In both the professional life of the individual and in the operations of the public sphere, candid communication is reputed to be A Very Good Thing for two reasons. First, it is reputed to promote integrity, and, second, it is reputed to further the search for truth. In an ideal world, both things are probably true. Yet, when you think about some of the hard realities of these two domains, you wonder if candor is not overrated.
Let’s begin with professional life. In the workplace, candor has at least two great enemies. The first enemy is a truly formidable posse: the fragile egos of bosses. Dale Carnegie’s ubiquitous self-help manual, How to Win Friends and Influence People, has as one of its pragmatic lessons this one: To win an argument is to lose a friend. If that is true, what happens if you out-argue or puncture the fulsome intellectual balloons of your boss? Perhaps we should adapt Carnegie and say: ‘Candor kills a job –yours.’ Still, it is amazing how many meetings open with the boss saying: ‘I want everybody in this room to be frank. If I am the one messing up, let me know point blank’.
Right. It is no surprise that 360 degrees evaluations of bosses are usually made anonymous.
In my view, a far more serious enemy of candor in professional life is that bundle of issues present in every organization known as ‘undiscussables’. The ‘undiscussables’ of your line of work or organization are the realities that are so uncomfortable for everyone they are never formally discussed. We know they are there, we know they contradict or undermine the mission; we feel nothing will or can be done about them, and we simply don’t talk about them. If you want to know what the ‘undiscussables’ of your professional context are, list the issues that you and your colleagues will not raise during a formal meeting but will raise with trusted friends and colleagues, say, over coffee, once the formal meeting is over. I urge you to try producing your own list. It will teach you something important about your own professional context.
In the public sphere, the practice of candor in public discussion and public argument faces at least two great enemies. The first formidable foe is the spread of ‘message discipline’ amongst more and more newsmakers and spokespersons. More and more leaders in politics, business and civil society are taking media relations training. They are being taught how to parry questions, develop messages and sound bites, and how to stick to Talking Points no matter what the news anchor is saying or asking. Public debate is fast becoming a fierce clash of rival Talking Points, a clangorous affair signifying nothing. How do you create informed public opinion when nobody significant is addressing the great questions of the day frankly, robustly?
The second great enemy of candor in the public sphere is the combined force of journalistic objectivity and politesse. Let me explain. The top news anchors are trained to give proponents of the different sides of an issue a chance to state their views. And they are trained to be polite to their guests. So, what is a news anchor to do if everybody is cynically spouting nonsense? Sometimes, somebody is clearly wrong on the issue but news anchors believe that to point this out bluntly is to enter the arena, to take sides. The job, you see, is to stay above the fray. That phenomenon has lately been attracting comment. It has been called different things: ‘On the one-handism’, ‘false equivalence’, or ‘the cult of balance.’
When you add all this together, it seems to me that candor is, sadly, terribly overrated.
Picture credit: flickr user lumaxart