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An Innovative Culture Requires Brutal Candor

But leaders must get their team comfortable with it first. Here’s how.

Innovation is hard enough when you have all the facts. But it’s virtually impossible when you deal in speculation, bad ideas, and corporate double-talk. The problem? Too many organizations lack the cultural values that support the necessary behaviors to innovate. They prioritize collegiality over constructiveness and harmony over harsh reality. 

Companies love to talk about the importance of giving people direct and honest feedback. But while that may be common sense, it’s not common practice. As a rule, managers are more comfortable telling employees what they’re good at as opposed to how they can get better. And employees, for their part, get defensive when they’re challenged rather than embrace the opportunity to grow and learn.

This same phenomenon occurs within group settings. In meetings, for instance, people often promote ideas that everyone else knows won’t work. Does anyone call them out? Probably not. And when you’re trying to innovate, that is a serious problem.

A recent Harvard Business Review article argues why most companies struggle to create and sustain an innovation culture. One reason is that they require comfort with “brutal candor.” And I couldn’t agree more.

In an innovation culture, people have the confidence to openly critique others’ ideas and the courage to have their own ideas put under the microscope. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but now more than ever, that very discomfort is critical to the kind of creativity that leads to innovation. 

To be sure, none of this comes about organically. It starts with a conscious intention by leaders—and then, and only then, a concerted effort by their team. Here are five ways to get there.

1. Establish that it’s not personal.  

The first rule needs to be that feedback is not personal. In other words, make it clear that people are accountable for their own mental state. No excuses. No exceptions. Instead, it’s incumbent on everyone to consistently listen to others’ feedback in the proper context. Yes, this is easier said than done. But no team can get comfortable with brutal candor until everyone trusts and abides by this first rule.

2. Admit your own struggles.

One way to help people lower their defense mechanisms is to initially make it about you, not them. Share a personal story in which you faced a similar challenge and explain how it caused a problem for others. By making yourself the example, you’re changing the context of the conversation and allowing the other person to better see the reality of the situation. This helps make the issue feel safer and the feedback more relatable.

3. Show what accountability looks like. 

The blame game is anathema to creating an innovation culture. Yet many people point the finger when things go wrong. Innovation requires total accountability, so lead the charge by being unwaveringly accountable yourself. When something falls short on your watch, own the outcome. Period.

4. Focus on the future, not the past.

The past is the past. So when mistakes happen, concentrate on what was learned and what you’ll do differently next time to get a better result. By focusing on the future, not the past, you’ll help people be open, honest, and solutions-driven.

5. Trust—but verify.

Some people accept feedback easily and even take it to heart. But that doesn’t mean they’re able to make the necessary changes. To actually change behavior requires not only a strong desire but also real perseverance. Don’t assume the person will get it the first time and check in regularly to see for yourself how things are going.

Brutal candor will make some people uneasy, and that’s to be expected. However, the key to successful innovation is creating a culture where each person accepts responsibility for their own mental state and embraces feedback to learn and challenge themselves to get better every day. If this approach bothers you, don’t take it personally, but recognize that you might not be wired for innovation.

**Originally published at Forbes

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