A common challenge for senior executives and teams is getting real information that could potentially derail a plan or slow down execution. While many leaders purport to value candor in team meetings or one-on-one dialogue, they often struggle to create an environment where honest dialogue can occur. It’s not uncommon for an executive to raise a question in a meeting and hear crickets.

Why is this? While companies are investing millions of dollars in their corporate cultures, positional authority continues to hamper the best of intentions. When it’s the senior executive asking the question...the answers can hold a lot of risk.

It’s common to see companies implement broad efforts in defining values-based leadership metrics, investing in programs designed to encourage constructive confrontation in the hopes of encouraging healthy debate, and inclusion training for people-leaders in the hopes of bringing diversity of perspectives into decision-making. Yet the problem persists, frustrating even the most capable leaders.

Uncovering the truth requires “room in the conversation,” an opportunity for others to share a point of view. This is not just a “nice to have.” In our research, we have determined the critical link between creating this culture of candor (being open, real, genuine, transparent, and sincere in team interactions) and courage (challenging authority for a purpose) and what makes teams high performing and able to deliver on their strategic imperatives.

Making room for candor

A simple but effective path is to evaluate the types of questions you’re asking of your team in meetings and in conversations.

Consider the classic exercise used in sales training classes. Each person is secretly given the name of an animal, and then broken into pairs to try to learn what animal their partner is. The catch is they can only ask questions that have a yes or no response, and whoever gets to the truth the fastest and with the fewest number of questions, wins. An average number of questions is in the dozens (Do you have fur? Do you fly? etc.) and at the 5-minute mark, most don’t have the answer. The partners are then given the same task, but the “yes/no” restriction is lifted. Some still go on to ask 5 or more questions, but it only takes one: “What kind of animal are you?”

The difference is in the quality of the question. In the first exercise, the “closed ended” nature of the question limits the way information is shared. Closed ended questions focus on the asker’s thinking, not on the respondent’s. This happens frequently in business dialogue as we focus on getting concrete information about status, costs, results, requirements, options or decisions. It’s not uncommon for an entire executive team meeting to occur with only transactional information shared.

But at what cost? Recently a CEO was trying to gauge acceptance of a shift in company strategy during a significant time of change in their industry. In scheduled meetings the company leaders were hearing what they believed was buy-in; however, there was back-channel chatter about concerns with the strategy. They decided that one-on-one dialogue was warranted, but because their questions were narrowly focused, they weren’t getting the truth. By shifting to “open-ended” questions, they were able to get behind significant concerns about time, costs, and execution challenges, and to address those directly.

To encourage dialogue and surface the truth, try these 5 simple steps:

  1. Start questions with an interrogative – what?, how?, who?, or use “tell me about....”
  2. Ask the next question – why? Then ask it again.
  3. Seek first to understand. Get behind the first response to clarify the factors affecting the issue.
  4. Don’t react or solve in the moment (this is the candor-killer).
  5. Say thank you – that’s all.

While these questions may seem more time consuming, they in fact provide a short-cut to understand the potential hurdles you might face later if you drive forward believing you have buy-in. When you are able to surface the issues that might be otherwise overlooked, you have a clearer picture of what it will take to lead forward, reduce your risk, and increase the odds that real, constructive dialogue will become the norm in your organization.

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