No More Mr. Nice Guy: Workplace ‘Front Stabbing’ Gains Steam

Companies turn to ‘radical candor’ to address poor performance, bad behavior, productivity and more

By Dana Wilkie Jan 28, 2016
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They call it “fierce conversation,” “frontstabbing,” “radical candor“ or even a “mokita.”

“It” is an emerging HR trend that encourages blunt, even brutally honest feedback at work—from employee to employee, supervisor to employee, and employee to supervisor.

In other words, no more tap-dancing around a touchy subject. No more soft-pedaling criticism. And as for ignoring the elephant in the room because it’s too uncomfortable to talk about? Time to face the beast.

“More and more HR leaders are taking this type of approach, and it’s a direction we need to move in as an industry,” said Wendy Finlason Seymour, a talent management executive at the Canadian offices of staffing firm Randstad Holding NV, where Seymour introduced “fierce conversation” training 18 months ago. “This has completely changed our mindset as to what HR can do for a company. [Company leaders] are now asking [HR] to help with strategy. That’s where we should be.” 

Catching On

When Seymour wanted to improve employee engagement and turnover in her Toronto office, she picked up a book by Susan Scott titled Fierce Conversations (The Berkley Publishing Group, 2002). Based on her experiences with coaching CEOs, Scott in 2001 started a Seattle company called Fierce Inc., which has trained thousands of company leaders—including Seymour—on to have more-candid conversations.

“She found that a lot of people needed coaching on how to be authentic in a conversation,” said Stacey Engle, executive vice president of marketing for Fierce Inc., who noted that being too “nice” at work could lead to stalled projects, perpetuate poor performance and foster resentment among those who do perform well. “It’s a human characteristic to be scared to talk about the truth. But people want the truth.”

Kendall Hawkins, senior manager of talent at Kalypso, a Beachwood, Ohio, consulting firm, embraced “radical candor” when she discovered that employees were shocked by the feedback they’d get during annual performance reviews.

“They were hearing things they’d never heard before,” Hawkins said. “So we decided we’re only going to get better if we give each other candid feedback about the work we’re doing.”

Hawkins launched Kalypso’s radical candor program in 2012. In the past, a Kalypso manager who may have been displeased with an employee’s PowerPoint presentation probably would have told the worker that it looked fine, then redone it herself, Hawkins said. Today, she said, managers “make sure feedback is getting to the individual at that moment by saying ‘This is what you missed, and this is what I’m expecting.’ ”

Employees, too, are urged to be blunt with supervisors. In years past, workers were reluctant to tell managers that Kalypso’s travel-intensive assignments were hurting their personal lives.

“They were scared to say, ‘Hey, I need a week where I’m not traveling,’ or ‘I’m really burned out and I need a sabbatical,’ ” Hawkins said. “Now, we do have a paid sabbatical program, and that came out of having that candid conversation with higher-ups.”

The ‘Mokita’ Approach

Some HR professionals refer to these candid conversations as a “mokita”—not to be confused with the alcoholic beverage known as a mojito. The word is an expression used in Papua New Guinea to describe “that which everyone knows and no one speaks of.”

Seymour attended Fierce Inc.’s two-day seminar in Seattle, then earned a certification from the company as a fierce conversation facilitator so she could train 170 of Randstad Canada’s leaders. That was 18 months ago. Since then, she said, Randstad’s workers have reported a 10-point increase in their satisfaction with their leaders and with how much of a voice they have in the organization. Moreover, turnover has been reduced by 25 percent.

“A lot of times we make excuses for why we can’t be candid because of our fear that it will hurt someone, or that we might lose this person, or they might quit, or I might damage my relations with this person,” Seymour said. “If they’re not coming to work on time, I might say, ‘I know they have a stressful personal life.’ Or if they’re not meeting their numbers, I might think, ‘Well, but they have a positive attitude.’ But that’s not helping people or enriching relationships.”

Seymour said she learned at the seminar that there are precise steps to a workplace mokita. For instance, in a conversation with hypothetical manager “Suzy,” who is abrasive and insulting to her direct reports, she would advise that Suzy’s supervisor:

  • Start the conversation with the intent to help, not harm. “Fierce does not mean being aggressive or mean-spirited, but being passionate and wanting to help this person,” she said.
  • Know beforehand what you want the conversation to accomplish. “Go in with a plan. Identify what the core issue is and what result you want.”
  • Use nonjudgmental language. “You wouldn’t start by saying, ‘I’d like to speak to you today about your negative style,’ ” Seymour said. “Instead, you’d say, ‘I’d like to speak with you today about your communication style and how that’s impacting the team.’ ”
  • Give precise examples. “If you don’t have examples, the conversation goes flat. The person will say they don’t know what you’re talking about. Describe behaviors you’ve seen that support your conclusion. You could say, ‘Suzy, I learned that in a meeting you became frustrated and ripped the flip chart off the wall and threw it down. I also learned that when a team member asked for your help, you said you didn’t have time for tutoring.’ ”
  • Describe your emotions about the perceived problem or challenge. “Say why this is important: ‘You know, Suzy, I’m very concerned because we’re working toward a deadline that could make the organization millions of dollars and our team cohesiveness is at stake.’ ”
  • Be open to explanations that may challenge your assumptions about the perceived problem. “Determine what Suzy feels her responsibility is when leading a team, or how she perceives her impact on her team.”
  • Be prepared for defensiveness. “It’s important to read their reaction, and that takes a very high emotional quotient. You need to keep holding on to the concept that your intent is to help.”
  • Be prepared to be bold. “There are situations where the foundation of their behavior may be so deep” that it doesn’t change, Seymour said. “If Suzy can’t identify how she’s impacting others, then that may lead to a decision that this is not the right person for your team.” 

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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