve got. Why not put more resources into it and go for more?"

“With the great team you’ve put in place, there must be 10 acquisitions out there for you. Have you looked globally?"

These questions, and others like them, can shift the meeting from a self-congratulatory parade to a stimulating working session. It’s pretty simple: Candour works because candour unclutters.

Yes, candour can run counter to human nature. So does waking up at 5am to make the 6.10 train every day, or eating lunch at your desk so you won’t miss an important meeting. But for the sake of your team or your organization, you do a lot of things that aren’t easy.

The good thing about candour is that it’s more than worth it.

It’s impossible to imagine a world where everyone goes around saying what they think all the time. And you probably wouldn’t want that anyway— too much information! But even if we get halfway there, lack of candour won’t be the biggest dirty little secret in business any more.

It will be business’s biggest change for the better.

Write to Jack & Suzy

Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.

©2009/The NYT Syndicate

Adapted from Winning (HarperBusiness Publishers, 2005) by Jack Welch with Suzy Welch.)