Candor Shouldn't Require Blunt Force Trauma

Lately I've noticed that people thank me for speaking candidly. Sometimes, including now, I worry that my candor is noteworthy for the wrong reasons. My intention is to be concise but the unintended consequence can sometimes be blunt force trauma for my recipient. It shouldn't be that way.

More often than not feedback is watered down with the best of intentions. In an effort to soften the blow, many people sugar coat it or are passive-aggressive about it. I've found that watered down feedback is incredibly hard to understand and build on, which can create frustrating, drawn out problems. At House of Genius, we go to extremes to ensure that feedback isn't muddied by a person's credentials or qualifying comments either. Candor is a good thing.

It's not all rainbows and unicorns, however. There are times when I have an emotional response to being on the receiving end of candid feedback. It can be tough hearing things I don't want to hear. That said, I'd rather have my ego bruised temporarily than to be blissfully ignorant about how to get better. 

With that in mind, my first lesson learned about being candid without blunt force trauma is that it requires tasting your own medicine from time to time.  I try to remember that the knee-jerk reaction I can have to candid feedback is something that recipients of my feedback can also feel. Plus, who really wants to get feedback from somebody who isn't open to it himself?

Secondly, I try to be candid in delivering both the good and the bad. While the compliment-criticism-compliment approach has its place (also known as the shit sandwich or the compliment sandwich), that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about being equally straightforward, and more importantly, equally opportunistic about delivering good and bad news.

It's important to say things like "Hey, I noticed that you're falling behind on the timeline you committed to. We need to talk..." I submit that it's even more important to say things like "Great job on that last hackfest! I really appreciate the work ethic and execution that you bring to this team. Thanks..."

You may notice that people have unexpected reactions to candid compliments. Some have a harder time accepting a candid compliment than a candid criticism. Regardless, you're showing the recipient that candor is a delivery style, not a way to assert power or to hurt feelings. Even if that's not the case, at least you've given somebody you care about a nice little boost of encouragement.

With each interaction I have and each relationship I build I get more comfortable with speaking candidly, but I'm still a work in progress. If you've got a tip you'd like to share, I'm open to feedback in the comments below (sadly, pun intended).

Leave Your Credentials at the Door

redentials are a powerful thing. So much so that they can get in the way. The next time you participate in a group discussion, try asking everybody to leave their credentials at the door before getting started. It'll make for a more open and meaningful conversation.

Each month I ask a group of 20 or so businesspeople to get together for House of Genius. The purpose of the event is to give three entrepreneurs an opportunity to ask for help on a particular problem that each is facing.

The idea is to tap into the group's collective genius after a short presentation by the entrepreneur. A critical ingredient in the House of Genius secret sauce is to limit introductions to first names with no discussions about job titles or experience until the very end of the evening.


"The process and approach worked brilliantly – I thought the amount and type of feedback the three presenters got was at the high end of the spectrum for any other group feedback session I’ve ever been involved in."

Brad Feld on a recent House of Genius event, Great Events - House of Genius

By maintaining an element of anonymity we're able to minimize preconceived notions about who knows what. It's a completely different dynamic than traditional meetings beginning with "name, rank, serial number" type of introductions that create a set of expectations before the conversation has even begun.

We also ask that participants avoid qualifying their comments with things like "In my experience with this..." or "I don't know much about this, but...". These types of comments are a different but equally powerful form of credentials.

The next time you're planning to gather a group for a feedback session ask everybody to leave their credentials at the door. You'll find that the discussion gets moving quickly and includes more creativity and honesty than traditional meetings.

Note: House of Genius was born in Boulder but is now in Austin, Singapore, New York City, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Albuquerque, Seattle, Denver, and Reno. More locations are in the works. Let me know if you want an invitation to a House of Genius session here in Boulder or elsewhere.