Innovation Needs Candor, But Don’t Forget to be Caring

Posted on February 14, 2019

This guest blog is by ELGL member Mike Skibbe, the Deputy Director of Public Works at the 2018 Clarity Award Winning Village of Buffalo Grove. Connect on LinkedIn at  or send an email to connect!

At Buffalo Grove, we promote a culture of innovation.  One of the “Hard Truths” about innovative cultures, as Gary Pisano wrote about in the Jan-Feb issue of Harvard Business Review, is being “Psychologically Safe, but Brutally Candid”. 

Brutal sounds uncomfortable, and it certainly can be.  But even in such a lucid and laconic statement, Gary also addresses the need to feel safe before being candid.  There is an important dichotomy of caring and challenging.

A while back, an employee group reached out to me. They were concerned how their manager was handling various situations.  The crew leader, under the manager, was viewed as friendlier.

After drilling down with the group, we distilled the following two statements from our employee’s perspective:

  1. We don’t like how our manager treats us, he is outspoken and aggressive.
  2. We like how our crew leader treats us better.   He is really nice.

It’s easy to stop at the aggression comment and decide that there is an easy solution.  Tell the manager to be nicer.

But that ignores an important part of a manager’s job.  A manager needs to be able to redirect work, ask for change, and drive that change. 

And it also ignores the fact that being nice, and caring, doesn’t always affect change either.  

The situation was gnawing away at me when I happened across the idea of Radical Candor from Kim Scott.  We need to challenge directly to affect change, but we also need to care personally about each other.

As I’ve been presenting this to my Public Works team, I’ve found that the most easily understood example is… me having my fly down.

If my fly is down, there are several possible responses.  The obnoxiously aggressive response would be to scream out in the room and go, “Hey Skibbe! Your fly is down!”  

Someone else might care about me, but stays silent, using ruinous empathy to tell themselves “Man, his fly is down.  That must be really embarrassing. I feel bad for him”. But they never tell me.

Still another might turn to their colleague and whisper that my fly is down, “Hey, check it out… his fly is down!  What a moron…” This response just causes mistrust.

Those last two examples both fail in the same way.  Neither one causes me to be able to correct the situation, neither drives change.  

Obnoxious Aggression will certainly drive change, but also make me embarrassed.  It calls me out in front of everyone else, and only drives change so I don’t feel bad again.

If you cared about me, and wanted me to be able to correct the situation promptly, you’d pull me aside, whisper in my ear, and let me know my fly is down.  

I can effect change, and think highly of you for bringing it to my attention. And if my fly is down, I want to know about it. For sure.

Back to my situation in Public Works, my manager was caught in Obnoxious Aggression, my crew leader was caught in Ruinous Empathy, and the real issue was that neither one was in the ideal quadrant to drive significant change.

After presenting this idea to the entire group: employees, crew leader, and manager, we’ve seen change in behavior and respect.  

As leaders, we need to understand that everyone comes to work and wants to do a good job.  99.9% of the time employees don’t mean to screw up. They need to understand a more global view of their actions.  We need to care for each other as coworkers.

We need to give the benefit of the doubt sometimes. But we also need to be assertive and live authentically.  We need to be able to speak up, drive profound change, and create a better work environment for all. Then we can truly innovate.


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